Today marks a year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Tragically, during the last 12 months, the war has claimed the lives of thousands of people, with millions displaced, fleeing their homes, and seeking safety. As a Ukrainian herself, our Ukraine Project Manager, Ilona Oleksiuk, reflects on an unimaginably difficult year and looks ahead to the future with hope.
“Today is a year since my life, like the lives of millions of Ukrainians, changed forever. One terrible morning that does not end for 365 days. On February 24 2022, the war found me in bed. Explosions, panic on the street, huge queues in stores and petrol stations. My world became like a horrible nightmare.
“I heard of people running away to their relatives in quiet villages, of people leaving the country quickly with a single suitcase and children in their arms. I did not understand what was happening, but I knew that life would not be the same again.
“What did I feel during these days? At first there was fear, then anger and the desire to fight, and then the war became normalised. One day, when I realised that shelling and bombing didn’t scare me anymore, I decided to move to another country with my child.
“Now I understand that people fleeing war are people who have lost their sense of fear. They are no longer afraid to go to another country, they are not afraid that someone can take advantage of their vulnerability, because they have seen war.
This knowledge helps me every day in my work. I am lucky to lead a project that helps keep Ukrainians safe at STOP THE TRAFFIK, an organisation that works against human trafficking around the world.
“There are millions of people around the world who are forced to flee their homes to save their lives. I am not alone, there are millions of us. People who only want safety for their children and families. Every day our team and I continue to fight for them, for their safety. I am glad to be a part of this big struggle.
“A month ago, I went to Ukraine for the Christmas holidays. Of course, I was worried before the journey. At that time in Ukraine there was no light and heat for hours and it was still dangerous to be there.
“The trip was peaceful, but psychologically difficult. It seems that the city was the same as before. In the morning, when I woke up, it even seemed to me that it was all a terrible dream. But then I felt the cold reality. Some days there was no light for 8-9 hours, the streets were empty and dark after 6 pm, the dead silence was interrupted only by the sound of generators, which were the only source of energy. There are almost no friends left in the city, some have also gone abroad, some are defending the country in the east. Everything is different.
“When I returned in UK, the queues at the Polish border were still long. I witnessed many people in similar situations. Someone, like me, was returning to Europe after the Christmas weekend, someone was leaving for the first time because he could not stand the lack of light and the Russian attacks, someone was going to visit relatives or friends, and someone else, like me, alone in a country where they had never been before. All different destinies but connected by a common grief – war.
“I sat in the car and thought how I want everyone to return to Ukraine – to a new European country that won the war. I want the next generations to be happy, travel, fall in love, build new families at home. I want guests from other countries to come to us and marvel at this beauty. I want everyone to feel safe in Ukraine.”
Ilona leads our Ukraine prevention programmes which run in 19 countries and have reached over 4 million people to date. We have evidenced impact on the traffickers’ business model across various routes in Europe and more on this work can be read in our impact report here.