Lara Marlowe: Good humour and anxiety with Ukrainian expats driving home to war

Four men are among many others bravely undertaking a patriotic trek into danger

The brothers Suhinsky – Mykola (40) and Sergiy (27) – wait for me in a blue minibus outside the Ukrainian church of Saint Vladimir the Great in Paris after Sunday Mass.

A red collection box marked with the words "for the Ukrainian army" is taped to the side of the vehicle. Before we set off on our journey across Europe, Mykola opens the box and counts the banknotes while Sergiy films him as a precaution against accusations of theft. They have taken in €206 for the cause.

Until the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week, the brothers were an ordinary man-with-a-van team ferrying Ukrainian beer, sausage and pickles to Paris, and French clothing and perfume back to Lviv, in western Ukraine. On this trip, they carry Ukrainian expatriate labourers, eager to be reunited with their families who are under attack.

The brothers will not be allowed to leave Ukraine, as adult males, until the war is over. They will lose their livelihood, but they say that isn’t important. “Family and country are the only thing that matters,” Sergei tells me.

READ MORE

Inside the clapped-out Mercedes van with its peeling vinyl upholstery, beneath an icon of the Virgin and child, Sergiy shows me the latest video received on his smartphone. "Ukrainian army. Kharkiv," he says, referring to Ukraine's second city, near its eastern border with Russia. Territorials in camouflage uniform march, shouting "Long live Ukraine".

“They go kill Russians,” Sergiy explains. “Russian occupiers. Not Russian people. Please write only truth.”

We are a block from the famed cafes of St Germain des Prés, but already I am in a different world. For the next 26 hours, Mycola and Sergiy, Petro Hirnyy, a construction worker, and Petro Antonyuk, a welder, will be my constant companions.

‘My people’

The workmen are returning to Ukraine to join the territorials and fight the Russians. “The Ukrainians are my people,” says Hirnyy (53). He is fluent in French, and translates for the other travellers. “A lot of my friends have already joined up,” he says.

Both Petros did military service, Hirnyy when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. They know how to use an assault rifle. Aren't they afraid of dying? "A little," Hirnyy admits with a faint laugh. "But I have no choice."

The men are dressed nearly identically, in grey jumpers, anoraks and jeans. To their amusement, I label them Petro the first and Petro the second, like Russian tsars.

At a truck stop in Luxembourg, we see a half dozen Mercedes minibuses like ours. All carry Ukrainian men going home to protect their families. What are a few dozen returnees compared to the hundreds of thousands who have fled as refugees? Hirnyy corrects me: "The ones leaving are women and children."

In the parking lot, I chat with another 40-year-old Ukrainian called Mykola. Unlike our burly driver, this Mikola is wiry and clean-shaven. “I fought in Donbas in 2014-2015,” he says. “The Russians want to eat us. Russians are pigs. They must die!” He laughs so much that I wonder if he really means it.

Antonyuk’s 28-year-old son Maksym is an army medic at Melitopol, southeast Ukraine, near Russian-annexed Crimea. “He says the Russians are taking a lot more casualties than we are,” Antonyuk says proudly, showing me a photograph of Maksym perched on his ambulance.

Smartphone lifeline

Smartphones are a lifeline for these men driving home to the war. They never stop looking at and listening to the small screens. They prop them up on the dashboard and watch them even while they are driving. The phones are an endless source of news, humour, encouragement and discouragement.

We see a speech by President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, an appeal by an earnest young soldier to the people of neighbouring Belarus not to fight on the side of the Russians. The travellers find two videos particularly funny: a spoof by the hunting association announcing that from March 1st it is “open season on all savage beasts”, that is to say Russians; and a comedian describing in obscene terms what he would like to do to the Russians.

We take a long detour into the mountains of the Rhineland-Palatinate, after dark, to collect boxes from a Ukrainian woman sending supplies to her children back home. We lose the telephone signal and spend an hour hopelessly lost on winding roads without a GPS. It feels like a premonition of what could happen in Ukraine, if the Russians wipe out the telephone network.

The men say the war has made them more patriotic. “We were so happy when we got independence in 1991,” Hirnyy recalls. “But then the corruption started.”

He mentions former president Viktor Yanukovych’s palace with its gold-plated taps and toilets, the millions of Ukrainians driven abroad because they could not earn a decent living at home. “I don’t think there should be only billionaires and poor people,” he says. Zelenskiy hadn’t done much about corruption, but the war has changed Hirnyy’s mind. “Everybody likes him now, because he didn’t flee the country.”

Russian president Vladimir Putin has based his contorted justification for the invasion of Ukraine on history. The Ukrainians have their version of history too. "Ukraine is a much older country than Russia," Hirnyy claims. He says Kyiv is 1,500 years old, compared to only 500 years for Russia. "Ivan Grozny, the first tsar of Russia, killed his own son," he continues. "That's what Russians are like. They're ashamed of their history so they try to steal ours."

Putin the problem

Hirnyy swears Russians are not ill-treated in Ukraine; after all, the many native Russian-speakers include Zelenskiy. “It’s not about language. The problem is Putin, because he wants to remake the Soviet Union.”

Millions of Ukrainians died in the Soviet famine of 1932-1933, Hirnyy notes. The famine was orchestrated by Stalin to dispossess richer, land-owning peasants. “Stalin gave their land to Russians whom he brought in on trains. Then he transferred the Tatars from Crimea to Siberia, and gave their houses to Russians too. That is why there are so many Russians in Ukraine, and this war is the result. Putin admires Stalin.”

Each beep on a smartphone seems to herald a new up or down. Around dawn on Monday, as we hurtled down the Autobahn towards Poland, we listened bleary-eyed to news of more bombardments overnight in Kyiv and Kharkiv. Antonyuk poured cognac into plastic cups for his fellow passengers. Minutes later, all were laughing over a report that a Ukrainian sailor tried to sink the yacht belonging to his Russian oligarch boss in Majorca.

There is more good news, of French volunteers rushing to fight with the Ukrainians; of the half million Germans who demonstrated against Russia at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on Sunday.

“There’s a ceasefire!” Mykola tells us excitedly as we near the Polish border. The men look at each other with pleased but dubious expressions. Could it be true? Vladimir Putin appears on the telephone screen on the dashboard. “We are stopping the war. We are withdrawing the troops,” he says. “I don’t believe it. It can’t be,” says Hirnyy.

Within minutes, we learn that we have seen a fake Putin, a lookalike.

Up, down. Again. Certainly not for the last time.