War in Ukraine: The Scotsman revisits Ukraine experiences from week one of the conflict

Six months on from the first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, world editor Jane Bradley catches up with Ukrainians she spoke to in the early days of the conflict.

When Russia invaded Ukraine six months ago, journalists across the world began to scrabble for information – both from official sources, but also directly from the people who were living through the atrocity.

No-one had expected the sheer scale of the invasion, with even those living in western Ukraine – hundreds of miles away from the conflict, which had been going on in the Donetsk region for eight years – reporting hearing shelling in those early days. Nowhere felt safe.

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Dariya Yakovenko was the first person in Ukraine who I spoke to – on the second day of the war. A friend of a friend, she called me on WhatsApp from a Metro station platform in Kharkiv, where she was sheltering with her parents and elderly grandmother as their city came under attack. At the time, we did not name her, unsure about what repercussions there could be for Ukrainians speaking out about the attacks.

Varvara has taken up wild swimming since she came to Scotland.Varvara has taken up wild swimming since she came to Scotland.
Varvara has taken up wild swimming since she came to Scotland.

Her story resonated with a lot of readers, mainly, I think, because it revealed her as an ordinary young woman living in an ordinary city, doing the things that all of us here do every day – until her life was turned upside down on February 24.

She had explained to me how, on her way home from her job at Kharkiv Airport the night before the invasion, she had considered stopping to buy herself a treat of takeaway sushi for dinner, but decided to be sensible and use up the leftovers in her fridge instead.

"I really regret that now,” she told me from her make-shift bomb shelter, where she lived for days on a few handfuls of nuts and dried fruit, demonstrating the humour, resilience and pragmatism which I have since come to realise are national characteristics of Ukrainians.

Earlier this week, I met her in person. After sticking out the first five months of the war in Ukraine – fleeing with her parents and elderly grandmother from Kharkiv first to a small village in the west of the country and then on to Kyiv – the constant air raid alerts had taken their toll. Ms Yakovenko, 35, decided to take up the chance of a place with a sponsor in London through the Homes for Ukraine scheme, having moved there last month. She met me while on a trip to Scotland, visiting our mutual friend.

Dariya spent the first five months of the war in Ukraine, then moved to London.Dariya spent the first five months of the war in Ukraine, then moved to London.
Dariya spent the first five months of the war in Ukraine, then moved to London.

"When you are there, you think you feel OK, that it is normal,” she explains, as we sit drinking coffee on the terrace at The Scotsman’s offices, overlooking Edinburgh Castle. It feels very surreal to think where she had been the last time we spoke. “Then you come here and you realise that it is not normal, you are not OK.”

Concerned what we regard as a much-loved tradition could feel very different to someone who has recently left a war zone, I warn her about the ‘One O’clock Gun’. She tells me about an experience she had in London when she visited a museum that included an exhibition about the Second World War. When the air raid sirens sounded as part of the installation, she found herself overwhelmed and had to leave.

While still in Kyiv, she started a new job, working for a corporate travel company in Ukraine, which she is able to continue remotely from London. Among other duties, she is responsible for booking travel for the Ukrainian football team, including their transport and hotels in Glasgow for their match against Scotland in September.

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Yet, although she feels very lucky with her hosts – they are a friendly young couple with a small baby who apparently never cries – life as a refugee is uncertain. And on a Ukrainian salary, renting independently in London is not an option.

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"I can never plan ahead,” she says, mentioning an event our friend had suggested she book tickets for with him, which is taking place in November. “How do I know where I will be in November, what I’ll be doing? I am with my hosts now and they are wonderful, but their situation could change. They might not feel they want someone else living in their house.

"It feels very different, being forced to leave my home. It would be one thing if I had just decided to get a job abroad for a year. This is very different.”

I was also lucky enough to catch up this week with someone else who I spoke to early on in the war. Varvara Shevtsova was one of the first Ukrainian refugees to arrive in Scotland under the Homes for Ukraine scheme in April. A remarkable teenager, with drive, ambition and determination, Ms Shevtsova has quickly established a life for herself in Scotland.

She is about to start a Masters degree in social work at Dundee University. Ms Shevtsova has made close friends near to her host family in Montrose and is an active member of a local wild swimming club. She is making the most of the opportunities that living in Scotland can bring her.

“My life is definitely different now, but I can see that the difficult situation gave me so many opportunities,” she says. "I love my community in Montrose, I will miss it [when I go to Dundee].

“Everyone is so friendly. They stop me on the street to chat and Scotland is such an open minded place. No-one judges me on how I look, or anything else.”

Her biggest concern is for her parents, who have been separated since the beginning of the war. Her father, who is bound by law to remain in Ukraine, volunteered for the emergency services when war broke out and is now studying to turn that job into a paid career. Her mother, who left with Varvara for Germany, is still there, where she is caring for elderly relatives.

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“I am 19, it is normal for me to separate from my parents to some extent,” she says. “But my mum wants to go back to Ukraine. She misses my dad and she misses me. She is in her early 60s. She had to separate from her husband, not because she wanted to, but because of war. It is difficult.”

Ms Yakovenko and Ms Shevtsova’s stories are just a snapshot of the lives of refugees who have left their homes to seek safety in the UK.

Other people I have spoken to since February include a mother who arrived in Scotland to find herself trapped in a tiny hotel room with her two children, the room so small they were forced to take turns to stand up. There have been others worrying about whether they should keep their children studying in online school in Ukraine, or give up hope the war will be over soon and throw themselves into integrating their children into the Scottish education system, while their fathers remain thousands of miles away, fighting in a war zone.

Another woman I met, a Ukrainian university student in St Andrews, awaited daily messages to reassure her of the safety of her mother, who was teaching English to children in bomb shelters as the attacks continued.

From Ukraine itself, I have heard the harrowing tales of families caught up in the atrocities in Bucha, which was ravaged by Russia troops – and those of aid workers risking everything to get clean water to cut off communities in occupied areas.

Like every single person in Scotland, every single person in Ukraine has a human story, some of which have been my privilege to tell. Yet there are many, many others which we have not yet heard.



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