As the world marks one year since the Russia-Ukraine war erupted, expatriates from the war-torn country living in the UAE wait on news from loved ones as Russian shelling continues to bombard their homes.
There are some 25,000 Ukrainians who now call the UAE home – a number that has soared since Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, leading to the widespread displacement of millions who have fled the country.
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In the UAE, Ukrainians described the psychological toll the one-year conflict has taken on their mental health.
Among those is Yevheniy Semenov, a 29-year-old software engineer.
While he has lived in the UAE for almost a decade, his family remains in Ukraine. He spoke of the bravery and solidarity Ukrainians have shown in the face of war.
“It has been 365 days since the beginning of the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine,” said Semenov.
“After a full year of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war, the Ukrainian people have provided the world with an impressive example of courage, resilience, bravery, intelligence and unity, in the face of a cruel and numerically superior enemy.”
He continued, “All my family stayed in Ukraine willing to help Ukrainians to go through these difficult times.”
‘A year of brutality’
The hand of Iryna Filkina, a woman who according to residents was killed by Russian army soldiers, is pictured as her body lies on the street, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Bucha, Kyiv region, Ukraine, April 2, 2022. (Reuters)
The past 12 months have been marred by acts of brutality against the Ukrainian people, he said.
“Clearly the situation is terrible in Ukraine,” he told Al Arabiya English. “The horrific massacres in Bucha and Izyum, the mass murder of people in Mariupol, barbaric missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and critical infrastructure are manifestations of this war.”
“Despite all, Ukrainians stay strong and united.”
Semenov said, one year ago, days before the war – and amid rumblings that a conflict was imminent – he had prayed the invasion would not happen.
“I had big hopes that the war would not start,” he recalled. “Because I knew the resistance Ukrainians are ready to display to defend our homes.”
“And this was confirmed by the millions of volunteers to the Armed Forces during the first days and by billions (of dollars) in collections for different aid campaigns,” he said.
As an expat in the UAE, Semenov said he – and his fellow Ukrainians – are grateful to the UAE President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed for the country’s continued aid and assistance to their war-torn nation.
“This includes order of over $100 million for food, medical supplies, ambulances and thousands of generators as well as providing a one-year-residency permit to all Ukrainians in need,” he noted.
As the war continues into a second year, Semenov says his ongoing fear is the rising number of lives the war continues to claim, as he said an end to the conflict is needed for the good of the wider world.
“My biggest concern is that this war takes lives of thousands and injures [and] impacts millions, especially children,” he said.
“This is a huge tragedy not only for Ukraine, but for the whole world. And the more it goes, the more it continues, the more difficult recovery will be.”
“It is clear that Ukraine’s victory will guarantee not only local, but also global stability, which was smashed during the last year. Food security, better economic conditions will bring a better future for all.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to launch a full-scale re-invasion of Ukraine one year ago was a global shock which has led to the displacement of millions of people and the deaths of thousands and triggered the biggest confrontation with the West since the depths of the Cold War.
Ukrainian servicemen of the 17th Independent Tanks Brigade are seen in front of a T-64 tank, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, near the frontline town of Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on February 23, 2023. (Reuters)
The year-long conflict has not only threatened the stability of Europe but impacted food and energy security globally – including in the Middle East and Africa – and created shockwaves in a world barely on the pathway to recovery following the COVID-19 pandemic.
A conflict that has shaped Ukraine
The conflict continues to also shape the everyday lives of Ukrainians scattered around the world, who watch in fear from afar the devastation unfolding across their country.
Anna Chumak a 32-year-old HR and operations Manager in the UAE, continues to feel the toll, and said it brought back memories of 2014 when the international conflict between Ukraine and Russia began.
“In 2014 I lost my house in Donetsk; I remember that time very well. That is when I left to Dubai from Donetsk airport and thought I can never come back again,” she told Al Arabiya English.
“That time, my parents lived 90 kilometers from Donetsk, and for a few months, they stayed in Central Ukraine as the Russian invasion was in our region. They came back home and started once again to live a new life.”
A Ukrainian national flag flies in front of a destroyed residential building amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Borodianka, Kyiv region, Ukraine, February 18, 2023.
However, a year ago her family was once again uprooted.
“Again in 2022 my parents left their home and have stayed almost one year in Western Ukraine,” she said. “We are not lucky to have such neighbor.”
As the war enters its second year, Chumak said she always expected the invasion would last a while. She said the only solution is for the Russian army to surrender and leave Ukraine.
“But I also understood that Putin will not do it fast,” she added.
“At the same time, [there] was always some hope inside me that the war can suddenly end.”
Families torn apart
Another Ukrainian expat, who asked to be referred to only as Olena, has been living in the UAE for 12 years.
Her family has been torn apart by the Russian invasion.
“Originally I am from Kharkiv, the eastern part of Ukraine which borders Russia; that’s the place where my whole family used to live prior to February 24, 2022,” said the 33-year-old, who works in the financial sector. “Since the first day of the full-scale invasion my family got split – my brother joined the army, and my father was volunteering and evacuating people.”
Meanwhile, her mother and sister-in-law headed to the Western border areas with her three-year-old niece so they could leave the country 13 days after the war started.
Many of her friends also remain in Ukraine and live under constant threat of being shelled, she said.
“Although some of my friends remain in Kharkiv, even the daily air sirens, warning of the approaching rockets attacks, don’t appear convincing enough to make them leave,” she said. “Despite extremely tough living conditions, including severe electricity and water supply shortages, many of [my] friends chose to stay and contribute to the resistance forces.”
She added: “Psychologically it is a very difficult time for the entire Ukrainian nation – we didn’t seek this war and the past year hasn’t made it easier to process the fact we are forced to defend our freedom.”
“What gives us significant support is a thought of being united, consolidated and strong together; this feeling is truly priceless.”
Olena said she and her fellow Ukrainians just want the war to end. She said she did not expect the war to last so long.
“I relied on my brother’s feedback that [the] Ukrainian army was prepared to resist to its full capacity and for as long as it might take,” she said. “But I still had hidden hopes that the common sense would prevail and Russia’s troops would be withdrawn once they realize that we are an independent nation who doesn’t welcome and tolerate occupants and that every single Ukrainian will fight the invaders by any means.”
“My biggest concern is that Ukraine is forced to mourn its best, bravest and most honorable sons and daughters who stood up to defend our motherland with [a] weapon in hands.”
“It’s a big tragedy and my deepest pain is that these people will not be in the bright Ukrainian future but will forever remain in our hurtful memory.”
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