Every Ukrainian in London has the same story to tell. Hundreds of them are gathering outside Ten Downing Street to demand an end to the war that started in their country this morning.
It’s supposed to be a demonstration, but it looks like a vigil. Generally, the men are furious and tight in the jaw. The women are all crying. There is a physical sadness and uncertainty hovering over the crowd. Nobody has slept.
And they all tell the same story. Everybody’s family is in danger, but nobody’s family will leave Ukraine.
“I woke up my mum sending me a message saying that the Russians are bombing everywhere”, says Paulina, 24. Her family lives near the old line of control in the east of the country. “I don’t know what will happen. I feel so much hatred right now…” Paulina is crying.
“My grandmother is housebound, and my mother won’t leave. She would never leave her two cats behind.”
Every other person is holding an improvised placard. You wake up to attack helicopters buzzing over your country and all you can do is make placards. “FULL HELP”, says one. “SayNOToPutin”, says another.
A woman moves around taking donations for the Ukrainian army into a cardboard box. Flags, so yellow and so blue, are wrapped around people’s shoulders like armour. Flags for a country that may not exist in a month’s time.
Nazarii is 27 and he was a soldier once. He fought in the Donbas. “For now it’s important not to panic. We have a strong army.” It feels important for him to say this. He talks to convince himself, though he is as white as a ping pong ball. “For now, we have to stay and believe in our army.”
He moves away and joins a chant: “Glory to Ukraine. Glory to the heroes.”
I watch Kenneth Nowakowski, the bishop of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in London, speak to a journalist. “…a day that we’ve all been praying we will never see.” Around him are priests in their clerical black, holding icons and crucifixes.
Anastasiya has lived in London for five years. Her entire family is in Dnipro. When she talks about them, she cries. “They are hiding in the basement. There were missiles hitting my city this morning. My family doesn’t know what to do. There is not enough information. They have nowhere to go.”
Nobody expected it to happen like this. Weeks before Anastasiya had asked them whether now was the right moment to evacuate her little sister to Poland, or the UK. Her parents didn’t think Putin was serious. “My family won’t ever leave”, she says. “There is nowhere for them other than their homes.”
It is a demonstration, so there must be speeches. They are strong but the microphones are weak. The words struggle against the February gust. A woman in a black puffer jacket says that Ukraine is fighting for democracy, for human dignity. Union Jacks are handed out amongst the crowd, which keeps growing.
To the other side of the street, where tourists walk by the Prime Minister’s residence, this is another London spectacle. Like influencers posing by red telephone boxes, or the pelicans in St James’s Park. Spring is arriving, the pandemic is over, and the price of an Uber is almost back to normal. As I walk away, I think about a line from one of the speeches.
“When the last Ukrainian soldier falls. Putin will come for you.”