The Home Front heroines aiding the front line on the other side of Ukraine

Published by The Daily Mail (10th March, 2022)

As we drove through the darkening countryside amid swirling clouds of snow, Lyudmila Sirko was never off her phone, pleading with people to find mattresses.

When the car stopped, I asked how many she needed. ‘Ten thousand,’ she replied, smiling from under the hood of her thick coat.

I was amazed — that would be an astonishing number of spare mattresses to find in the middle of London or Paris. We were on the outskirts of a small city in Ukraine, with the country engulfed by the chaos and misery of war.

Yet Lyudmila, a government official and deputy head of Ivano-Frankivsk region, was sure that she would find those mattresses — just as she and her colleagues have found food, shelter and clothes for a vast number of fellow citizens flooding into the city.

‘We must do everything we can to defend and help our country at this time,’ she said. ‘There are so many people looking for help that we have no right to give up.’

Her response typifies the resolve of Ukrainians as they resist Vladimir Putin’s barbaric efforts to crush their country — a resolve that runs from the military front lines in the east through to the refugee front lines in the west.

Inevitably, there has been huge, global attention on the plight of the two million people, mostly women and children, fleeing Ukraine. But others are staying, seeking sanctuary in the cities, towns and villages of the country’s west.

They head for places such as Lviv, the biggest city in the region, close to the border with Poland, and to Ivano-Frankivsk: a cultured city of 230,000, 70 miles away in the foothills of the Carpathian mountains, which is now facing immense pressure from a sudden tide of desperate people.

Ivano-Frankivsk sits far from the worst of the fighting in the centre and east of Ukraine — although its airport was struck by missiles on the first night of Russia’s attack, thought to have been fired from Transnistria, a pro-Moscow enclave in Moldova.

Lyudmila is leading the local effort to care for some 38,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in the city since the start of the invasion — including 50 children we drove to see in one of four orphanages her team has created to keep them safe.

To put this influx in perspective, it is five times more per capita than the 1.2 million people who have fled into Poland.

Many will move on across borders, but more than half are expected to stay. And the exodus is growing as cars, trains and trucks flee Russian bombing of residential areas in cities such as Kyiv, Kharkiv and Mariupol.

‘It is a terrible situation,’ Lyudmila said. ‘But we must not forget it is most difficult for the boys and girls on the front line, fighting to stop the enemy coming deeper into the country.’

Some 4,000 people — many stunned by the sudden loss of their homes and shocked by the carnage — had arrived in Ivano-Frankivsk the previous night on trains evacuating families from war-torn areas.

Yulia, 30, looking distressed and exhausted after what she described as ‘the most horrible days of my life’, was with her son Stephan, two, and a small pile of belongings in the station waiting area.

Yulia had abandoned her husband and parents to get Stephan away from the conflict as the threat of attack loomed over their home in Berdyansk — a port captured by the Russians. She had travelled to Kyiv, then on to Ivano-Frankivsk in hope of finding safety.

‘I wanted them to come with me but my mum just laughed and said: “No one is going to attack us.” Now they are scared, but they can’t leave. The Russians won’t let them go.’

Marina, 40, a hairdresser, had arrived from her ruined home near Kyiv with her 18-year-old daughter, Yulianna, after a 16-hour journey, standing in a crammed carriage without food.

They lived in a flat by the airport in Hostomel that was attacked by helicopter-borne Russian troops in the initial hours of the invasion, then recaptured by Ukrainian forces. It has subsequently seen some of this grotesque conflict’s fiercest fighting.

‘Since the first days of the war we had artillery shelling, missile strikes,’ she says. ‘We could hear and see it all. Houses on fire, what used to be apartment blocks are piles of rubble.’

Marina showed me videos of the horrifying destruction, including footage filmed by a neighbour of a missile striking the high-rise home she had worked so hard to buy, ‘It’s impossible to live there now — we have nowhere to return to.’

Other members of her family are trapped by battles on Kyiv’s outskirts. Her parents cannot reach the train station without transport, while her sister was last heard of hiding in a basement with her children and neighbours.

‘I can’t get in touch with her. Her house was shelled, her phone is off. The last time we spoke she said she could not go outside, there was fighting. They were ten people, sitting in the dark, in the cold, with no electricity or water or food,’ Marina says.

After arriving in Ivano-Frankivsk at 6am that morning, she and Yulianna were met by volunteers offering food and drinks, then taken to a school to shower, sleep and eat. They are now among 41 people bedding down in the school gym beneath the basketball hoops.

