CW: War, violence, death

Seeing everything going on in Ukraine at the moment, I was struck by the fact that one thing stayed constant, the suffering of normal people, both in Ukraine and people connected to them abroad.  So I wanted to speak to them, I wanted to hear their stories, and here they are…

Eleonora Suhoviy – Founder of the Oxford Ukrainian Society

Q:  How do you feel about the response from people in the West, this country, and Oxford in particular?

“The word that I hear a lot at the moment is surreal. Nobody seems to have expected this war to actually start. People were either in denial or they were deluding themselves, thinking that this is not what will occur… So even in Oxford, but also in Ukraine, I hear the word surreal and unbelievable a lot.”

Q:  And how about the response of governments?

“So the sanctions are happening after the fact, not before the fact. The individual sanctions, also the group sanctions, they are coming quite late… when Ukraine is already [on fire], when there are some buildings on fire, when there are civilian casualties… So really, I think their response is now more of a catching up with the events as opposed to preventing them or trying to do as much as possible to arm Ukraine to its teeth before the invasion had begun.”

Q:  Why do you think that is?

“I think partly it’s a desire not to believe that such a depth of wickedness and evil is coming out of a European country and from the Kremlin. So, Putin and his regime was seen as yes, quite ruthless, but it hasn’t been seen as irrational… So I don’t think the West expected him to inflict such phenomenal wounds on his own people because they said he is doing this to protect Russia. Well, now he’s not protecting Russia. He’s not only damaging Ukrainians, but he is going to have his own population impoverished and isolated on the world stage.”

Q:  How important are the shows of support and solidarity from people here?

“I talked to my childhood friends who are in Ukraine. They welcome every shred of news that shows support. They look at videos. They look at protests, they look at sentiments that say ‘we are with you’, they share videos of protesters condemning the Russian ambassador in Ireland, for instance, they are looking at protestors in London… They really do appreciate it. The news stations in Ukraine also pick up on these themes and they show them on news channels. [The protests] show Ukrainian people that they’re not alone and psychologically when you know you’re not alone… it is very, very important… And I think that does a lot for the morale, not just of the Ukrainian army, but also ordinary citizens who are staying, who are fighting and who are resisting… It just brings it home to them that whilst they’re sheltering in an underground station they can look at social media and say, look, the world is watching, these people are with us. And that’s what they do. They sit in those underground stations, they sit in those cellars and they look at their phones. The elderly are being shown these pictures by the teenagers.”

Q:  How are your friends and family in Ukraine?

“They are in Lviv, which is in western Ukraine. They are keeping calm.  So today my father was walking around the city, obviously inspecting it to see what is happening… So he was there and he chanced upon them, the local authorities giving out weapons to people, to civilians. So now you can pick up your weapon in order to defend yourself. So yes, they hand weapons to people who say that they will join the territorial defence force. … Also my school friends,  from early childhood, they’re armed as well and their teenage children have been attending shooting lessons. So they also know how to handle weapons, Ukrainians. You see, they are very patriotic, and they will see that it is a question of their honour, a question of their motherland, a question of their unity. … In eastern Ukraine, I have friends who have relatives there. [They have a Grandma who says] ‘Well, I’m not moving anyway. … Enemies come and enemies go, life goes on’.”

Q:  And what about Ukrainian people in general?

“One of the biggest tragedies of this war is that Russian and Ukrainian people are very close. They have relatives, they have friends between two countries. … People are close and that’s why this kind of division is horrific. It’s like brother against brother. It’s like mother against son.”

Q: What has the Ukrainian Society in Oxford been able to do?

“So what we’re doing is we’re putting together organisations and charities that accept funds… I’ve had many friends coming to me saying, ‘Please, where do we donate? Who do we donate to?’.  So we are going to share that list on our Facebook group.

“We’ve had the Oxford University societies come to us and say, ‘Look, we want to show solidarity’. … We are preparing a document to show them how they can show their support during the events.

“We have templates for MPs, how you can write to your MP, what you should ask for.

“Anybody who wants to support Ukraine, we are also organising protests on Sunday at one o’clock outside Radcliffe camera, everyone’s invited.”

Q:  If you could tell non-Ukrainians to do one thing they can do to help, what would it be?

