Ukraine-Russia conflict: Ukrainian poet who crossed border to appear at Scottish poetry festival speaks of silence after sound of falling bombs

When Ukrainian poet Lyuba Yakimchuck woke up in St Andrews, the first thing she noticed was the silence.

"It is very weird,” says the renowned writer, who travelled to Scotland from her home in Kyiv last week to speak at a long-planned event as part of the St Andrews poetry festival Stanza.

“When I wake up, the first thing I think in the morning is ‘is there any shelling or not?’ These are my first thoughts. Then I realised that today, it is quiet, I am in a beautiful city, everything is OK.”

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To reach Scotland, she travelled for almost three days, queuing for hours at the Ukrainian-Polish border with thousands of refugees, to leave the war-torn country. Ms Yakimchuck eventually arrived in Warsaw, where she spent the night at the home of her English translator before flying to Scotland.

Lyuba Yakimchuk spoke in St Andrews at the Stanza poetry festival, as well as hosting a separate event at the university.Lyuba Yakimchuk spoke in St Andrews at the Stanza poetry festival, as well as hosting a separate event at the university.
Lyuba Yakimchuk spoke in St Andrews at the Stanza poetry festival, as well as hosting a separate event at the university.

Yet she is one of few of those who have left who will soon return to Ukraine, even as Russian attacks intensify. After taking part cultural events in Paris and Warsaw, she will cross the border again and return home to her husband in their house on the northern edge of Kyiv – where the couple have switched their attention to humanitarian work. Their 11-year-old son Vasil is staying with relatives in the relatively safe western city of Lviv.

"I crossed the border on foot and there was a lot of pain there,” she says. “People told me their stories of their experience, how they escaped from shelling, a lot of them from Kharkiv. There were women with children, sometimes with toddlers, some of them pregnant and it was very poignant.”

War is not new to Ms Yakimchuck, 36, who in 2015 was named among the 100 most influential cultural figures in Ukraine by Kyiv's New Time magazine. Originally from the Donbas region in the east of Ukraine, she was visiting her parents at their family home when the area was invaded by Russian troops in 2014.

Her book of poems, Apricots of Donbas, focuses on that time and the conflict in the area, which saw some of her old school friends killed or imprisoned as a result of the war.

"It was a surprise, we had no idea it was going to happen,” recalls Ms Yakimchuck, who was visiting her family with her then-three-year-old son. “Suddenly, when I went to the supermarket, I would be buying bananas and I would turn around to find someone with a gun behind me.”

Reluctant to leave her parents, but out of concern for her son, Ms Yakimchuck returned to her home in Kyiv. Her parents remained in Donbas for another ten months, but eventually left, with just a suitcase of clothes, to become part of the 1.5 million-strong exodus of internally displaced people – refugees who remained in another part of Ukraine – affected by the conflict.

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"One Russian military leader has been living in my family home [in Donbas] for about five years,” she says. “When I first heard that, I was jealous. That is my home. It is the bed of my parents and now he sleeps in that bed. But now, I buried my illusion that I would ever move back to my family home.”

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She deliberated for a long time as to whether to take the trip to Scotland. In addition to the event held as part of the Stanza festival, Ms Yakimchuck also spoke at a last-minute event planned by the Ukrainian community at the university.

"It was a hard decision to get here,” she says. “I thought a lot about it and then I realised that somebody should be here and somebody should speak with people about what is happening.”

She is also going to use the visit outside of Ukraine to buy supplies to help the effort back home in Kyiv and Kharkiv, stocking up on essential medicines and bandages.

"Our pharmacies are empty in Kyiv,” she says. “We need a lot of things. It is a humanitarian catastrophe.”

Her husband Yuriy regularly travels to the eastern city of Kharkiv to deliver aid to the people left behind – and to help refugees escape.

"The last time he went, there was shelling, but it was OK,” Ms Yakimchuck says. “Then this time, it was just empty. It was a beautiful city [before the war], with a beautiful historic centre. Now that has all gone. People have left. There are a lot of homeless dogs at the train station.”

Ms Yakimchuck says her son is worried, but Ukrainian children have been prepared for war for some time.

“Actually, we have had eight years of war,” she says. “So we have been having this conversation with children since 2014. When he was three years old, he saw the revolution and he knows about the situation with his grandparents [in Donbas].”

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She adds: "He was prepared, we all were. My husband and I took a course, the week before the invasion, held by the military, to teach civilians what to do in a war situation. How to stop bleeding, how to shelter, what our strategy should be.

"My husband and I had prepared. We had bought a lot of things, medical supplies, a lot of food and walkie talkies. We installed an electricity generator and a boiler powered by wood for our house.”

Their home, to the north of Kyiv, is between the city centre and where Russian troops are located. They have no bomb shelter, but have been taking cover in an internal corridor when the shelling is at its worst.

"We only bought it last autumn and it had big iron shutters, which we didn’t like and had thought to have them removed,” she says. “Now they are very helpful and we realised we should put off this renovation.”

Ms Yakimchuck says rockets fly over her house towards Kyiv.

“Sometimes it looks like a safe place, sometimes not,” she says. “But I understand now the noises of the shelling, how far away it is, if it is dangerous.”

Despite this, the couple plan to stay – although Ms Yakimchuck says she will not rule out leaving Ukraine if the area where their son is staying comes under attack. Men aged between 18 to 60 are not allowed to leave the country, with only women and children able to seek refuge outwith Ukraine’s borders, meaning her husband would not be allowed to leave.

"When this started, we decided we wanted to stay to help,” she says. “We had no time to make a decision. We made sure our children – our son and my step-son – were safe, then we saw that a lot of people needed our help, so we do what we can. We are just playing it by ear.”

Ms Yakimchuck has started a draft of some new poems inspired by the current conflict, but does not yet feel able to finish the collection.

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"I have had no time to finish it,” she says. “This aggression, I see it as being like some virus. You cannot do anything while it is happening, just fight with this virus. After recovering, then maybe I will be able to do something else. But now, no.”

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