Ukraine war: ‘We were living in our small, happy world and doing good things

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As a dancer and dance teacher, the 20-year-old Ukrainian student loved to express herself through movement.

But six days spent cowering in a basement with her family as Russian forces bombarded their home city in the south-east of the country have left Alina Panibratchenko bereft and unable to contemplate her former life let alone think about dancing again.

“I taught children, girls of different ages, it was really fun,” she said, speaking by phone after fleeing Volnovakha last week.

“In one moment it all stopped,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes.

“We were living in our small, happy world and we were doing good things, dancing, performing and making people smile…

“Now I have a marathon of survival – I can’t even think about dancing now. All I can think about is how to reach a place where you’re welcome, happy, with no shelling, bombs and where you don’t fear every sound you hear and where you’re not scared.”

She is one of the more than 1.5 million Ukrainians forced to leave behind homes, lives and belongings to flee Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – the fastest-growing refugee exodus since the Second World War.

Alina described how she, her parents and their pet dog decided to escape from the basement of their home where they had been sheltering with her grandparents, who refused to leave.

Alina’s grandparents, who refused to leave the family’s basement (Photo: Alina Panibratchenko/Sky News)

“We saw the sky was red because of fires,” the young woman, who had been studying choreography, said.

“We saw military men and a lot of [pet] dogs that had been left behind by their owners. We weaved around shell fragments on the road. We saw tanks on fire and shot cars.”

Their car also came under fire as they drove away, but they kept going and made it out safely for now.

All I can think about is how to reach a place where you’re welcome, happy, with no shelling, bombs and where you don’t fear every sound you hear and where you’re not scared

Alina Panibratchenko

The family is staying at the home of a friend’s aunt in the city of Dnipro, in central Ukraine, but the war is following them and they do not know where they will move to next.

“I can’t say when I can come back to my previous life because I can’t even imagine how much time it will take to rebuild it,” Alina said.

“I can’t think about career or self-development now. My only goal is to survive.”

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Her story is echoed by an entire population that in the space of barely a week and a half has seen their world flipped upside down by Russia’s war.

But Ukraine, unlike most European nations, is particularly resilient as it had already faced Russian invaders eight years ago on a much smaller – but still bloody – scale when Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatists in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.

But six days spent cowering in a basement with her family as Russian forces bombarded their home city in the south-east of the country have left Alina Panibratchenko bereft (Photo: Alina Panibratchenko/Sky News)

It meant many people, young and old, had already served in the armed forces or as “volunteers”, fighting on the frontline.

As the renewed threat from Moscow grew over the past few months, many of these same people prepared themselves to have to return to a war then never really ended.

At the same time, thousands of civilians with no military background signed up to territorial defence units to learn how to fire a weapon and other fighting skills.

The family’s basement (Photo: Alina Panibratchenko/Sky News)

I met Marta Yuzkiv, 51, a clinical researcher and mother-of-three, back in January at a territorial defence training centre in Kyiv.

She told me at the time that she had chosen to sign up last year as a novice.

“I am completely a civilian person so all these basic military things you need to learn – how to work with your colleagues in some danger, what to do, how to operate rifles, practical medicine, all these basic military things,” she said

Asked if she was ready to fight if necessary, she said: “I am not sure that somebody could be ready for fighting. Maybe professional military could do it. Definitely, I am scared but I know exactly I don’t want to live under occupation, so I will fight.”

Deborah Haynes is security and defence editor at Sky News



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