The continued invasion of Ukraine is having detrimental effects on the entire population of the sovereign state. It appears that nobody situated on Ukrainian soil is exempt from the harsh realities of this war. Russian bombardment of cities and towns in a push from east to west is creating a refugee crisis in Europe on par with that of World War II.
Although it is only recently that the world has turned its attention to Ukraine, there has been tragedy unfolding in eastern Ukraine since 2014. The conflict between the Russian-backed separatists and the national military has claimed 13,000 lives (3,400 civilians) and displaced more than 850,000 people. The conflict is now spreading deeper into the country toward the capital, Kyiv.
The Current Situation
All men aged between 18 and 60 must stay and defend the sovereignty of their nation, with very little exception. Notable high-profile citizens are the former heavyweight boxing world champion siblings, the Klitschko’s, multiple weight class champion Vasiliy Lomachenko and cruiserweight champion Usyck. The Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy has also been pictured amongst the Ukrainian military, rallying the troops and refusing to leave the capital.
Additionally, Ukrainian men and women that are based outside the country are answering their country’s call for help and are venturing home to protect their homeland. A profoundly heroic act! It is not only Ukrainians that are answering the call. Militarily trained people from all over the world are making their way to Eastern Europe to resist the Russian invaders. A gesture that provides a degree of faith in humanity.
However, whilst there are people willingly heading to confront the conflict head-on, there are far more moving in the opposite direction. Hordes of women, children, and elderly Ukrainians have been forced to leave their homes in search of refuge. Neighbouring countries of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova are receiving an immediate influx of refugees. Meanwhile, the rest of Europe is deciding how many they will take in.
Every day the number of refugees emerging from Ukraine is growing, in tandem with Russian aggression. According to UNHCR, the total number of displaced people fleeing the country could reach four million people. Furthermore, an estimated 12 million people within the state will need relief and protection. Truly astronomical figures. It is being predicted that it will be the largest exodus of refugees within Europe since 1946-1948.
Roads are blocked and planes are grounded, the only viable option for escape is the trains, which are already operating at dangerous capacities. This has resulted in many families undertaking their journey to safety on foot.
An Insight From the Ukrainian Community
I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a spokesperson from the Ukrainian community here in Ireland, Anatoliy Prymakov. Since the onset of the invasion, Anatoliy has been involved in setting up the website IamUkrainian.ie. The website provides resources for Ukrainian refugees coming to Ireland, information on drop-off points around the country for Irish people to bring aid, and coordinates the delivery of this aid to Poland and other bordering countries.
Contact with Home
Anatoliy has lived in Ireland for the past 15 years, however, members of his family are currently stuck in Ukraine. Last week, Anatoliy appeared on the Late Late Show to describe his current reality. His grandmother is stuck in eastern Ukraine, and he was supposed to fly out to get her:
“I was due to fly out to get her Sunday, February 27, but it didn’t work out”
I was going to go and get my granny and drive her to be with my cousin in central Ukraine.”
Anatoliy’s plans were left in ruin as the Russians launched their attack the Thursday before he was due to travel.
The Reality on the Ground
Anatoliy explained how currently the Russians are controlling certain cities and roads, all the time maintaining a push toward Kyiv. For many towns the only option for evacuation is by train:
“In terms of my home town, as soon as military action started they have been running evacuation trains, and that is the reality all over Ukraine.”
Traveling by road brings with it the chilling risk if venturing into an active warzone:
“The roads are a little more difficult because they have been targeted, roads are not safe, there are traffic jams and checkpoints.”
Anatoliy mentioned the importance of Ireland waiving the visa requirements for incoming Ukrainian refugees. He remarked how people were ringing him and rejoicing about how great it was that he could now get his granny into Ireland. This fact was bittersweet for Anatoliy as he understands the difference between theory and reality:
“Moving around Ukraine is a logistical nightmare at the moment. If you have a car and are a male you will be stopped by the national guard or military at a checkpoint and you will be asked why you haven’t been conscripted yet. If you are a woman or elderly person it may not be safe as people can take advantage of you.”
His Grandmother is an elderly woman, she can’t leave her apartment without aid. He has been in contact with the Red Cross who initially assured Anatoliy they would check in on her. Eventually, the Red Cross offered to send an ambulance to collect his Grandmother. Still, this is not entirely safe Anatoliy explained:
“It is not safe to move around because you don’t know when a shell or mortar may come down.”
Whilst sanctions are crippling the Russian economy and countries like Ireland (amongst many others) are waiving restrictions for Ukrainian refugees, the truth is none of these acts are equal to Russia laying down their arms:
“The bottom line is that my family are OK for the time being, and this goes for a lot of Ukrainian communities, but nowhere is safe and it is getting progressively worse.”
Source: BBC News
Over the past week Ukrainian, Russian and Belarussian representatives have been meeting at the Ukrainian-Belarussian border for talks. Russia has offered to allow free passage for civilians through designated humanitarian corridors. The cruel irony behind this offer is that nearly all of these humanitarian corridors lead refugees into either Russia or Belarus. I asked Anatoliy how the Ukrainian community felt about these open corridors:
“How can Ukrainian people trust Russia or Belarus when they are the ones that are attacking us.”
He provided several examples as to why Ukrainians harbour distrust toward the Russian government. As far as he is concerned, these humanitarian corridors are merely a façade:
“Help and humanitarian corridors are being provided, however, they (Russia) know nobody is going to use these corridors.”
“Russians are doing this so that there is an appearance of opening corridors, even though they know the Ukrainian people won’t use them, as they don’t trust them”
This feeling of distrust is certainly justified as there have been reports of some of these, supposedly safe, roads being covered with active mines. Kyiv has also accused Moscow of shelling the corridor leading out of the city of Suny.
Coming to Ireland
I asked Anatoliy whether the incoming refugees will be placed in direct provision centres upon arrival in Ireland:
“It is not clear at this time. From what I know a lot of Ukrainian people that have been coming into Ireland have been quarantined in the Travel lodge hotels.”
Anatoliy expressed his gratitude toward the Irish community and everything they have been doing to help. Irish citizens are constantly getting in contact, offering whatever space they have for the displaced citizens of Ukraine:
“What I am witnessing is a lot of people coming forward to offer accommodation.”
“I met a woman yesterday who needed help transporting 30 pallets of aid to the Ukrainian-Polish Border”
If You Want to Help!
Anatoliy wanted our readers to know that you can register your house on the non-profit site of the Irish Refugee Council, the Irish Red Cross, and Doras. You can also visit the I am Ukrainian website.
Hope for the Future?
Before we wrapped up, I asked Anatoliy if he was optimistic about a de-escalation of Russian aggression soon:
“It is a tough question to answer. Russia has seemed to underestimate Ukrainian resistance, now they cannot retreat without losing face and it is becoming increasingly difficult to even make out what this war is about.”
De-escalation may prove difficult as neither side can afford to do so, according to Anatoliy. If Russia concedes, they look like failures, if Ukraine does, they lose their nation. All in all, it is becoming increasingly difficult to predict the outcome of this war.
At the time of publishing this article, the number of refugees fleeing Ukraine had reached two million people. Reports from the UNHCR and the WHO indicate that this number will continue to increase. Those Ukrainian people still trapped in their villages, towns, and cities have a colossal task ahead of them to make it to safety. Unfortunately, getting out of Ukraine is only the beginning as an entire relocation of their lives then lies ahead of them. Hopefully, the world can provide an effective humanitarian response.