“It’s serious, isn’t it?” my mum asked me on Thursday morning, fear and concern etched in her voice. She had been watching the breaking news on the bombing of Ukraine. I nodded, without words.
My mum is 86. She was four years old when the Second World War started and nearly ten when it ended. She remembers spending nights with her parents and the cat under the steel Morrison ‘table’ shelter in the dining room of their London home as the bombs rained down.
She remembers looking at the bombed-out gap in the nearby row of houses where her friend had lived, and being told by her parents that the family had suddenly had to move to Scotland.
Later, as the bombing in London got more and more ferocious, my mum and her parents moved to Reading. But there was bombing there too. When the air-raid siren went off my mum remembers running with her classmates across an expanse of grass and disappearing into a hole in the ground leading to the underground shelter under the school playing fields. She remembers a teacher running behind them who was always the last one in. To this day she hates the sound of sirens and alarms. She remembers running alone down Donnington Road in Reading, being followed and chased by a low-flying German plane with a single pilot returning to base. She remembers the fear of being attacked from above. She knows something of war.
The television reports on Thursday morning were of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia. In the initial news bulletins it was reported that there had been explosions in eight different parts of Ukraine. There were photos of huge traffic jams in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, with cars four abreast on the highway, as people tried to leave.
There were photos of people sheltering in the Metro system, just as people sheltered in the London Underground during the Second World War. A Ukrainian family sitting on the floor in the Metro looking shocked, the children holding tight to their water bottles.
On the street a Ukrainian woman, near tears, with her toddler daughter in a pushchair said, “We are shocked, we are totally shocked, we are afraid for our children, for our families”. Asked if she was thinking of trying to move, she said “I don’t know, I just don’t know. Where can I go? You don’t know where to go. Who will have us? Nobody, nowhere, is waiting for us”(1).
Later in the report a young woman in Russia, talking to an interviewer on the street, said, “I think that most of Russians don’t support this. It’s horrible”(1).
On Thursday afternoon I read about thousands fleeing Ukraine, including one 19-year-old young man. He said ‘he had left both because he was scared of Russian assault and of potentially being called up to the Ukrainian army. “My brother lives in Hungary and I’ll stay with him as long as it takes,” he said, waiting at the border post. He asked not to use his name. Others also said they were fleeing before receiving army call-ups’(2).
During the day it became clear that the invasion of Ukraine was being conducted on land, by sea and by air.
In the evening I went online again and saw people in Russia out on the streets protesting about the war. More than 1,700 people across Russia were arrested on Thursday for demonstrating against the invasion.
I read that Ukrainian males aged 18-60 were now banned from leaving the country(3). Martial law had been introduced in Ukraine early in the morning.
In the evening I saw photos of Ukrainians bedding down for the night in the Metro.
I looked over at my mum, survivor of a world war over 75 years ago, sleeping peacefully in her little flat in the UK. I felt grateful for her, and our gentle day together.
At the same time acutely aware that in Kyiv, less than 3 hours away by plane, many people were lying awake, scared of what the night and the future might bring. Scared of the terrible losses likely. The horror of war.
Photo of Morrison ‘table’ shelter: https://www.stjohnswoodmemories.org.uk/content/memories/world-war-2/air_raid_shelters Photo of traffic jam in Kyiv: Huge queues formed on the roads out of Kyiv as the Russian invasion began (Picture: Getty Images) https://metro.co.uk/2022/02/24/kyiv-roads-fill-with-traffic-as-thousands-try-to-flee-from-russian-invasion-16161333/ (1) BBC news. Television. 24.2.22. at 18.00. (2) Thousands of Ukrainians flee country after Russian invasion | Ukraine | The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/feb/24/ukraine-russia-flee-country-invasion (3) https://edition.cnn.com/europe/live-news/ukraine-russia-news-02-24-22-intl/h_4309a4916d57670f85519210a07fb2c9 Photo of people in the Metro: People rest in the Kyiv subway, using it as a bomb shelter in Kyiv, Ukraine. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti. https://www.businessinsider.com/video-ukraine-crowds-taking-shelter-in-subway-metro-station-2022-2?r=US&IR=T