Ukrainians living in the UK tell of their heartbreak about the situation in their home country — while those from neighbouring nations share solidarity

“My partner is British and he got a call from the UK Government telling him to leave,” Olga explained. “My family is still in Kyiv. It’s awful what is happening over there. People are dying, children are losing their families. It’s really awful. Because we don’t know if we have a future. You try to sleep, you don’t know what you will wake up to”.

Olga and her partner have joined an anti-war march in Bristol, UK, organised to raise up Ukrainian voices and show solidarity across borders. The crowd is emotional: a young Ukrainian man shouts into a megaphone “Slava Ukrayini” (glory to Ukraine) and the crowd responds: “heroiam Slava” (glory to the heroes). He tells attendees to turn on their phone torches and the sky is lit up with hundreds showing solidarity. Signs across the march read “Hands off Ukraine”; “our soil, our sovereignty”; and “f**k Putin”. 

A young Ukrainian woman called Anastasiya leads the crowd in the national anthem. Olga and her partner join in with the singing. Many of the attendees, wearing blue and yellow, as well as floral headdresses, have tears in their eyes.

Ukrainians sing the National Anthem in Bristol. Photo: Sian Norris

Since Russia invaded Ukraine a week ago, solidarity marches and gatherings have taken place across UK and European cities, including in Bristol.

Even in St Petersburg and Moscow, where protests which take place without the authorities’ permission are against the 2014 law, thousands of people have come together to show their solidarity with Ukraine and to voice their anger at President Putin. 

The march in Bristol is not without its displays of Russian solidarity; towards the end of the evening a man publicly burned his Russian passport. The sentiment is clear: this is Putin’s war, not ours. 

Writing on Twitter, imprisoned leader of the Russian opposition, Alexei Navalny, called for protests from Russia, writing that “we must, gritting our teeth and overcoming fear, come out and demand an end to the war”. Navalny’s prison sentence could be extended by 15 years. 

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‘My Family is in Bomb Shelters’

Here in Bristol, Olya tells Byline Times that, earlier that day, she had learnt the school she attended as a child had been destroyed by bombs. 

“I understand it’s just a school,” she said. “But still, it’s your past. It’s all so incredibly shocking and unimaginable.”

Olya’s family are in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city to  come under heavy bombardment from Russian forces. “It is like living in a nightmare,” she said. “I’m waiting every morning, hoping I will wake up and it will be over. Not that I am sleeping much. It’s now been days of my home town under very heavy bombs. Most of my family is in bomb shelters or cellars”.

While Olga’s family are in Kyiv, where communication remains open for now, Olya explained how hard it is staying in touch with her loved ones. “It is very difficult because you don’t know if they are not responding because the internet is down, because they are in a shelter, or because something has happened. It’s a constant weight”. 

Like Olya, Anastasiya’s family are also in Kharkiv. In a moving speech to the assembled crowd, she talked about how the city’s university – which her great grandfather helped to build – had been flattened by Russian forces. “This is a genocide,” she warned, accusing the Russian Federation of war crimes. “Putin has said that he does not want Ukrainians to exist”.

Alongside Ukrainian nationals and Bristolians are people from neighbouring countries who are keen to show their solidarity with Ukraine and to protest Russian neo-imperialism. Irina is from Belarus, known as the ‘last dictatorship in Europe’. The country’s President, Alexander Lukashenko, is criticised as a Putin puppet. Protests following the 2020 election led to hundreds of arrests and allegations of torture. 

“I’m marching today in solidarity with the Ukrainians in the fight for freedom and against the Russian invasion,” Irina told Byline Times. “We see the Russian military in Belarus, and we know that if Ukraine is not free, then Belarus will not be free”.

Omar is from Poland, which has welcomed tens of thousands of refugees on its 30-mile border with Ukraine. “We want all European countries to unite against what is happening in Ukraine right now,” he said. 

This show of solidarity is important to all the Ukrainians that Byline Times spoke to. “It’s nice to feel that the whole world supports us,” said Olga. 

“You feel you are living through this alone,” said Olya. “Because no one can fully understand what it’s like until you’re actually going through it. But events like this help. It also helps to build the network as we try to get humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Working together helps to take your mind off it and you feel not so useless. It’s a brilliant thing today”. 

Protests and solidarity marches continue across the world. 

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