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From Ukraine to Llanwrtyd, Svitlana’s story

This is not my story, this is Svitlana’s.  Well she wrote it.  It’s hers and her mum, Zoya’s and her son, Pasha’s story.
It’s also her husband Denis’s story. And the story of all those who live in or have fled Ukraine.  It’s the story of real families, from any populations who’s countries are being stolen by other countries leaders dragging them into war .

It’s a story of friendship and connection.  One of care and compassion.  Of newfound friendships and faith in human kindness, whilst the worst atrocities are being inflicted by dictators under the cloak of fake rhetoric to hide their own narcissistic, egotist greed.

At the heart of every war are real people.  Innocent victims.

It’s a story of hope amongst heartache.  One from which lessons should be learned, but, as history shows us, never are.  Yet one that is inflicted on populations and families, the elderly, women, children, boys and men in the name of sovereignty, but always with a reality based on property, politics, delusion and greed.  Usually as the result of a very few overly powerful individuals, and generally, not from the will of the masses.  More often than not the populations controlled by the leaders of or enemies are not in agreement with the actions of them.  Or wouldn’t be, if they had access to both sides of the story.

I remember Zoya , crying when she first met us.  She had grown up in Russia.  They were taught that we in the west might look similar or the same but we did not have hearts and we lacked the capacity for love and compassion.  She was terrified to come here and more than a little taken aback when greeted with hugs, tears, warmth and kindness, not just from John and I but the whole community.  Pretty much everyone that she met.

From Ukraine to Llanwrtyd, this is Svitlana’s story,  I’ve copied it here in case the link ever disappears, but if it works, follow it for the pictures that go alongside it.  As we all know, a picture paints a thousand words.  The few pictures in here are my own, of her family celebrating with mine, in our little Welsh community.

Life in two suitcases: how I escaped from the war in Ukraine

Svitlana Frolova marks the second anniversary of war in Ukraine by telling her story – swapping broadcast journalism in Kharkiv for baking cakes in Llanwrtyd Wells

Almost every Ukrainian knows today how an entire life fits into one or two suitcases. Because most of us had to run. Some to the basement of a neighbouring building, some to safer cities in the western part of the country (although frankly speaking, there are still no absolutely safe places in Ukraine), some far abroad. In May 2022, with my mother and six-year-old son, I ran all the way to Wales. From the city of Kharkiv, with a population of one and a half million, to the smallest town in Great Britain – Llanwrtyd Wells.

We have been living here for almost two years. During this time, I have learned to smile again, to taste food, to plan more than two days ahead. But during this time, I still haven’t learned: not to scroll through the news feed on my phone every hour, not to flinch at the loud sound of planes overhead, not to panic when social media reports explosions back home.

My name is Svitlana. I am 43 years old. I am from Ukraine, from the city of Kharkiv. On the second anniversary of the start of the full-scale war, I will tell you my escape story.

On February 24, 2022, like millions of Ukrainians, I woke up at five in the morning to the sound of explosions. I rushed to the balcony and saw a huge fiery mushroom on the horizon. There were no doubts – the war had begun. Within a few minutes, browsing the news, we realised that it was everywhere. Kyiv and Sumy, Chernihiv and Odesa, Kherson and Zhytomyr were all being bombed. I had watched documentaries and films with horrific scenes from the Second World War: destroyed houses, overcrowded train stations of those eager to flee, the loud sounds of fighter planes overhead. But even for a moment, I couldn’t imagine that all this could be seen again. In Europe, in the twenty-first century. And we, Ukrainians, were witnessing it live.

From my hometown of Kharkiv, where I was born and lived my whole life, to the border with Russia is 24.1 miles. A missile from enemy territory reaches here in 30 seconds. Therefore, even the ‘air raid’ signal doesn’t activate in time. Today, Kharkiv remains one of the most dangerous cities in Ukraine.

We spent a week with family and friends in my mother’s basement, hearing salvoes of Grad rockets and missiles, which made the earth tremble. And the piercing sound of fighter jets dropping bombs. It is still the scariest sound I have heard in my life.

While the internet and electricity were working, we got all our news from social media. The city was almost under curfew round the clock, meaning going out onto the street was prohibited. During the day, only grocery stores were open in some places.

