British-Ukrainian student hears ‘phantom air sirens’ after weeks in a war zone

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A British-Ukrainian student who has been aiding the response to the Russian invasion has said she hears “phantom air sirens” after weeks of war in her country.

Since the invasion on February 24, Valentina Butenko, who is from Kyiv and studies politics at University College London, has been helping to coordinate refugees’ access to help – connecting people with food, shelter and transport so they can flee to the border.

The 19-year-old is back in London for a week in an effort to organise supplies she can take back to her home country, including body armour and any other “practical army equipment” for Ukrainian soldiers.

“Just being on the streets, where you see people walking about their daily lives, with cups of coffee in their hands and chatting and laughing and going anywhere they want with anyone they want, being able to meet any friends,” Ms Butenko said.

“That ability to experience life in such a carefree way. No one here for a second thinks about… death on a moment to moment basis.”

Ms Butenko said seeing normal life in London is ‘surreal and painful’ (Nick Ansell/PA)

She said being in a war zone for the past two weeks has left her hearing “phantom air sirens” and constantly fearing for her family’s safety.

“When you come from a war zone… you can’t walk on the streets because there are air sirens blaring every two minutes,” she said.

“(Being back in London) my body can’t quite accept the sense of safety – can’t understand that nothing’s going to fall on me or no-one’s going to shoot at me out here.

“You never feel safe – it doesn’t matter where you are, that sense of safety or security disappears forever.”

Volunteers like Ms Butenko have been using abandoned buildings to temporarily house refugees and store supplies (Valentina Butenko/PA)

“Because what is happening right now in Ukraine is… essentially a genocide against my people.

“It’s not even about land, it’s not even about people it is to destroy any trace of Ukrainian-ness.

“For me, personally I need to hold on even closer to what I love, to what feels at some moments that it could be slipping away.”

Originally based in Kyiv at the start of the invasion, she moved to the west of the country where there has been an influx of refugees, working to turn “any old buildings” into “decent living spaces” for them and helping to calm worried children.

Ms Butenko said she and the refugees in temporary homes have had to rely on limited food, often bread and water, while they had to melt snow in order to drink.

She said there is not a story from the refugees she has met that has “not been in some way heartbreaking”, but recalled helping a mother and two children from Kharkiv to resettle into one of the apartments.

“Her house was bombed and she was in one half of the house, her husband was in the other half… he got killed, and she was lucky enough to be alive,” she said.

“You literally have your house split apart and one part of your family survives and (the other does) not – the imagery of that was just incredibly heartbreaking.”

Ms Butenko said she and other refugees have had to melt snow for water
Ms Butenko said she and other refugees have had to melt snow for water (Valentina Butenko/PA)

“What we really need right now is more tactical gear, more equipment for armies… I would also say more weapons, but that’s not something I can personally provide,” she added.

She repeated Mr Zelensky’s calls for a no-fly zone to be placed over Ukraine and for stricter sanctions so “every single penny” of Russian money in the UK and other western countries could be confiscated.

Asked for a message she would like to share, Ms Butenko said: “To all my Ukrainian friends… and our army and our presidents Zelensky, you are the bravest, most dignified people that have ever existed.

“To British people, please see this… and understand (that) freedom and democracy, does not just get given to you it is not something that should be taken for granted.

“And to Russians… I understand that perhaps you didn’t choose this President (Vladimir Putin), I understand that you don’t want this war either.

“(But) when Ukrainians had a president who became a tyrant, we also shed blood and flesh to take our country back… in this moment, it is your responsibility as citizens of your country to bring down this tyrant because your silence and your fear costs my people lives.”

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