From Blanchardstown to Bakhmut: The Dublin painter on the Ukrainian frontlines
This is Vadym's story, a Dublin-based painter who has spent the last 14 months entrenched on the Ukrainian frontlines.
Much of the discussion around the ongoing war in Ukraine over recent months has fixated around politically charged issues such as housing for refugees, but the Irish media often forgets there is another aspect to the Emerald Isle’s effort.
That effort is of course the sizeable cohort of people who left these shores to fight for Ukraine’s sovereignty and independence, in acts which have since been quietly labelled as taboo by the Coalition Government who wish to maintain their façade of neutrality.
Last February, when Russian forces brazenly flooded across the border into the rural Ukrainian outpost of Milove, a number of Irish citizens felt compelled to aid in the Ukrainian resistance.
One such person is Vadym, who had called North Dublin his home for over two decades. Recounting hearing the news of Putin’s invasion on a brisk spring morning, the painter recalled his belief that the continent of Europe had awoken “to a new page in the history books”.
It was a fight which in his own words, he couldn’t turn down.
Dubliner on the frontlines:
Vadym, who first moved to Dublin with his wife in June of 2001, made a living as a painter in the suburb of Blanchardstown. There, he managed to forge what he describes as “a comfortable life”, and one in which “I had found a country for my family where they were happy and I was too. I didn’t want anything to change in my life, I was more than happy to stay there (Ireland) until the end of my life”.
When asked why he saw no other option but to abruptly leave behind this life he had worked so tirelessly to achieve, Vadym said;
“It’s not hard to explain. First of all, what would you do if England invaded Ireland? Would you stand aside and watch women and children fight in your place? As a man, I cannot sit and watch this happen on TV, it’s just not me”.
Having already been away from Ireland for over a year, Vadym is understandably eager to return home to his wife and two children. However, he remains adamant that he will only do so when the war is over and the Russian army has been repelled from Eastern Ukraine.
“This is a test for mankind. This is a test for real men. It is a new era for my country and Europe, and I will be a small piece of it. I will stay until we finish the job”.
Day-to-day confrontations with mortality:
Speaking with Vadym, he paints an incredibly vivid picture of the realities of war. It is not as heroic as a Hollywood summer blockbuster, nor does it resemble the latest iteration of Call of Duty- but rather something one might describe as otherworldly.
Depicting destruction on an apocalyptic level, Vadym sets the scene for the gruesome actualities of the Ukrainian frontline, where the close-quartered combat has been likened to the warfare endured during the First World War.
“Houses are destroyed, thousands are dead, and even children. Kids dead, what are we talking about, it’s crazy. Around me, there’s so much destruction. I haven’t been to a single small town or village which has not been damaged and had families leave”.
“I can see through my binoculars the faces of Russian soldiers. Every minute I feel like I’m close to death. The Russian artillery is constantly sending ‘surprises’ across the frontline on top of us”, states Vadym.
But the Dublin tradesman takes great comfort in the support which the army receives from the people of Ukraine, who he says have come together like one big “machine” to support the nation’s military effort.
Another reminder of the perils of war came last week though, as the news broke that Mayo man Finbar Cafferkey had been killed in Eastern Ukraine battling against Russian forces.
Unprompted and clearly wishing to emphasise his admiration for Mr. Cafferkey, Vadym declared that “He’s a hero here, a hero definitely. Lots of our media are saying that too, and the people who fought with him only have good words to say about him, so he’s a hero for sure”.
Leaving behind family “the hardest part”:
“I thought that time cleans everything but the longer I’m here, the more heartbreak is caused for my family”, remarks Vadym, having now been entrenched on the frontlines for almost 14 months.
Even in the midst of war, where “the situation changes every 10 or 15 minutes”, he still ensures that he makes time to touch base with his wife and children back in Dublin each day.
“Every day I send a video being like ‘Hello, I’m still alive, nothing has happened to me!’ If they see me visually it makes it easier for them. So, I do that every single morning and every night before I go to bed too”.
When asked if he felt the sacrifice he had made was a worthwhile one, Vadym was adamant about his belief that those on the frontline were “making a difference”.
“We are opening people’s eyes to what they haven’t been able to see before- that Ukraine is one big strong country. We are becoming a part of its long history and I believe that people will never forget what we’ve done here”.
Speaking to Vadym’s daughter, Veronica, she echoed the sentiment of her father, describing the “heartbreaking” nature of his abrupt departure.
“It felt so surreal to hear him say he was going to go and fight, that he was going to go and book the tickets. I don’t mean to sound dramatic, but it was really like your whole world came crashing down”.
Before he left, having realised there was no way to convince her father not to go back to Ukraine, Veronica remembers going up to him; “I was hugging him and crying, and I told him ‘I know you’re not going to stay, but I just want you to come back to us’”.
Dealing with having a father at war:
“For a long while, you’re just always on edge to be honest. It’s only recently in the past few months that I’ve kind of managed to control it”, remarked Veronica when asked how having a parent at war impacts your day-to-day life.
But with the war in Ukraine being such a newsworthy story, she has had to unplug from media and general news consumption in an attempt to put her mind at ease.
“Unfortunately, I’ve had to stop really looking at the news. It’s not fully possible but you try to avoid reading certain stories or seeing all the horrible things that happen to soldiers, because at the back of your mind you’re like ‘that could be my dad’”.
Reacting to her father’s decision to stay in Ukraine as long as the conflict stretches on, Veronica was upset but ultimately understood Vadym’s intentions.
“He’s not one to back down, and he wouldn’t leave his comrades behind, and he wants to be a hero in our eyes. But, you know, we love him no matter what and I’d love for him to come back as soon as possible”.
Anticipating her father’s eventual return, Veronica expressed how eager she was to be reunited after such a lengthy period apart, describing what their first interaction together would look like.
“I’m going to tell him that I love him so much, even though I tell him that every day already, and give him the biggest hug ever. And Dad does these amazing greasy sandwiches, which are so good and no one can do them like he does. So we’re just going to have a really long chat catching up, watch some movies and just enjoy being in each other’s company again”.
Moreover, the next time a Ukrainian war bulletin flashes across your screen, don't allow the process of desensitisation to occur. Remember that this conflict has very real consequences, for very real people- with some being closer to home than you may think.
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