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War in Ukraine: A mother and daughter reunite in Belgium amid fears for family left behind
The harrowing crisis in Ukraine has claimed thousands of lives and led to millions of people fleeing their homes and seeking asylum in other parts of the world. Here in Belgium, diplomatic worker Yaroslava* made a 4,000km return journey by car to rescue her mother Inna from the Slovakia-Ukraine border.
Inna describes what happened when she and her husband Yuri woke one freezing morning in late February to the terrifying sound of gunfire, missiles and explosions. “We looked at each other and we both realised that war had begun,” she says. Their usually tranquil and leafy town, near the Ukraine capital of Kyiv, was immediately without heat, electricity and running water. “We all ran to fill cans of water, that is what we thought about first so that we could survive.”
“Then all we could hear was bombs and our once lovely town was being destroyed. It wasn’t just soldiers shooting at soldiers,” recalls Inna: “They were shooting at anyone they saw, it was terrible. Tanks were being driven and left in front of houses to stop people from driving away. They were stealing our food, our cars, everything. I cannot tell you how frightened we were.”
Yaroslava had visited her parents’ home from her adopted country of Belgium two weeks before the start of the war. She had a feeling of foreboding and tried to warn her parents. But they, like many others, thought the war would not happen and that Vladimir Putin was spouting empty threats: “I begged my parents to come back to Belgium with me so they could be safe, but they would not leave their lovely house and their dog and cat,” says Yaroslava. “I feared for them despite many saying Putin would not invade Ukraine. But I had that awful feeling that he would carry out his threats and send in troops to destroy our beautiful country.”
Men asked to stay and defend their country
When the invasion began, healthy men aged 18 to 60 were asked to stay behind and defend their country. Yuri’s mind was made up, he would stay and fight at all costs. Despite being Russian-born, there was no doubt where his heart lay. “My father moved from Russia when he was young and loves Ukraine so there is no doubt about it, he is Ukrainian in his soul,” says Yaroslava.
After many emotional telephone conversations, Yaroslava managed to convince her mother that the only solution was to leave. At first, Inna was reluctant to leave her husband behind. But drivers were being covertly recruited to transport mainly women and children to train stations, borders and the relative safety of the unoccupied western Ukraine. The plan was for Inna to escape to the nearest station by car. “If the car that rescued my mother had arrived at her house 20 minutes later, she would not have escaped,” says Yaroslava.
“My mother told me the Russians had surrounded the village and drivers were not able to go in or get out. It wasn’t safe for anyone to leave from that moment, if they did, they would probably die. The Russians were shooting at anyone they saw, children too,” she adds.
Desperate scenes as people try to escape by train
Inna left her home with a small bag and was safely delivered to the nearby station. She breaks down in tears when she describes the scenes she witnessed: “There was a mass of women and children everywhere, all without tickets wanting to go anywhere away from the fighting. They were on railway tracks, crying, packed together so closely at the station, just trying to stay upright, waiting desperately to get on the next train.”
“It was painful to see the difficulty disabled people had as they were pushing to get on to the trains. Some people were even trying to take their animals. Many were crying because they were cold, hungry, and like me, scared and worried about the safety of their loved ones they had to leave behind,” continues Inna.
She eventually reached the relative safety of western Ukraine and was able to telephone her daughter. The two were reunited following Yaroslava’s 2,000km drive by car across Europe: “The journey was made a lot better as I had a good friend who came with me, but I was very worried. I just drove and drove. My mother and I were so happy to see each other, we hugged and cried.”
Inna is now one of around two million people to have fled Ukraine and among around 2,000 refugees – the number is rising rapidly - in Belgium. Under EU law, refugees like Inna have been granted temporary protection, which means they can work and should qualify for income benefit.
Fears for family left behind
Although Inna is one of the lucky ones, now living in her daughter’s home, she fears for her husband and relatives who fight on. Only hope and prayers keep Inna and Yaroslava’s spirits positive each day and when they are lucky enough to reach Yuri by telephone, his reassuring attitude offers some temporary relief.
“My father says don’t worry, I am safe and well as he talks to us and keeps things very light. But we know he is only saying this so he doesn’t worry us too much. We know he’s in great pain from injuries and what his body has gone through with the fighting,” adds Yaroslava. “He is strong and brave and we are very proud of him and we are mostly crying because of this.”
Yaroslava’s aunt, uncle and their four-year-old child had been cocooned in the basement of her parents’ house along with the family pets. Constant worry for their safety blight the family’s daily lives. At the time of publishing, Yaroslava has heard that all three had been evacuated from the house, but she is still waiting for details about their current whereabouts.
Reflecting on the international reaction to the war, she says: “Countries like the UK and Belgium are helping refugees like my mother, but we need to stop the Russians by closing and protecting our skies. But the West will not have a no-fly zone at the moment. My mother is safe with me but it’s terrible to see our beautiful country occupied and destroyed like this. I do think we need military help from across the world if we are going to stop this war but we will wait and see. How many people will die, how many more people will suffer before this war ends?”
*Due to fear for the safety of relatives in Ukraine, the family have asked for their names to be changed
Photo: Protest action outside Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the UN in Brussels © Belga/Juliette Bruynseels