‘I’d always had a fantasy about living and working in England at some point in my life” says Krystina – “but I couldn’t have imagined it would be in such bizarre circumstances.”
Krystina, 40, is from Kyiv where, until the Russian invasion, she practised as a lawyer.
Mother (or Mamma) Tetiana (67) was also a lawyer who lived in tranquil retirement in the beautiful city of Chernigive, (population 290,000) in northern Ukraine, close to the border with Belarus and Russia.
On February 24, 2022, Russia embarked on its “special military operation” seeking the “demilitarisation” and “denazification” of Ukraine.
Chernigive was the first significant obstruction on the road to Kyiv and the Russian military absolutely hammered it, bombarding the city with artillery and rockets from the ground and bombs from the air, randomly targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure.
In a few hours much of what was Chernigive was reduced to rubble and hundreds of its inhabitants were dead.
Sheltering in a neighbour’s basement among this deadly chaos was Tetiana, Krystina’s mother. She was stuck there with little food and no electricity for 20 days while the Russians occupied and razed what was left of her city.
Meanwhile a single Ukrainian tank brigade stood between Chernigive and the eastern suburbs of Kyiv, only 60 miles away.
They not only halted the larger Russian force in the first few days of the assault but, for the next five weeks, protected the road to Kyiv and arguably saved the capital from being overrun.
After three abortive attempts, some very brave Ukrainian volunteers took in food and managed to extract residents in a convoy of buses under the noses of the Russian occupiers.
Tetiana recalls “they took forever to reach the relative safety of Kyiv as each metre of the road had to be checked for mines.”
Eventually reunited with a very anxious Krystina, they both hunkered down in her Kyiv apartment for much of March.
Most of her clients had already left for places abroad so she had no work or income. Krystina remembers the day when any sense of security she may have had evaporated.
She said: “Around midnight, Ukrainian air defences shot down a missile over my apartment, fragments of which fell and damaged the building. We were hiding between two sturdy walls in the corridor at that moment. After that I decided that it was time to go.”
An English friend and colleague helped them obtain visas for the UK which, with his help, came through in a matter of days. They filled a suitcase each and hit the now well-travelled route to the Polish border on a crowded train with the dispossessed, the homeless and people who, like Krystina and Tetiana, just wanted to find somewhere, anywhere, that was safe.
That good Samaritan friend and colleague had a sister who lived in Alton who welcomed the two evacuees with open arms and became their de facto host family.
Krystina said: “Since her experience in Chernigive, Mamma had been experiencing great difficulty sleeping – she was afraid that at any moment something bad was going to happen. In Alton, with our host family, Mamma feels safe now.”
Tetiana said: “I can’t believe I’m in Great Britain – I’m so excited to see London, it’s like a dream.”
Her heart is in Ukraine and despite their hosts’ extraordinary kindness, she thinks about home all the time.
Krystina ponders: “I ask myself about how this will finish.
“I understand all wars end with some negotiated settlement. Most Ukrainians would give, and have given, their own lives for their country but they cannot countenance giving any of its soil to Russia.
“My friends in Kyiv were lawyers which is a protected profession meaning they were not required to enlist but they volunteered anyway to protect our country. Few have survived.
“We didn’t speak much about this at first as it made us very unhappy – when we first arrived here there were a lot of tears.
“We thought other people have their own problems and didn’t necessarily want to hear about ours. But we’ve always been met with kindness, from our host family and people we have met.”
Tetiana is taking English lessons but lapses into passionate Ukrainian – both she and Krystina have made a pact never to speak Russian again – when speaking about her love for her country and her wounded home city of Chernigive in particular.
While Krystina translates, she says: “It’s so important Ukraine receives the continued support of the alliance of western nations.
“Ukraine can’t do it alone: we must stop Putin. Today it’s Ukraine, tomorrow it’s another country: Estonia, Latvia maybe.
“Ukraine is fighting to protect Europe – we need as much help as possible, and quickly.”
Krystina is a self-confessed pragmatist: “Ukraine is a different country now in 2023. This war has united the country – warring political parties have put their differences aside and are as one in this crisis.
“If the west and the EU stay together, we might just be able to end this war earlier.”
As if to emphasise the stubborn unity that makes Ukraine so strong an adversary, Tetiana adds: “There should be no land for peace with Russia, not the Donbas or Crimea, nothing!”
The passion plain to hear in her voice: “How can this have happened in 2022?”
As with all our Ukrainian guests, they cannot praise highly enough the kindness and hospitality with which they have been received – a very special relationship has developed between the two nations.
“We meet only kindness,” says Krystina.
The British families and volunteers too have gained something intangible from this emergency: a veritable ‘hands across the nations’ moment.