I was in Ukraine: We need politicians to act, not messages of support

I hoped to be of help on the home front (Picture: Sasha Dovzhyk)

The moment I crossed the Ukrainian border on foot at the western city of Krakovets, I was greeted with a sign on the Polish side that read ‘You are safe now’.

For women and children walking with me and pushing trollies, pet carriers, and wheelchairs in front of them, this meant no more bomb shelters; no more running through the mined Ukrainian fields; no more burying their loved ones behind the shelled apartment blocks.

For me, it meant getting further away from the only place where I felt at peace: my home country, which was fighting against Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Shortly before Russia’s first strike on 24 February, I decided to put my life in London on hold and go back to Ukraine. I hoped to be of help on the home front in case the eight-year-long war escalated in accordance with the worst predictions of the western intel agencies.

The escalation found me in Lviv, where I spent five weeks arranging evacuations of friends and strangers, coordinating international journalists to the sound of air raid sirens, interviewing the witnesses of Russian war crimes, and housing the internally displaced.

I was in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing among right-minded people.

However, the time passed and Ukraine was not getting the military aid it required amidst the mounting of Russian atrocities. It became clear that my efforts would be better spent split between helping Ukrainians on the ground and amplifying their voices in the west, where the questions of how to support my country’s fight against Russia’s war of annihilation were being decided.

A sign that reads 'We are with you' in both Ukrainian and Polish

Most displaced Ukrainians choose to remain in Poland (Picture: Sasha Dovzhyk)

After I crossed the Ukrainian border as part of the unceasing stream of refugees, a Polish bus took us to Hala Kijowska, a warehouse turned into a refugee centre. It looked a lot like the central railway station in Lviv, which hosted thousands of Ukrainians displaced by the war.

A choreographic arrangement of people and things manifests itself in such liminal spaces. Separate zones are allocated for the basic needs of food, shelter, transfer, and medical care. The shouting of exhausted volunteers accompanies the crying of children and the barking of dogs. These places smell of instant coffee, unwashed hair, and herbal tranquilizers.

At Hala Kijowska, few people knew what they were doing. A young mother with fresh cuts on her face appeared collected and business-like when bringing a cup of sweet tea to her daughter. When I asked about her next move, she just shrugged and looked away.

I then continued my journey west with a Polish volunteer who offered to drive me – as well as another refugee in need of a ride.

In Zabrze, a small Polish town near Katowice, I was met with an avalanche of Ukrainian voices and felt properly depressed for the first time since the full-scale invasion.

It seemed there were more Ukrainians in Polish provinces than in central Lviv, which was now saturated with foreign journalists. Aware of 2.5million Ukrainian refugees welcomed by Poland, I was still unprepared for the visceral shock of hearing my native language spoken at every corner in a foreign country.

The minute I showed up in the hotel lobby with my Ukrainian press badge, I was approached by a family of refugees. They had nowhere to stay. I opened my laptop and continued doing the work I was familiar with from Lviv – helping Ukrainians who fled from the Russian army navigate their new lives.

Sasha Dovzhyk with her mother

The failure to convey the trauma of displacement was staring me in the face (Picture: Sasha Dovzhyk)

While I was searching for local refugee support groups, two Ukrainian women came to the reception desk asking for work. There was no work for them – the hotel had already hired four Ukrainians that week.

These encounters persisted at every step.

Despite free transport routes to other European destinations, most displaced Ukrainians choose to remain in Poland. ‘They don’t even want to move further into the country’, said Katarzyna, a hard-working commander-in-chief at the local humanitarian aid centre. ‘They want to stay as close to the border as possible and return to Ukraine at the first opportunity’.

The next stop on my way back to the UK was Germany, where my family was now based. I entered the country in a train filled to the brim with Ukrainian refugees.

Equipped with food bags that they pushed through the open windows, dozens of volunteers greeted us on the platform in Frankfurt an der Oder. Our compartment watched this welcome fest in silence. The family I was travelling with was deaf and could only communicate in the Ukrainian sign language.

The failure to convey the trauma of displacement was staring me in the face – as I was staring at the only hearing member of the family: a seven-year-old girl. The task of bridging the unbridgeable communication gaps was now fully hers.

German citizens smiled and waved to our train in Frankfurt an der Oder. They entertained Ukrainian kids at the main railway station in Berlin. But I kept returning to the figure that rendered their kindness futile: 200 million euros of daily energy payments to Russia, by which means Germany is helping to subsidise Russia’s war against Ukraine.

A wall of artwork from Ukrainians

Dear London, see you at the rallies (Picture: Sasha Dovzhyk)

As a political entity, it feels as if Germany and the world’s most powerful democracies prefer to give sandwiches to the Ukrainian refugees rather than heavy weapons to the Ukrainian army. 

However, it is not sandwiches, hygiene products, or words of support that Ukraine needs to protect its people from being buried in mass graves in Bucha or burnt in mobile crematoriums in Mariupol.

I would suggest that jets, tanks, and anti-aircraft missile systems would also be of great use while Russia is reportedly regrouping its forces to attack Ukraine from the east.

And halting energy imports from Russia would go a long way towards stopping its slaughter of the European country of once 40million people.

‘Those few refugees who insist upon telling the truth, even to the point of “indecency”, get in exchange for their unpopularity one priceless advantage: history is no longer a closed book to them and politics is no longer the privilege of gentiles’, wrote Hannah Arendt in her 1943 essay We Refugees.

The ‘indecent’ truth is that the western appeasement of Russia in response to the annexation of Crimea and occupation of eastern Ukraine in 2014 has enabled this full-scale invasion eight years later and made more than 4.3million Ukrainians refugees, as of 6 April, according to the UN.

We, refugees, are here to remind the west of its responsibility. The privilege is ours.

I’m now back in London and all I can say is: Dear London, see you at the rallies.


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