“I fear the worst”: The tears, anger and defiance of Ukrainian families in Greater Manchester who woke up to war

Huddled around a table just outside Bolton town centre, three men nervously wait for news from Ukraine.

They haven’t heard from family members living in the country since it woke up to war this morning.

Glancing down at their phones, they anxiously stand by for updates confirming their relatives are safe.

But their desperate calls and messages go unanswered.

“I tried to contact my cousin this morning but she’s offline so I don’t know what’s going on,” Yaroslaw Tymchyshyn, chairman of the Bolton branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain said.

“I fear for the worst. I just don’t know what’s going to happen.

“She’s in an isolated village on the border. We hear bombs are going off in Western Ukraine.

“It makes me feel apprehensive.

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“Even though it’s a remote village, we don’t know what’s going on.

“I’m lucky it’s half term, I wouldn’t know what I’d be like if I was at work.

“When I woke up first thing this morning and they started the reports, it was horror, shock and anger.

“It’s grim.”

Club chair Yaroslaw Tymchyshyn from the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB) Bolton branch

Explosions were heard in the capital of Kyiv and other major cities this morning after Vladimir Putin’s announced a military operation had begun.

The Russian president confirmed the action during a televised address, saying the move was a response to threats from Ukraine.

He has warned other countries that any attempt to interfere with the Russian action would lead to “consequences they have never seen”.

Yaroslaw, whose parents were born in Ukraine and moved to Greater Manchester in 1947, said he was “distraught” when he woke up to news of the military assault.

“Many, many years ago we demonstrated outside the Russian Embassy when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union to get the Russians out,” the 68-year-old, who lives in Tonge, said.

“We’re now having to do this again. I never ever suspected in my lifetime, especially after 1991, that this would happen again.

Club chair Yaroslaw Tymchyshyn from the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB) Bolton branch

“I was in Ukraine on August 24, 1991 when Ukraine was declared independent. When that news filtered through it was tears of joy, this morning it is tears of desperation.”

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“That said, I spoke to them on Sunday morning and one of my brother-in-laws actually said ‘don’t worry, the machine gun is on the wall ready’.

“That is the attitude of most Ukrainians, we’re not going to give up this lightly.

“We’re not going to give up 30 years of independence for a remodel of Hitler.”

An adviser to Ukraine’s president said around 40 people have been killed so far in the Russian attack on the country.

Security camera footage also shows Russian military vehicles crossing into Ukraine from Russian-annexed Crimea as thousands of people fled Kyiv with the roads packed.

Explosions have also been heard in the Ukrainian cities of Odessa and Kharkiv.

Wolodymyr Kowalyszyn’s wife Oksana flew to the Ukraine on Friday to visit her parents who had recently recovered from Covid.

She was due to return home to Manchester tomorrow, but her flight has been cancelled, and when Wolodymyr spoke to her on Thursday morning she was in a car with a friend trying to cross the Polish border.

Speaking at the Ukrainian Catholic Church in Manchester, Wolodymyr said: “She said there’s huge queues at the border. She said they’re only letting women and children and the elderly through.

“Everybody is really worried. I’m trying to get her out. There’s a flight on the 4th that I think she’ll get on. But she’s in good spirits. The main thing is keeping in touch. As long as we can keep in touch we’ll be OK.

“99% of the congregation here are new arrivals and they’ve all still got immediate family there.

“There are people crying here today because they are thinking of their families.

Wolodymyr Kowalyszyn

“It’s very emotionally charged

“But we will stick together as a community, we are strong as a community and we will laugh in the face of this adversity because we know we are right.”

Jaroslaw Czachar, a member of the Ukrainian Social Club in Bolton, told the Manchester Evening News he has been unable to reach his best friend who is currently living in Ukraine.

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“We had reasonable contact, but now it’s all kicked off we have no contact whatsoever,” he said.

“If I say I’m cheesed off or annoyed, that’s putting it kindly.

“When I picked it up on the news, I just sat there staring at the screen.

