A woman whose story shows why the war must be won
Published by The i paper (January 2nd, 2023)
As the past year slides into history, it will be remembered for the outbreak of a cruel war that scars our continent. After spending so many months reporting on the sad events in Ukraine, witnessing a country ripped apart on the whim of a desperate dictator, I have heard too many distressing stories and seen too many disturbing scenes.
As a new year dawns, it is crucial we do not become inured to the agonies, atrocities and bloodshed in this epic struggle between democracy and dictatorship. So let me tell you the tale of one woman whom I met last January in Kharkiv, now living traumatised in Britain after almost a decade of suffering due to Kremlin terror.
Her name is Olena Znatkova. We met in the Derzhprom, a sprawling architectural masterpiece that was Europe’s first skyscraper complex when it opened in 1928 as a showcase for Soviet ambition. Amazingly, it has survived so far the hell unleashed by the former KGB man trying to revive Moscow’s empire.
This woman, then 50, movingly told of being inspired by the 2014 pro-democracy protests that resonated in her soul. “It was a wake-up call for me when people came on the streets to try and change their lives, create more freedom and open up the country,” she said.
Olena – a senior local government official in Luhansk region – had to flee for her life. She left behind her beloved three-bedroom home near the Russian border after first refusing to sign a loyalty pledge demanded by Vladimir Putin’s separatist stooges, then seeing Kremlin tanks roll past her windows.
The final straw was debris from a downed Ukrainian fighter jet falling on her parent’s home as she hid from the thugs running the region. She left with her nine-year-old daughter Daria, taking only their family documents.
When we met, Olena was relying on donated clothes and staying in student digs – yet this patriot had helped move 1,500 people and seven universities from occupied territory back into Ukraine. She was working with military veterans. Unlike many, she could see the storm clouds looming and had begun preparing for war, building up supplies of coffee, tobacco and water. She was defiant, determined not to run a second time from Putin’s forces.
Then came the horror of the attack on Kharkiv. “It was so shocking to see a Russian fighter jet just above my head – and then awful when I saw from my window how Kharkiv regional administration building was destroyed. Inside were my friends, colleagues, students and interns.”
There were 29 deaths in this highly-symbolic strike, creating immense damage that I later saw for myself. The building sat on Freedom Square, a massive civic space where I had once met people for coffee, watched children skate by a Christmas tree and learned about a huge Lenin statue that once stood there.
The attack left Olena torn between her official and parental duties – but ultimately, she knew she must protect her child. So once again, she grabbed their documents. And once again, this mother and daughter fled their home from Russian bombs and bullets.
Their next shock was the evacuation train. “I’ve never seen so much despair and suffering in my life,” she recalled. “Thousands of people on the station, so much pain and tears. Husbands taking kids and wives to the train, cats, dogs, hamsters.”
The journey took 18 hours – “each moment waiting for a bomb to land on our wagon” – with children crying, passengers pleading for water and people passing out in the heat of crammed carriages. Olena will never forget the moment the train stopped and two women entered to hand out water: “It was like a sip of life for me.”
They ended up 1,000 kilometres away in a village in Lviv region – but any hopes of finding peace from Putin instantly dissolved. As the pair finished unpacking, they heard the horribly-familiar sound of loud explosions: more than 30 Russian cruise missiles raining down on a nearby military training base, causing scores more casualties.
The next day Olena and Daria joined the exodus of Ukrainians forced from their country as they crossed the Polish border. They went on to Estonia, before arriving in Wales five months ago.
Little wonder she says life has been exhausting. Luhansk separatists demand her death. She cannot communicate with her elderly parents, trapped behind enemy lines. Her brother disappeared after being led away from their house. Many friends in Kharkiv have been killed.
“I keep receiving news about someone’s death and each time, it strikes me so badly – it is so difficult not to burst into tears.” Her health has suffered badly, with heart and eye problems. She takes solace from seeing her daughter studying and making plans for the future – and singing in Cardiff with other Ukrainian exiles once a week. But while grateful to Britain, she struggles with our language, feeling lost and lonely as she yearns for home. “To be honest, I feel horrible,” she said. “I feel totally broken.”
It has been a long 12 months since I met Olena. I was struck by her friendliness, fortitude and patriotism – traits encountered repeatedly in Ukraine since I began covering their fight for freedom nine years ago. It is heart-breaking to hear her despair, stranded here after suffering so much from Russia’s terror – especially since she told me with a smile how she hoped to visit Britain in the future.
As Putin toasts his stupid war with champagne, she is just one among millions whose lives have been buffeted and broken by his brutality. The West ignored his threat in 2014 but finally stood firm in 2022. Olena’s story underscores why it is so crucial we do everything possible this year to aid Kyiv’s fight to defeat the Kremlin.
Our support must strengthen, not flag, in the face of evil.