His name was Alex. Walking along the street, I saw him open the door of his car, stopped and asked him if he was from Ukraine. He was.
I’d seen the car several times before on this street and had noticed it’s UA blue and yellow flag identifier on the number plate. I often walk along this street with our dog, en route to the Heath, a large green open space, popular with dogs and their owners.
I spontaneously held out my hand and welcomed him to our small town; it seemed the least I could do after daily updates on the war and the news of power cuts and water shortages affecting the entire country amidst the endless arial bombardment from Russia.
Alex smiled, shook my hand and we talked. He’d come here to our small UK town with his wife and 6 year old son after getting out of Ukraine a month after it was invaded by Russia. He’d lived in Irpin, and before that, Kyiv. The house the family left, he said, was not badly damaged but neither was it good to live in, as it was close to many of the targeted areas which are regularly attacked. His mum is still there In Ukraine, and like many olde people, she doesn’t want to leave her home country. She’s caring for the family’s cat, which they decided not the bring, but their dog did come with them.
Alex talked freely about life in Uraine and news he gets from his family. He’s heard bad stories about Russian soldiers plundering and stealing from houses in occupied areas; a favourite desirable object for looting is ladies’ underwear – the mind boggles. The most distressing thing he told me was about the hungry, roaming cats and dogs which have been left behind. I almost didn’t want to hear about this, and it’s something which clearly disturbed him. Russian soldiers round up stray cats or dogs and shut them in a wardrobe or cupboard in a deserted house, but they rig up a grenade which explodes when the door is opened. And people, hearing their calls, open the door and they, and the trapped animals are all killed.
There is no doubt in my mind that this is evil. One of the many evils which are being played out in Putin’s war.
There was sadness in his face as he told me that their 11 year old dog, which they had brought to the UK with them, had become ill and died three months previously. I understand the loss of a pet who is a family member, and it crossed my mind that Alex, his family and countless others in Ukraine have lost so much. I hope a few of our locals have had, or will have, a chat with him, or his wife. Their son is doing well at school and I’m sure he and the family will be made welcome there. I told him I’d been a teacher. teaching children of similar age to his son.
He wanted to talk about the war – he’d lost a friend in this current war, he reminded me that Russia’s attacks on Ukraine have been going on for 8 years, when Crimea was annexed. He mentioned the recent news that a newborn baby had been killed in a recent attack on a hospital. At times, it feels hard here to keep up with the often appalling war news that we get; he gets it first hand from the feet on the ground, the people who are living through it, people in his family.
We touched on cultural differences between Russia and Ukraine – the language, the Slavic background of the country, even the music and national costume. Our conversation was wide ranging and I stopped at one point, asking if I was speaking too fast. His English is good and he said no, it was fine, he understood. All I could offer in return in his language was a supportive “Slava Ukraini”.
Alex said that both he and his wife have jobs, are coming to the end of their probabtionary period, and all seems to be going well. I hope, with Christmas approaching, they will find some joy and friendship here, but they will certainly miss their family in Ukraine.
We shook hands again before I went on my way, feeling humbled and enriched, and very glad I’d stopped and spoken to him. It was the highlight of my day to make this connection; I hope we meet again.
Cannon decorated with Ukraine colours and armed with flowers, grounds of Ely Cathedral, taken in May 2022