“Make your voice heard in any way.  So either attend a demonstration with us or do a Facebook post or write to your MP – do something.  Don’t stay silent… Don’t do nothing, that’s the most important thing, do something.”

Roman Tokaryk – Ukrainian student in Oxford

Q:  How are you doing?

“I think I will share the feeling of many Ukrainians who are in Oxford and in the UK right now [in that] we feel quite helpless, useless. We just maintain contact with the families there, but we cannot provide any direct help.

“We’re just trying to get them money, raise awareness, do whatever we can just because we feel really helpless.”

Q:  How are your family?

“They are okay. They live in an incredibly western part of Ukraine, close to Romania, like a 20- minute drive, so they are safe for now.

“But my friends who are from Kyiv and other big cities, like more central or eastern, they hear bombings, sounds of guns, of military operations, of war, at every every hour.”

Q:  What have you been doing to try and help?

“It was a very impulsive and initial reaction to organise a rally. It was two days ago in Oxford and we just called around Ukrainians and asked, ‘“Do we have to?’”. Everyone’s like, ‘“Yes, we have to’”. And we organised and like a lot of people actually attended the rally.  There were people from Lithuania, Georgia, Poland, Denmark, and many other countries … we were lucky to get there a lot of people to show us such devotion but it was just a start and we want to push it further.”

Q:  How are you dealing with it, it must be so hard?

“Yeah, it’s incredibly hard… The only way we can deal with it is just to do something. And that’s how we express our solidarity with our relatives, our families who are not okay and not safe at the moment… Otherwise, we’ll be just sitting and crying in our homes.”

Q:  How hard has it been to contact people in Kyiv?

“As for now, it’s quite okay, it’s quite straightforward. Nothing has changed, but the worrying [thing] is that a lot of people are buying power banks and other battery stations.  If the situation goes bad, and it’s highly likely that it will become worse, there will be electricity cut-offs for some time and people will just have nothing to charge their phones with. So, now we are communicating regularly, but if the situation gets worse, we’ll just set up one two-minute call every six hours, just not to use up all [of the] batteries. That way people can communicate between themselves in Ukraine, which is much more important rather than just for getting information from abroad.”

Q:  Do people there see the showing of support from abroad?

“The first level is the support of ordinary people, ordinary citizens of the EU, UK, and other countries. And this is incredible, to be honest, it’s incredible.  I can’t tell you how many friends wrote to me, not just with words of solidarity or support, but with concrete, specific actions.  Like, “We have a house in Spain, we have a house in Switzerland, in Italy. If you know someone who needs that, let us know, we are able to put up one, two, three families, it doesn’t matter.”  I was really shocked that people do such stuff, they are ready to accept random Ukrainian people just because they understand how bad it is.

“On the level of politicians, Ukraine feels that it’s alone. I’ll be brave enough to speak on behalf of many Ukrainians if not all. I will say that there was no robust response to the war that [is happening] in 2022 in Europe. Some sanctions, but not all of them even targeted… The political response was quite weak. We still really need equipment, we still need military support. We still need financial support, more sanctions in every possible way … because right now we really feel we are alone.”

“There is such a great unity among the Ukrainian people, which I have never seen in 23 years of my life. Usually, people, you know, are just debating between themselves, they disagree on political topics or, I don’t know, everyday routine things, but at this point, nobody cares [about that]. 

“If people can hold a gun and help the Ukrainian army, they go and do that… I know a lot of IT guys who are providing IT support to the government to defend the servers… they [ordinary Ukrainians] can donate blood and they go to the local hospitals and I even heard of disabled people in wheelchairs who cannot even walk or help physically, but they sew military [uniforms]… The Ukrainian nation has never been more united.”

Q: What is one thing people can do to help?

“If you can donate any acceptable amount for you, even one pound, two pounds will make a difference because Ukraine compared with Russia is so under-resourced as a country… Even if you’re not happy to donate to military things, feel free to donate to hospitals… So it’s the one thing British people can do, they’ve already done a lot… Being here, I feel their support of my colleagues at work, as a student, a member of the community.  But if you want one thing to do, please maybe just refuse for one coffee in the morning and send [those] three pounds… and they will be so, so, so much, so much appreciated.”

