WAITING ON A REUNION Liam Heffron and his Ukranian native wife Kate are pictured during the Christmas festivities in Poltava in January.
Four hours before Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine last Thursday, Liam Heffron was assured there would be no invasion. The Mayo man was at home in Moygownagh on a phone call with a friend in the Ukranian armed forces, discussing plans to get his wife, Kate, to safety.
The NUIG History lecturer feared that Kate and her father, Volodymyr, would be caught up in any impending attack, but the conversation with his friend eased those worries somewhat. Then, all hell broke loose.
“We were devastated. It was almost impossible to believe. The Ukranians and Russians are essentially the same people in many respects, and I don’t think any ordinary person expected the worst, but Putin is off the scale.”
Kate Heffron had been working as an interpreter for the past few months, after going back to visit her dad in Poltava a small city near Kharkiv in the north east of Ukraine. Just days before the invasion she flew to Istanbul, where she remained until this morning (Tuesday).
“To be honest, all I think about is Kate and getting her in my arms again,” Liam told The Mayo News last night (Monday).
“She waited in Istanbul for the past few days helping Ukranian colleagues who wanted to travel to the UK and Ireland, but I can’t be sure she’s safe until I see her myself.”
Fear over father
Kate’s father remains in Poltava and that is causing huge worry for his daughter and her Moygownagh husband.
“Volodymyr is a very stoic man. He doesn’t get frightened easily, but we’re very worried for him. He served in the Soviet Army in East Germany, and now he can hardly believe what’s happening. To hear Russian warplanes flying over the city and hear about Russian troops invading Ukraine is hard to process for a man who served in the army, and that’s very understandable.
“We’re so worried for him but we’re taking things one day at a time. A few hours ago a bomb was dropped in a civilian area of Kharkiv, causing huge damage and loss of life. If that can happen in Kharkiv, just down the road, it can happen in Poltava.
“There are air-raid sirens going off all the time and Kate’s friends head to the air-raid shelters, but Volodymyr goes into the toilet in his apartment because there are no windows there and the shock waves from a bomb wouldn’t be as dangerous.
“He’s a powerful man, but he’s a diabetic with just a week’s supply of insulin, and that’s another huge worry for us. If things escalate will he be able to get his hands on insulin when he needs it? Ordinary things like that are sometimes lost in all the madness,” Liam continued.
Flame of resistance
The invasion has not gone the way Putin and his army generals expected. Thoughts of capturing Ukraine’s capital Kyiv in the opening hours of the attack were thwarted by the resilience of the country’s armed forces, and that resilience has now erupted into a flame according to Heffron.
“The people have been backed into a corner, and they have no option but to fight or surrender their country – which is no choice at all. President Zelenskyy has become an absolute hero. He has become an inspirational leader – so much more of a leader than those around the world, and everyone is joining the fight. The Klitschko brothers, former heavyweight champions, are another example of everyone taking up arms to fight. There are times when I wish I was there too helping the people fight off the Russians.
“I’ve lived there with Kate and walked those streets of Kharkiv that are being bombed. I’ve eaten in those restaurants and bought items in the shops, and now the Russian planes are dropping bombs on them. It’s so sad and I feel so useless here in Mayo looking out at the sunshine.”
How can Mayo help?
There are, however, many ways that Mayo can do something for Ukrainians, Liam explained. “There are GoFundMe pages set up that people can support, but in my view, the biggest way we can help is to actually help. Offer a spare room to refugees coming in; ask them what they need; ask them how one can be of assistance; offer to do whatever is necessary.
“The people of Ireland and Ukraine are very similar. We have lived under oppression from a larger neighbour for centuries, and we both have a savage longing to be free. There is a great historical connection between the struggle for Irish freedom and Ukraine. William O’Brien, who set up the United Irish League in Westport in 1898, was married to a Ukranian woman Sophie Raffalovich. She was a huge financial contributor to the UIL, which worked tirelessly for land reform.”
Liam’s fervent hope is that a ceasefire is agreed in the coming hours, and that somehow things can become a little more normal. His wife will arrive in Ballina hoping her father and her country can emerge safely from this horrific attack. She will have huge support locally.
“I’ve been inundated with messages from people hoping Kate is okay, and that has been great in these testing times. Like the Ukranian people, we’re taking it a day at a time. All I want is to set eyes on her and get her back to Mayo.”