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War in Ukraine: ‘I don’t want war, I want peace. I want a world without war’

Updated: Mar 2, 2023

Picture: A girl pays tribute to the foreign fighters slain in Ukraine who were fighting off Moscow's invasion. Kyiv's Independence Square, Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Jeff Farrell

In Kyiv’s Independence Square, there are tears for a missing soldier and a shrine to the estimated 20,000 foreign volunteers fighting for Ukraine, bedecked with their national flags – among them the Irish tricolour

Jeff Farrell

May 28, 2022

Business Post

Oksana Pavlichi pushed the pin of a Ukrainian flag into the earth, in tribute to a soldier friend who hasn’t been seen since the early days of Russia’s invasion of her country.

She paused for a moment before talking about how Viktor Potuliak, 30, was stationed in Kherson, in the southeast, when Russia invaded the area on February 24. He hasn’t been heard from since and is presumed dead.

“It’s very sad, he has a wife,” Oksana, 29, said with tears in her eyes. Like many Ukrainian soldiers caught up in battles with Moscow’s troops, Viktor will be denied a funeral and a grave, his body potentially buried under rubble. “He stays there now,” Oksana said.

She was standing in Independence Square in Kyiv on Sunday afternoon, the sun caressing the verdant grass. Once an area where couples strolled and kids played, it has become a tribute to the dead soldiers and fighters slain by the Kremlin’s army.

Oksana had just planted the flag in an area marked off in the grass, dotted with yellow daisies. In the middle, a makeshift wooden sign stated in bold yellow letters: “Ukrainians killed by Putin”. Below it was a figure 4,456 that had been crossed off and replaced with the figure of 7,436. Oksana Pavlichi was thinking of Viktor Potuliak, 30, who was stationed in Kherson in the southeast, when Russia invaded the area on February 24. He hasn’t been heard from since and is presumed dead.

It’s hard to ascertain if this figure is correct. Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, has been tight-lipped about the death toll in the military, but in April he said up to 3,000 Ukrainian troops had been killed since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine. It is hard to corroborate those figures, as the war continues to rage, analysts have said.

It comes as Russia last week intensified its push in the east and has been slowly gaining ground. On Friday, Russian-backed separatists claimed to have taken control of the city of Lyman in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region. Elsewhere, there was heavy fighting on the outskirts of Severodonetsk and the Kremlin’s forces had surrounded two-thirds of the city in a bid to encircle Ukrainian troops.

A Russian missile strike on a Ukrainian military base in the Dnipro district killed ten, local officials said. In Kharkiv, Russia pounded the city with shelling on Thursday, killing another ten people, including a baby, according to local media. The attack came after Ukraine's army had scored victories in pushing Moscow’s forces east towards the Russian border.

Picture: Oksana Pavlichi was thinking of Viktor Potuliak, 30, who was stationed in Kherson in the southeast, when Russia invaded the area on February 24. He hasn’t been heard from since and is presumed dead. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Among the Ukrainian soldiers involved in the resistance to Russia’s invasion are foreign fighters, said to number around 20,000, according to Ukrainian military officials.

At Independence Square, a recruitment poster, in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, flapped in the breeze. On it were the phone numbers and an email to contact for the International Volunteer Centre.

“We hope to encourage civilians from every single country to come here and stand beside the Ukrainians to defend humanity, hopes, dreams, kindness and goodness against evil,” it read.

The poster stood beside flags of nations where foreign fighters hail from — including the United States and Ireland.

Serhiy Bespalov, a press officer with the Ukrainian army, was taking photos of the flags. He pointed to the Irish tricolour, which has a note saying one fighter had been killed, and tugged it, saying: “They are strong men, they come to Ukraine to help us win this war.”

Picture: Serhiy Bespalov, a press officer with the Ukrainian army, hails Irish fighters who are in Ukraine battling Russian invaders. Independence Square, Kyiv. Photo: Jeff Farrell

There are no verified figures of how many Irish fighters are in Ukraine. This journalist, however, met one: on the bus from Krakow, in Poland, travelling over the Ukrainian border to Lviv.

The 57-year-old, from Cork, who did not want to be named, said he was driven to fight. “When I saw the Russians killing women and children, I said to myself: ‘That’s it, I’m going’,” he said.

Flags pinned into the soil in tribute to each of the slain foreign fighters show many never return home. A wooden sign read: “Foreigners killed by Putin 54”. That number couldn’t be verified.

The flags in the soil below, however, showed a handwritten tribute in black marker to each fighter said to be slain. One read, “Collinn – South Africa”, another was “Carlos – Brazil”, a third was “Harry – California”.

No matter how many have died since Russia invaded Ukraine, the locals in Kyiv and elsewhere remain defiant that they will win.

Nastia Doronina is one of them. She posed by a circular bed of red roses in Independence Square, and smiled as a friend took her picture.

She is sure Ukraine will triumph, and that Putin’s “Special Military Operation” in Ukraine to achieve a “deNazification” will fail. “The truth always wins,” she said.

Oleh Karas was selling ties in the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag in Independence Square. Wearing a black Reebok baseball cap, and puffing on a cigarette, he said he hoped that critics of Putin in Moscow would soon assassinate the Russian leader to bring the invasion to an end.

“Putin, I hope somebody will try to kill him,” Oleh said, making a sign of a gun with his hand. “I don’t want war, I want peace. I want a world without war.”

It is just weeks since Moscow’s tanks inched forward towards the capital in a bid to seize Kyiv. Ukrainian forces pushed back the Kremlin’s army in early April. Russian forces have since regrouped and are now slowly seizing ground in the Donbass region.