Then came an extraordinary moment of kindness that summed up everything Roman had been talking to me about.  A man got up from the table next to us and as he left, he put £30 down on the table.  “People here don’t realise how much they have”, he said, and that was that.  It was a small but powerful act of kindness that will stay with me for a long time.

Julius Lajtha – President of the Young European Movement

Julius Lajtha is the leader of the Young European Movement, an organisation with groups across the continent that seek to foster European unity.  By the nature of his role, he has friends across Ukraine and Russia.

Q:  Given your role, are you pleased with the response, with the showing of solidarity across Europe?

“Yes and no. I’m pleased because I can see that civil society, especially because of the Internet, [has produced] a mobilisation of citizens that are very concerned, that are very much in solidarity with Ukraine… At the same time, I’m concerned.  I know that at our branch in Manchester… a large majority of the support comes from Eastern European expats that are active around civil rights… They are small manifestations at this stage and that is concerning, that civil society is maybe not very holistically represented.”

“At the same time, moving on to the more political stage, I am again in a twist.  I can see that there is an enormous amount of willingness to react to this. But at the same time, I can see that there are gaps.”

Q:  What is your organisation doing?

“So as an organisation we are committed to ensuring a very strong link between young people in the UK and young people across the continental part of Europe.  … We have a section in Russia, we also have a section in Belarus, we also have a section in Ukraine.  What this organisation tries to foster are European and global citizenship and identity. It’s about the promotion of peace, the values of human rights, the support and the creation of a political narrative.  But going forward, focusing on building a federal Europe that doesn’t allow, by the very nature of its construction, … for people to enter up conflict against each other.”

“We managed to publish a statement and do something that is very rare in the UK because it encompasses pro-European organisations, pro-democracy, pro-civil society organisations, as well as, critically, the youth party wings of the Liberals, the young Greens, in Wales and England, which is a huge step forward in the sense that we achieve unity on a topic.”

“Finally, we are calling on all people to remember one thing, and frankly for me, this is the most important.  This is a war between politicians, between states, between armies, and [led by] frankly a very narcissistic, barbaric, and authoritarian leader… I wish, and I insist on believing that the majority, the vast majority of people in Russia don’t actually care about this war… Ukraine is just something that Putin and his circles wish to gain back for their sphere of influence, scared of Ukraine choosing the European way.  In the end, I believe that Putin and his circles would simply love to re-establish the Soviet Union.”

“This is something that I’m really concerned about, that this is not where Putin will stop.  I think that what needs to be made very clear is that we need to remember that it is not the Russian people fighting us. This is the Russian President attacking us collectively as Europeans and Ukrainians.”

Anastassia Devos – in Kyiv

This was the interview that humbled me the most.  Julius put me in contact with one of his friends on the ground in Kyiv, Anastassia, and she rang me within a matter of minutes, desperate to talk, desperate to tell everyone possible about the tragedy in her city.  She is an ambassador for the Young European Movement and works for the Council of Europe.  Her defiance in the face of such danger was extraordinary, her stories powerful beyond belief.

Q:  What are things like there on the ground?

“In the beginning, no one could believe what had happened. … Of course, we [hear] about all this data from the Pentagon: ‘They will attack Kyiv, they have a huge amount of Russian militaries at the border’… But people in Kyiv, we couldn’t believe that it would really happen.”

Q:  When did you realise what was happening?

“Yesterday morning, I woke up from explosions… First it started at the military depot… But also they killed many civilians.  What they do, it’s inhuman.  They fire rockets into residential areas, there are houses destroyed [and there are] women and children who are victims of this cruelty.”

Q:  How are things now?

“At this moment in time things are calm, but yesterday there were massive attacks on the military airport close to Kyiv… I have a colleague who lives there and she saw fire from her windows and both those houses nearby were destroyed.”

Q:  What’s your plan now, are you staying put or thinking of leaving?

“I don’t think I will leave Kyiv for the moment because it is also quite dangerous.  Like this morning, they put a bomb under the bridge that connects Kyiv and other cities and there were five cars that were exploded and one child [left] dead by this cruelty… And also maybe for my personal and moral reasons. I don’t want to leave my parents and my grandma here.”

Q:  How easy is it for you to know what is going on around the city?