“I was hoping to God this wouldn’t happen.

Jaroslaw Czachar

“I was seriously on the edge of breaking down.”

US President Joe Biden denounced Russia’s decision to conduct a military operation in Ukraine as an “unprovoked and unjustified attack”, declaring “the world will hold Russia accountable”.

Boris Johnson also issued an address to the nation this morning.

The Prime Minister said Putin has “chosen a path of bloodshed and destruction” and that the UK and its allies would respond “decisively”.

He said: “We will work with them [Ukraine] – for however long it takes – to ensure that the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine is restored.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation to iterate the UK’s support for Ukraine

“This act of wanton and reckless aggression is an attack not just on Ukraine, it is an attack on democracy and freedom in East Europe and around the world.

“This crisis is about the right of a free, sovereign independent European people to choose their own future, and that is a right that the UK will always defend.”

Ihor Szczur, also a member of the Ukrainian Social Club in Bolton, said he fears for his family members still living in the country.

“I have fear for the people who live there: the mothers, children and old ladies who haven’t done anything wrong,” the 68-year-old, from Haugh, said.

Ihor Szczur

“When the world will judge this in the future, they will realize [Ukranians] they haven’t done anything wrong, but they won’t make it easy for them.

“Most of our relatives are in western Ukraine. We don’t know how far [Putin] will go.

“Ukraine will fight back. No nation will allow this to happen.

“He’s done the first few steps but now the psych is in the Ukrainians and they won’t let it go.

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“Innocent lives will be lost. I can’t understand how we’ve allowed this to go so far.”

From left: Ihor Szczur, Yaroslaw Tymchyshyn and Jaroslaw Czachar

Bob Sopel, chair of the Manchester branch of the Association of Ukrainians, broke down in tears as he addressed the church.

Speaking afterwards he said: “I’m very emotional.

“When I listen to Putin speak the venom and aggression is terrifying.

“The repercussions for the rest of the world are scary.”

Bob Sopel, chair of the Manchester Branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain

Father Ewhen Nebesniak, who led the Mass, said: “It’s very emotional, very distressing because we were all hoping against hope that this wouldn’t happen.

“In Manchester the majority of the community came her recently.

“They have families, mothers, brothers, husbands still in the Ukraine. They’re scared about what is going to happen to them.

“If Ukraine is under Russian rule will we still be able to visit?

“I have a cousin in Western Ukraine. She is crying, saying she doesn’t know what she is going to do.

“War is tragic for everyone. War is never the answer. How many body bags will be returning to Russia? How many Ukrainian mothers will lose their sons?

Members of the Manchester Ukrainian society, come together at the Ukrainian Catholic Church, to offer prayers and support to each other and their family

“The only weapons our community have are prayer and hope.”

Constantine Boyko said: “It’s terrible. I went to work this morning, but I couldn’t think about anything else, I couldn’t work, so I came here.

“It’s a crazy situation. I have family in the west. I spoke to them this morning they said rockets had been fired at the airport. They were really shaken up. They said there are big queues for petrol, at cash machines, at pharmacies .

“Everybody is just hoping we can get families out of there.”

Genia Mandzij is chair of the Association of Ukrainian Women in Great Britain’s Manchester branch.

Genia Mandzij, chair of the Manchester branch of the Association of Ukrainian Women in Greater Britain

She said learning of the invasion ‘took my breath away’.

She added: “I’m seeing on the news that 40-50 Ukrainians have been killed already.

“That’s 40 to 50 families who have lost someone. How many more people are going to die?”

Vasyl Bihun added: “For the last couple of weeks we’ve been waiting for the bad news. Today it has happened.

Vasyl Bihun

“It’s shocking, it’s disappointing, but it’s not a surprise.

“I would ask people to stand with Ukraine, and show your support to Ukrainians.

“Ask your politicians to show their support. Because this is just the first step for Putin.

“If he takes over Ukraine where does he go next?”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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