‘I’m so grateful to the people here — finding a place to stay was a miracle. Today I feel better: at least I’m not crying,’ she says. ‘But if I hear a bang, someone closing the door or dropping something, I get scared.’

The school is one of scores of public buildings hastily converted into shelters. I agreed not to disclose its name: this is, after all, a country under wartime martial law.

Even here, far from the front line, civic buildings are protected by armed troops in body armour, behind formidable piles of sandbags. In the town hall, fire hoses lie unfurled along the corridors in case fires break out after bombing.

Roman, 49, is the school’s director. ‘I would love to be educating children but I was serving on the eastern front line in the military eight years ago, so I know how people suffer in war,’ he said

More than 300 displaced people have stayed in the school over the past week. Roman explained to me how his pupils — many with parents in the military — were painting and selling pictures to raise funds and helping make protective netting for checkpoints, troops and trenches.

‘They follow the news so they see the tragedy of civil populations whose lives are destroyed. They see the footage of cities they might have visited being ruined: some might have family there,’ he said.

Then he led me to a room where 30 women — teachers, parents and volunteers from among the refugees — were cutting camouflage material and sewing it into medicine bags. In under a week, they have made more than 1,500 pouches.

One was a nurse called Yana, a mother with two daughters at the school. For seven days running, she had worked eight-hour shifts, then rushed down for another six-hour stint in this makeshift factory.

‘This is our way to help those in the military,’ said Yana, 45. ‘This is my school and this is my country under attack.’

At an orphanage for children aged three to 16 — created in a sanatorium near the city — I found a similar attitude.

Officials explained how a generator, washing machine and fridge had been donated, while an electronics store had provided a couple of TVs for the children who had arrived from near the front line in Donbas last week.

The city council has set up a network of volunteers to assist with tasks including delivering food cooked by restaurants to refugees. A health official explained they were dispersing doctors who had fled the bombing across the region.

Deputy mayor Oleksandr Levitsky admitted this was a ‘major challenge’ and that they relied on the support of businesses, charities, religious groups and donations from abroad. ‘This is the only thing that helps us process the numbers,’ he said.

Levitsky, who lives with his wife and son close to the town’s airport hit on the first day of the war, believes Ivano-Frankivsk is simply performing its patriotic role.

‘There are people who take up firearms to protect their motherland and people under shelling so this is not comparable — but we are doing everything we can. This is our duty as citizens to protect our country in any way we can.’

Across the city, hotels are full and flats crammed with refugees. ‘We see people who’ve been on the road for 48 hours and some who haven’t eaten,’ said Valentina Klym, 62, owner of the 18-room, family-run Fontush Boutique Hotel. They have cut their rates to help refugees, some of whom have brought cats, dogs — and even one family rabbit.

Such scenes are being repeated across western Ukraine: Lviv has seen 200,000 new arrivals.

Back at Ivano-Frankivsk’s railway station, I found the first-class waiting room kitted out for new mothers with piles of donated nappies and cleaners working extra hours. Ukraine’s rail system is running free evacuation services.

‘For 11 days and nights, all the staff have been getting by on a couple of hours’ sleep,’ said Roman Ivanytskiy, deputy station chief. ‘We will sleep when the war is over.

‘When we meet the people who are fleeing the towns being shelled, then we see the tragedy of Ukraine,’ he added. ‘But we are proud to say that people do not have to sleep at the railway station.’

Among those greeting newcomers with hot tea and Nutella sandwiches are fellow refugees such as 21-year-old Daria, who has already had to flee twice from Putin’s aggression in Ukraine.

Daria was born in Antratsyt, a city in eastern Ukraine, and escaped to Kyiv with her mother in 2014 when the area was taken over by pro-Moscow separatists. ‘It took me a year to adjust to my new life,’ she said.

She fled again, this time with her boyfriend, Nikita, after the shelling started in the capital. The rest of her family stayed: her stepfather joined the defence forces and her mother, a former journalist, volunteered to help the health ministry.

‘Even my grandfather is making Molotov cocktails and my grandmother, who recently broke her right arm, is learning to use her left so she can throw his missiles. I’m extremely proud of them but also very worried,’ she said.

Daria wanted to help the war effort and so joined the volunteers. ‘Sometimes it feels like I’m just dying inside,’ she said. ‘But if we give up, we’ll definitely lose — and we need to win. I’m sure we will win.’

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