• Pantemeinolivs’ka, 76, Odesa, Ukraine, 65000

“Last Saturday was different.”

Trafalgar Square, London, 24 February 2024, photo by author

by Sophie Watson

The author has spent many months volunteering in Ukraine with Dignity Aid International and other organizations around the country. She now lives in the UK, helps remotely with DAI social media, and — well, read on:

Trafalgar Square could not feel further away from the realities of a brutal (and sometimes seemingly endless) war. The double-decker buses speed past Nelson’s Column, the weary commuters are heading homewards in their continuous stream, and the vapour of the square’s famous fountain catches the fading sunlight as it always has. 

But last Saturday was different from the many that came before it in one important way. Last Saturday was the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and the square was full of Ukrainian flags and Ukrainian voices. As I joined the throng of people, a man raised his hand to greet an arriving friend, calling his name with startled warmth. Oleksiy! For the first time since returning to England, I was surrounded by Ludas and Sashas, Mishas and Viktors. Young mothers clutched the hands of small children, who were far more interested in playing with their battered action figures than listening to the speakers on the small stage. The square was so packed that I could take no more than a few steps at a time as I tried to get a better view. 

There were English voices too – a young rabbi, splendid in his regalia, talking passionately in a London accent; an elderly gentleman moved quite suddenly by some strong emotion to cry out Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine!), his voice carrying above the crowd in an accent from the home counties. There were groups of English-speaking people – students, the elderly, the middle-aged, journalists – but they did not make up the thousands who filled the square. Although the day was a chance for the British public to show their support, it belonged to the nearly eighteen thousand Ukrainian refugees who are thought to have settled in London alone since February 24th, 2022. For a moment, surrounded by familiar voices, they might have been in Kyiv or Odesa, Kharkiv or Mariupol.

It has been two long, hard years for them. When I was last in Ukraine, the Ukrainian government had launched a counteroffensive and they were liberating villages. Helping out on a humanitarian aid delivery to villages along the frontline, I met a family in the Donetsk region who had survived the Russian occupation of their village. The roads were full of broken furniture and mountains of empty vodka bottles, a legacy of the time when enemy soldiers had taken possession of their homes. The mother of the family, an elderly lady I’ll call Olga, told me how she had been a missionary in her youth – she took part in the emergency response to Chernobyl, a nuclear disaster that exposed thousands of people to fatal radiation in the latter days of the Soviet Union. She then returned to her village, met her husband, and raised four children before it was captured by the invading army. The Russians locked all six of them in their basement for two months while they ate their food and slept in their beds, allowing them out just four times before they were liberated in October 2022. Olga showed me the pump in their garden where she was forced at gunpoint to wash the soldiers’ uniforms, as well as the muddy crater from the shell that scattered the crops in their kitchen garden and destroyed their small outhouse. When I visited in July, there was no functioning shop in the village and there had been no aid deliveries for several weeks. As summer turned to winter, it was not clear how they were going to find food or even heat their house. The village was still under continuous shelling.

Ukraine is full of these stories – and its refugees, who number nearly six and a half million globally, carry their own tales of suffering and loss with them. In Kherson, itself a frontline city which endured Russian occupation, I met a woman called Tania who was originally from Mariupol. She showed me the waterline on the wall inside her second floor apartment building, which came up to above my knees. When Russian forces destroyed the Nova-Kakhovka dam in June 2023, they unleashed a wave that turned riverside villages into islands, affected over a hundred settlements, and flooded over two thousand square kilometres, much of which was farmland. 

For those who choose to leave Ukraine altogether, the war might be further away but it is no less real. Under the British government’s Homes for Ukraine visa scheme, over 200,000 Ukrainians have been granted entry to our country, yet the longer the war continues the more vulnerable they become. A report published last Friday revealed that over 4800 Ukrainian households participating in the scheme had become homeless by August last year. Even for many families in stable situations, the rising cost of living (and two years of being forced to rely on the generosity of others) are taking their toll. It is their home they want, but the counteroffensive that began so hopefully last summer has stalled. As the world’s attention turns to other, no less painful conflicts (and both the UK and the US enter an election year) our governments continue to pledge their support to Ukraine – but they do seem slower to commit their resources.

In Trafalgar Square, a procession of speakers addressed the crowd from the small black stage. Orthodox priests, Ukrainian musicians and artists-in-exile, refugees, British union reps reaching out to their Ukrainian counterparts, and a series of minor politicians – all affirming their solidarity with Ukraine and their support for them in this war. I was beginning to think about making a dash for my train as the sun dipped behind the buildings, when the wail of an air raid siren pierced the air. I must have heard it a hundred times before, in Odesa and Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson. It can be quiet for days at a time in the big cities, only for there to be several alerts a day (and night) in the weeks that follow. For a moment I felt the same rush of awareness at the sound as I always did then, though my eyes were resting not on Odesa’s Opera House but London’s National Gallery. In the time it took for a shiver to go down my spine, a voice joined the siren – and I recognised it as the beginning of a song being played over the rented sound system. SHUMEI, a Ukrainian artist, sampled the sound of air raid sirens for his song  ‘Tривога’ (‘Alert’), released in the first months of the full-scale war.

Photos by author, 24 February 2024

The war goes on. In the wake of its second anniversary, it is vital to remember the sacrifices made by so many who have paid the ultimate price for one nation’s aggression, and the countless others who bear its scars, visibly and otherwise. Civilians, soldiers, journalists and aid workers have lost their lives and will continue to do so until the war is won. While the US and Western Europe remain hesitant to ‘escalate’ the conflict by offering more military support, the men and women of Ukraine’s armed forces are outgunned and outmanned. Over ten percent of the population is displaced, the economy is in freefall, supply lines for basic necessities such as food and hygiene products are disrupted, and both soldiers and civilians are running out of disposable income. There seems to be no end in sight for them, nor for the crowds of Ukrainians standing in Trafalgar Square this Saturday – who do not know when it will be safe for them to return home or what will be left of it when they do. A line from Tolkien comes to mind: “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

The answer, if there is any answer, is something rather than nothing. We are a small NGO, without government funding or the resources of large international organisations, but the donations we receive are spent on humanitarian aid. You can find details of our projects (including civil society initiatives to support the Odesa Psychiatric Hospital and Ukrainian men’s mental health, as well as humanitarian aid deliveries to de-occupied and struggling villages closer to the frontline) on our Instagram and Facebook. If you would like to support our work directly, you can donate at the links below.

Dignity Aid International (paypal.com)

Dignity Aid International: Help Ukrainians … | Fundly