Grieving Ukrainian mother finds refuge in UK, but little solace

Grieving Ukrainian mother finds refuge in UK, but little solace

LONDON (AP) — The small English village that Viktoria Kovalenko now calls home is peaceful, sleepy — a far cry from the fighting in Ukraine that killed her family. A terrible, unexpected blow. His memory is a different matter.

“It is a condition that I cannot control. Sometimes everything seems fine. Sometimes I cry for no reason,” she told The Associated Press from her home in Kent, southeast England.

“What happened to my husband and my daughter will stay with me for the rest of my life,” she added. “Impossible to cure.”

Kovalenko, 34, watched her husband Petro and 12-year-old daughter Veronika die in northern Ukraine last March when a shell hit their car. Kovalenko survived, along with her then 1-year-old baby Varvara, but Russian soldiers held them captive in a school basement for three weeks.

Almost a year later, Kovalenko has a temporary new home thanks to the kindness of volunteers who helped him cross the border and apply for a UK visa.

Like thousands of other Ukrainians who have fled to Britain, he is slowly adjusting to his new life in the UK, his English improving by the day. She is busy looking after Varvara, now 2, who runs around without fear and loves British chocolate. He shares his shelter with his brother, his wife and their two young daughters, who escape unharmed.

But Kovalenko still recovers when he talks about Petro and Veronika or looks at their framed picture by his bed. And every day he wants to return to the city of Chernihiv, the city he fled to when the war broke out last February.

After the shell landed on March 5, 2022, killing Petro and Veronika, Viktoria Kovalenko and Varvara hid in an abandoned building, but the next day Russian soldiers took them to a gym in the basement of a school. Mothers and children were held there for 24 days, about 300 including 2-month-old babies, as well as elderly villagers who later died in captivity.

“It was very crowded, it was always dark and dirty. There was no fresh air. People were sick and coughing, some slept on the floor or on chairs or even stood against the wall,” Kovalenko recalled. “It can be said that we were lucky because the soldiers who held us were not soldiers who were from (Kiev suburbs) Bucha, Irpin or elsewhere, who killed everyone in succession.”

When the Russians retreated from the area in early April, Kovalenko broke out and later found his way to the western city of Lviv, then to Poland, where he joined his brother and his family.

It was in Poland that a volunteer arrived and offered to help him find asylum in the UK. The volunteer was working with Derek Edwards, a Briton who set up Homes for Ukraine shortly after the war broke out, to help transport dozens of refugees to safe housing in England. for Edwards read the AP article on Kovalenko’s story and decided to help.

Kovalenko said she knew nothing about the UK, but decided to go anyway because she thought moving would help her process her grief.

“I just wanted something new, to constantly change the situation around me,” he said. “I thought I could escape the evil thoughts. But it didn’t help much.”

In December, six months after Edwards first submitted his visa request, Kovalenko finally arrived in Kent. Edwards took Kovalenko and his relatives out of Poland and, with the help of church officials, found him a former vicar’s home. He sees quiet country lanes, village greens and old brick houses, everyday luxuries that the British take for granted.

But all he could think about was going back to his apartment block in Chernihiv. By the end of the year, the war could be over, he said optimistically. Then, she said, she can resume therapy, find a job and rebuild her life.

“Ukraine will not be able to win this alone,” Kovalenko said. “If the whole world … gave us more weapons now, perhaps the war would end sooner.”

“I hope that by the time I can go to work – when Varvara grows up – I will return to Ukraine,” he added. “It’s not because I don’t like it here, but it’s not at home.”


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