During these seven days, we saw: how enemy sabotage and reconnaissance teams broke into the city; how two missiles destroyed the largest square in Europe – Freedom Square; how the President addressed us from the courtyard in the centre of Kyiv; and how endless queues formed at military enlistment offices across the country of those willing to defend Ukraine.

After a week of almost constant stay in the basement, we couldn’t bear the daily bombings anymore and, gathering a couple of suitcases, headed towards Western Ukraine. Back then, it seemed to us that it wouldn’t last long, that in a few days, or at most weeks, we would return home. No one made plans for more than a couple of days.

When two months had passed since the start of the full-scale war, I realised that we needed to move on. There were several reasons, but the main one was my six-year-old boy, who desperately needed to preserve his childhood: communicating with friends, morning runs to school, the joy of riding a bike or receiving gifts at Christmas.

It was then that I heard from acquaintances about the Homes for Ukraine programme introduced by the United Kingdom. Thousands of families in the UK offered us their homes, assistance, and the opportunity to feel safe.

In April 2022, after writing a few posts on Facebook about myself and my family, I immediately received offers from potential hosts. I don’t know why, but the first time I saw John Crompton and Berni Benton online, I felt that they would become our new family. This smiling couple from Wales made a short video about their guest house in a luxuriously large garden.

at Ysgol Dolafon Just three weeks later, my son Pasha, my mother Zoya and I covered 1200 miles of Europe by car, crossed the English Channel, and found ourselves in the ‘middle of nowhere’, as the locals jokingly call their location in the very heart of Wales.

To be honest, after the huge, almost one and a half million-strong Kharkiv, landing in the town of Llanwrtyd Wells with a population of 850 people was a bit unusual. But very quickly, I understood why it was so easy to be happy here.

pasha and john celebrating the golden jubileeSmall communities equal huge care and support. We felt it almost from the first minutes. Upon our arrival, a school uniform and a bicycle for my son were already waiting for us, brought by strangers, along with a huge amount of toys, a book in Ukrainian and Welsh, found for us by Berni, and a bouquet of flowers on the table.

Svitlana, Zoya, Pasha and John, choosing a Christmas tree for their first Xmas with usAt first, it was strange to greet every person on the street and smile at passers-by. Big cities are very different with their indifference: many people, little time, and a bunch of problems. So, a passer-by’s smile in London or Birmingham is surprising. In Llanwrtyd, it’s a way of life that we quickly got used to and liked. From the very first day, my son Pasha went to the local school, Ysgol Dôlafon, where he still happily runs every morning. He has made a bunch of new friends and learned good English, which he started from scratch. He practises judo (and has already received his first red belt), draws in an art club, and swims in the pool.

A 7th birthday for Pasha not long after arriving hereAnd Wales offers incredible landscapes right nearby and countless trails for hiking enthusiasts. The only thing I still can’t get used to here is the fighter jets overhead. On the very first day, we were warned that there was a military base nearby and it might get loud. But even today, when pilots are training in the sky, I flinch every time. I understand that these are ‘friendly’ aircraft, but I can’t help it. For me, it’s the most terrifying sound of war.

In Llanwrtyd, I quickly found a job: I walked into The Neuadd Arms Hotel and asked if my help would be useful. I was immediately told: yes, we really need you. I started working as a waitress and helped cleaning rooms. Later, the hotel owner heard that I love making desserts and asked me to bake something according to a Ukrainian recipe. The next day, an announcement about Svitlana’s Ukrainian Cake appeared on the specials board. Today, I help cook in the kitchen, and almost all the desserts of our restaurant are made by me.

Zoya's birthdayOne thing that has been troubling me since the move is how I can help Ukraine and my hometown of Kharkiv. Today, every Ukrainian donates to the army: it’s a norm of our life. In Llanwrtyd Wells, it looked quite difficult because here we are the only Ukrainian refugees. The nearest communities that unite those who fled from the war are far away.

But even here, baking came to my rescue. In Llanwrtyd, as well as the Neuadd Arms, there’s a cafe with a whole window of desserts. So, I approached the owner of the establishment and offered to bake sweets for them. Part of the money from the sale of each slice of cake will be sent to my friends and acquaintances who are volunteers in Kharkiv.

King of LlanwrtydSo, in August 2022, our joint project with Caffi Sosban Llanwrtyd was born – ‘Cakes from Ukraine’. At first, I used our family’s homemade recipes, then turned to friends and the internet for help. Considering that the locals are not very familiar with Ukrainian pastries, I decided to give each cake the name of a city or town in Ukraine. It turned out to be a tasty geography lesson.

