Blitz spirit that puts Britain to shame

Published by The i paper (14th March, 2022)

One night last week I found myself without anywhere to stay. This was unsurprising: I was in a city in western Ukraine that saw its population surge almost 20 per cent in two weeks as people fled the barbarities, bombs and bullets of Vladimir Putin’s war. Fortunately, the woman running a small hotel where I found a room the previous night saved me from the freezing streets by asking a friend to lend me living room sofa. I slept beside a friendly spaniel, then returned to reporting on the conflict after a breakfast of strong coffee and cheese.

Ivano-Frankivsk is – like so many places in this part of the world – overflowing with people left stunned by the speed with which their lives unravelled amid the atrocities of war. “I don’t know what I am going to do now,” said one mother who lost everything when her home near Kyiv was destroyed. “But we are alive, and it’s good enough for now.”

The hotelkeeper’s kind gesture towards a foreigner typifies the determination of Ukrainians to pull together as their nation faces existential threat. One official said: “We are no longer divided into friends or strangers – everyone is part of a big family.”

So the hotel cut prices instead of profiteering, the school gyms are filled with sleeping families, the restaurants donate profits to the war effort and rail station staff take pride in keeping their premises clean for the next train filled with refugees from the eastern and central towns being blown apart by Russia. Once they have caught up on sleep, many new arrivals remain in the town instead of heading for the borders to try helping the others joining the exodus. They volunteer to hand out tea, sandwiches, and cake at the station, or collect bedding, clothes, and medicines.

This is Ukraine’s “Blitz spirit” on display – and it is wondrous to witness, despite the dreadful circumstances. My driver today is the bass guitarist in a successful band who welded street defences until they ran out of scrap metal. One woman forced from her home told how she went to give blood but was turned away due to a rush from donors. Similarly, a man in his twenties, desperate to help his country, discovered to his dismay there were sufficient recruits for the defence forces. I watched the men and women more successful than him being trained with wooden guns in a school yard, wondering how many of those earnest young faces would survive the carnage of this horrible conflict.

Similar resolve is seen in the response of neighbouring nations confronting the folks flooding over their borders. The numbers are simply mind-blowing: 2.5 million refugees created by Putin’s atrocities in 18 days, with another two million internally displaced in the heart of Europe. The bulk of exiles went to Poland, with 300,000 arriving in Warsaw alone, but there is even a four per cent surge in the population of Moldova, an economically and politically fragile nation that has its own problems with Russian meddling. No wonder the prime minister is pleading for global help.

Each one of these people has their own horror story, often illustrated by images captured on their phones of burning homes, devastated streets and menacing tanks. Some are so traumatised after several days in a basement under heavy shelling that even a dropped spoon, let alone the wail of sirens, revives their fears. I have no doubt the second early morning missile strike on Ivano-Frankivsk in three days, combined with the murderous attack on a military base near Lviv, will inflame this flow of human misery seeking sanctuary abroad in the worst refugee crisis confronting our continent since the Second World War.

The European Union responded with dignity by waiving visa requirements and offering Ukrainians the right to live and work in any member state for three years. But one nation on the continent stands alone in its bleak response – and that is, regrettably, Britain under the dismal leadership of Boris Johnson and his hatchet woman Home Secretary Priti Patel. The Prime Minister’s reaction is all the more depressing after his initial strong response to Russia’s aggression, which won him many fans here in Ukraine, even if it was fostered by his desperate desire to divert attention from the “partygate” fiasco.

It is shameful to see our Government resort to bureaucratic trickery to resist this tide of humanity, using red tape to tangle up applications from people abandoning everything as they flee Putin’s bombardment. The Government demanded biometric tests, documents, visas and visits to application centres that turned out not to be open, despite Patel’s disingenuous claims to Parliament.

As ever with Johnson, this was accompanied by bogus claims of British exceptionalism. And now – prodded into belated action by justified public outrage, including an offer of £350 per month for volunteers to host refugees – they drip-feed a pathetic defence into the media about supposed security fears when they were simply playing the crudest politics, seeking to shore up their right flank from possible attacks on immigration.

This is the tragic legacy of the relentless hostility shown to asylum-seekers and their defenders by this government. No surprise to see one minister’s insulting suggestion (in a since-deleted Tweet) that Ukrainians fleeing Putin might apply to be fruit-pickers, while a crass backbencher reheated hoary old arguments about refugees remaining in frontline states rather than daring to come to Britain. Meanwhile, the cabinet bickered over who to let in, whether they can work, and if some should be housed in the homes of sanctioned oligarchs.

These people stain our flag with their small-minded, pettifogging and nakedly political approach in the face of this human catastrophe on our continent. It is all the more depressing to witness their behaviour from Ukraine as people unite to save their country, aid their fellow citizens,and battle the evils of dictatorship.

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