“So we are reading news all the time and then I have relatives, friends, colleagues in all different parts of the city and they share pictures with me.  So for example, my relatives who live in a different district, yesterday they sent me a picture of tanks and then pictures of people who attack our army.

“Russia, they don’t attack directly.  They have spies… they put on Ukrainian uniforms and they say they are Ukrainian.  So, this morning this situation happened at an entry point to Kyiv. They stole a police car and they approached the entry point which was guarded by our soldiers and immediately they killed them. And [from behind] they also approached with a lorry.  Our soldiers could fight them back, but we have very big problems.”

Q:  Do you feel safe to leave your house?

“A lot of Kyiv citizens slept in shelters tonight.  They say that three children were born last night in shelters.  So, for example, in my house, there is a basement we will use. We will be prepared and go there.  But on the other hand [we have] to take into account the COVID situation… it is not safe either because these shelters and basements are quite small.”

Q:  Are you seeing the response from people in the West?

“Yes, sure, I saw it and we really appreciated it, but we really need more [concrete sanctions].  Spirit is very important but a lot of people are dying here today.

“I’m very sorry for the Russian people, because I understand their president is insane… My mum has a friend who lives in Russia and this morning she said, ‘“Our military is trying to save you from neo-Nazis who captured power in Kyiv’.”

Q:  If you had one message for ordinary people here, what is it?

“So, yesterday we started the petition and we launched the social media campaign, which says ban Russia from SWIFT and help us to shelter our sky.  Because they attacked us from [the] air, we need support to shelter our sky.”

Anastasiia Mazurova – Kharkiv

I was put in contact with Anastasiia by Julius on the night of the day that photos emerged of tanks rolling through the streets of her city, Kharkiv.  She wasn’t able to speak to me but wrote back through WhatsApp.

Q:  Tell me about yourself:

“I live in Kharkiv, in the south of the city, near the airport. I am a lecturer at Kharkiv National Aerospace University.  Kharkiv borders Russia, so we were the first who heard the bombing on 24th February at 5am.”

Q:  What was it like when the violence started?

“These days were the most terrifying in my life. Every day it was bombing around the city. The worst thing was the rockets…  Russia says that they didn’t touch civilians. But it’s not true, they bombed our buildings, buses, cars as well.”

Q:  What about after the battle today, how are things now?

“Today [27th February] in my city, in the afternoon Ukrainian soldiers managed to fight back Russian occupants. Nevertheless, we are afraid that Russian soldiers will reach the airport near my district.  Also today Russia blackmailed about nuclear weapons, Putin mentioned that it’s his answer to sanctions from NATO.

“We still can buy food and medicine. Fortunately, in my city, we have electricity, heating, and water.  Shelters were organised for us, the biggest is in the metro, people spent nights there… Our volunteers are working very hard and actively. They help the Ukrainian army, forces of territorial defence, hospitals, orphans’ houses, old people.

“We all care, we send money to support our army, we speak on social media so that people abroad know what is happening.  One outrageous fact is that some Russian people say that here there is no real fighting. Many Russians believe that Putin has sent forces to save us. I have a friend from there who wrote such awful words to us.”

Q:  What are your plans going forward?

“My plans for the near future are to support the Ukrainian army, pray for peace in Ukraine and the health of my relatives, and to return to my beloved students at university to give them knowledge.

“Some people are asking whether we want to go to Poland or Austria or Germany as refugees. For people in my city, it’s almost impossible.  Roads, railways are blocked. But I do hope so much that the war stops and I don’t have to go anywhere.”

Q:  What would you say to the people showing support in England?

“I am very thankful to people who support us in England, in Europe, in the whole world. It’s so valuable, it makes us stronger. We feel that we are not alone. We are people of this planet, we mustn’t destroy it. We should support each other!”

Q:  If you could say one thing to Vladimir Putin, what would it be?

“Stop the war and go away so that people of this world never see you again.”

It’s hard to know what to think after hearing so many different people talk about their experiences. The crisis seems so close and yet, like Roman, I can’t help but feel pretty helpless.  More than anything I’ve come away with a renewed belief in the good of ordinary people, and a new understanding of the importance of showing solidarity in any way possible.

Note: the text of the interviewees’ responses has been lightly edited for clarity.

Artwork by Ben Beechener.


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