This project provided work for my son: he hand-paints small flags in yellow and blue, which we use to decorate the cakes.

Over these almost two years, I have baked dozens of cakes and sent hundreds of pounds back home. Volunteers spend this money on assisting soldiers on the front lines and in hospitals, buying groceries for the elderly, and sweets for children. They also take care of those who have lost their homes or loved ones.

These cakes also became a psychological support for me. When I hear terrible news from Ukraine, I go to the supermarket, buy ingredients, and bake.

Travel also helps. Locals in the town say: ‘You’ve seen more of England and Wales than we have.’ When weekends or holidays come around, we get in the car and go to new places: the waterfalls of the Bannau Brycheiniog National Park; the coast of New Quay, Mumbles and Pembrokeshire; Eryri (Snowdonia); and cities from Cardiff to London, Chester to Birmingham.

But in October 2023, I had the most important trip waiting for me. I returned to Ukraine for a week. I desperately needed to see my husband, who stayed to work in Kharkiv, my friends, and my home. Nearly two days were spent on the road: a plane and three trains. And on the morning of October 12th, I stepped out at the train station in Kharkiv.

At first, everything seemed unchanged and familiar. The city lives and works, there are many cars and people on the streets. But I only felt protected in the Metro or within the walls of my own home. Otherwise, I listened and looked up at the sky, as if anticipating seeing a missile or a Shahed drone that regularly flies here.

On the first day, I was very scared when I heard the air raid siren. At that time, I was in a supermarket and immediately went to the underground shelter, but later I realised I was the only one reacting to this chilling sound. Today, those living in Kharkiv hardly pay attention to the alarms. First, because they can go off dozens of times a day in the city, and second, missiles come from the border so quickly that the system doesn’t have time to activate. And indeed, after a few days in the city, you get used to the sirens; by the third day, I also stopped flinching at this war noise.

On the penultimate day, my friend Hanna took me to North Saltivka, the most affected district of our city. She is a journalist and has long been bringing foreign colleagues here for an ‘excursion’. Photos of North Saltivka were on the front pages of newspapers and magazines worldwide, but I had to see it all for myself.

Before the full-scale war began, almost 300,000 people lived here. No industrial or military objects: this is purely a residential area of Kharkiv. Only residential buildings, schools, kindergartens, hospitals, large shopping and entertainment centres. In peacetime, we came here for shopping or to the cinema, to cafes or to the covered skating rink.

When the enemy approached the city, it was halted several miles from this area. Today, it is impossible to find a house here without a direct missile hit. Many apartments burned down. Standing here, you feel all the horror that the killer country brought into our home. Russian troops fired at buildings with every possible weapon, just because they were within range.

Glass still crunches underfoot, and at first glance, it seems like this place is dead. But then you hear construction sounds, you see how locals try to put glass in windows by hand, patch cracks on facades. Life is slowly returning here.

I hadn’t seen my home for 594 days, and it was both a terrifying and happy trip. All week I hugged my relatives, cried out of anger and despair, and sometimes laughed. And I realised people in my city, like in the whole country, play ‘Russian roulette’ every day. They don’t plan for the day after tomorrow, and when asked ‘How are you?’, they usually respond shortly: ‘We didn’t get hit today.’

My city is wounded, ravaged, and it hurts a lot. But in people’s eyes, I never noticed despair or fear. I saw anger, resentment, fatigue from lack of sleep (Kharkiv is regularly shelled late at night or early in the morning), but not fear.

On 2 January 2024, a missile exploded sixty metres from the house where my husband currently lives. He was lucky, as Ukrainians say now: he is alive and not injured. The house was less fortunate; the destructive shock wave knocked out almost all the windows, sections of the fence, and damaged the yard.

Aside from the day the war began, this was the scariest morning of my life. Maybe this was because I wasn’t there. From a distance, you always feel horror more intensely. Or maybe because for the first time, I had to tell my son: dad is alive, he’s okay.

Two years of war in Ukraine. I probably know what absolute evil looks like. It has a geolocation on the map. I don’t know where I’ll be in two years, because I still can’t plan that far ahead. But every day I repeat to my son, who has involuntarily became a child of war: we will win – because goodness defeats darkness, you must always remember that.


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