DUBAI/JEDDAH: The world woke up Thursday morning to news of a full-scale Russian invasion of neighboring Ukraine. It was the beginning of another conflict that would surely be followed by destruction, suffering, displacement and death.
In a televised address on February 21, Russian President Vladimir Putin justified the attack by saying it was defending the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine. He said the leaders of the two separatist regions asked Moscow for military assistance against Kiev after Putin recognized their independence that day.
For Ukrainians working in Arab countries, distance has provided security from the dangers of life in a war zone, but it has done little to ease their fears while their families and friends remain in danger tens of thousands of miles away.
Mia, a 26-year-old Ukrainian who moved from Kyiv to Jounieh, Lebanon in 2018, doesn’t need to scroll through her smartphone to get updates from her home country. She has been receiving constant text messages and calls from her loved ones who are now caught in the line of fire in the cities.
“I text my parents and friends throughout the night just to make sure they get through. I get very anxious when a text message takes longer to deliver because I immediately think of the worst that my parents and younger brother might have been killed,” Mia, who only gave her first name, told Arab News.
“My parents and my 12-year-old brother live in an underground air-raid shelter. You’ve never hurt anyone in your life. We didn’t deserve this,” she said
Still, Mia feels the war brought out the best in Ukrainians back home. “Today I am proud to be Ukrainian. I am proud of my family, my people and my President,” she said. “May we see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
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Much like Mia, the life of Alissa Alchimali, a Kuwait-based Lebanese-Ukrainian whose family and friends are now scattered across Kiev, has been filled with stress, anxiety and worry lately. They have abandoned their homes and belongings while seeking shelter from falling shells and mortars, she told Arab News. Some of them have fled to rural areas in search of safety.
Alchimali, who has lived and worked in the Gulf state for more than four years, said her mother is safe in Beirut but the rest of her extended family are now internally displaced in Ukraine. She said she and her mother worry about their loved ones all day when they hear about rockets hitting populated areas in Kyiv and other major Ukrainian cities.
“Everyone I know has fled their homes, looking for shelter near the border or in bomb shelters in their city,” she told Arab News.
“My godmother’s family left home in daylight hoping to reach a town near the (Polish) border. But while they were halfway, bombs started falling, forcing them to take shelter in a nearby town and sleep on a stranger’s couch.”
Alchimali added: “It’s stressful because you don’t know what’s going to happen or where they’re going to strike next. It seems like the enemy forces are attacking this place wherever people go. Even rural areas that would be considered untargetable are unsafe.”
Bombarded by news of the war from social media feeds, Alchimali is forced to add a new chore to her daily routine: checking on family and friends morning and night. She said she hears stories of congested roads, dwindling food supplies, empty supermarket shelves and miles of petrol queues.
“People are in a real panic mode,” she told Arab News, adding that it was a great relief every time she saw the news: “We’re fine. We are still alive.”
For Iryna, a 29-year-old resident of Dubai, the war in her home country has forced her to keep looking for news about her extended family. Her family is originally from central Ukraine and lives in cities in the east and west of the country.
She said her mother is in Kuzmintsi, a small village southwest of the capital near the border with Moldova, while her father is in Kiev. An aunt and uncle are in Vasylkiv, a small province outside of Kiev that was recently bombed.
“My family had to move to an air raid shelter in Metro Sportu in Kiev. Having a family in different cities across the country is quite unusual for Ukrainians. I was hoping that something like this would never happen,” said Iryna, who also only gave her first name.
“I knew the Russians were moving their troops to our borders, but we all thought they were just trying to scare us like they had before. I’ve read reports of ambassadors being evacuated, but I was skeptical even then
“I didn’t think my hometown would be mugged at 5 a.m. without notice. We had hoped that the public outcry and sanctions would deter the intruders. But now it seems they can bomb, attack and invade any country without consequence.”
Iryna said her uncle in Poland heeded President Volodymyr Zelenksy’s appeal to Ukrainians abroad to return and take up arms in defense of the country.
“We always think war can never come to us, but look at Syria, Bosnia and now Ukraine,” she told Arab News. “It’s only a matter of time before we know who’s next. The political views, ignorance and indifference of the people strengthen their governments. It’s very nice to be silent.
“What is happening to Ukraine is such a disgrace. But then again, nothing is forever.”
Weeks of diplomacy failed to deter Russia, which massed more than 150,000 troops on Ukraine’s borders in what the West described as Europe’s biggest military buildup since World War II.
Western allies had first imposed some sanctions on Russia, then followed on Thursday with vows to try to severely punish Russia economically.