Locals are starting to trickle back to Kyiv. “The city is reborn again,” Nastia said. “Two months ago it wasn’t like this, everything was closed.”

The streets, however, are largely deserted. A few minutes’ walk away along Borysa Hrinchenka street stands Cymur, a sushi restaurant and one of the few open businesses in the area. A few people sat outside and drank beer below a bright green canopy. A Vape House shop nearby was closed while the glass door of a sex shop was open, but there was nobody inside. A woman in a kebab shop sliced into the rotating meat, and a few hungry diners ate at tables outside.

At Mykhailivska Square, the Princess Olga Monument was piled with sandbags, nets draped over them, and a sign hanging from it daubed in red bold letters read: “World help us”. Another read: “Please world, we need everyone help, this is good against evil".

Picture: Ukrainians plea for help. Kyiv city centre, Ukraine. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Another was more specific in its request: “We need body armour, Patriot systems, all Mig jets, and the nuclear weapons, and missiles . . . we need everything to topple Moscow.”

Further along, soldiers with flat caps gathered in a square opposite St Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral.

Inside the church, a man was praying on his knees in front of an ornate golden altar, next to a painting of an angel, her wings pale green, spread, her eyes towards heaven. The air was thick with incense. A priest in a grey vestment walked by quickly. Candles gently flickered, bells tinkled softly for a few seconds and all that broke the silence was a murmur of prayer.

Slonatc Lubomyr, a student priest in this Orthodox church, sat at a desk off to the side near the entrance where he sells long red candles.

Picture: More people pray during the war, a priest in this church says. St Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral, Kyiv city centre, Kyiv, Ukraine. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Asked if Ukrainians were afraid amid the invasion, as Moscow’s forces slowly inch eastwards in the Donbass region, he said: “Maybe a little, but during this time I realised that Ukrainians are such cool people that they are not afraid of anything.” In time of crisis, he said God-fearing and non-God-fearing men alike tend to pray.

The footfall into St Michael’s Golden Domed Cathedral has risen, but it’s not just civilians, it is also a stop-off for those on the way to the frontline. “So now it has become more the military who often come to pray,” Slonatc said.

Ukrainians might fear the invasion, but they are lining up in their droves to sign up for the army.

Galyas Yevgeniy Olegovich, 45, is one of them. He has a sharp chin and grey hair. I shared a carriage with him on the train from Lviv, in western Ukraine, to Kyiv. He was born in Moscow as his father was in the army in the then Soviet Union before the family moved to Kyiv.

Galyas Yevgeniy Olegovich ran a construction company before he signed up to fight with the Ukrainian army

Olegovich, who was due to receive training from US military veterans before he headed to the east to fight, spoke of how he ran a construction company before he signed up.

“I had friends who tried seven times to get in. The army says to them: ‘Wait, be patient’. They prefer people who have military experience,” he said.

Picture: Galyas Yevgeniy Olegovich ran a construction company before he signed up to fight with the Ukrainian army. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Olegovich pulled out a pistol from his camouflaged holster. “This is from the Soviet Union days,” he said, pointing above the grip of the gun where the year 1990 was engraved. “It’s old school,” he laughed.

He said his children are students abroad, one in Brussels, one in Berlin. “It is a weight off my shoulders,” he said, knowing they are out of Ukraine since Russia invaded.

Olegovich, who was clutching a black rifle in his left hand, the barrel pointing to the roof, said he would say goodbye to his parents in Kyiv before heading to fight Moscow’s forces – and he was not afraid of dying.

“I do not think about that,” he said, tapping the butt of the rifle on the floor. “If I were to think about that constantly, it would alter me as a person. Coming back from the war I would not be the same, and that is the thing that I am most scared of.”

A day later, I visited scenes of death itself. I headed north of Kyiv, to areas the Russians occupied in March and into early April. More than 1,000 civilians were killed in the outskirts of Kyiv during the Russian occupation, Ukrainian officials have said. The evidence of mass murder emerged in areas including in Bucha, 35km north-west of the capital.

In the city, I wandered into the grounds of the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, an Orthodox church. This is the site of the mass grave that first appeared in satellite images, with Ukrainian officials later saying some 380 civilians were buried here.

To the rear of the building I found a patch of grass had given way to a mucky area of about 100 square feet, tractor tyre marks in the earth. Roses were lined up in one part, lain flat on the ground, a tribute to the slain buried below the dirt.

Picture: Some 380 civilians were buried in this mass grave during the Russian occupation of Bucha, Ukraine, Kyiv's government says. Site is at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, an Orthodox church. Photo: Jeff Farrell

Days earlier, one Bucha local, Luda, travelling on a train outside Lviv, told of the horror amid the Russian shelling. She said she spent six days in a bomb shelter with her daughter and 200 other people as Ukrainian forces fought back and liberated the area.

“We were in total blackout,” Luda, who didn’t want to give her surname, said.

“The bombs were so loud – eventually I learned to recognise the sound of their guns from our [Ukrainian soldiers] guns. When you hear the sounds of the bombs it frightens you. You realise you are just nothing. The bombs were so loud. When they were near I was shaking. I wanted to get my child out.”

Luda worked for an IT company, and said her employers organised a special forces-type military operation to extract her and her daughter from Bucha amid the fighting. She and her child are now safely in Poland, but she has her eye on getting back to Bucha. She was only returning to Lviv briefly to collect the car she had left behind while fleeing.

“I want to return and rebuild my home,” she said. “I want to my children to grow up in my home. Why should I lose my home and the things I love – for what? Putin will fail.”

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