Family ties broken by war


A drone view showing damaged property, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Vovchansk, Kharkiv region, Ukraine, in this screen grab from handout video released on June 2. — Reuters

BEFORE the war, Kira Dzhafarova’s 85-year-old mother could easily visit her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren in both Ukraine and Russia from her home in the Ukrainian border town of Vovchansk.

Russia’s February 2022 invasion put an end to that, creating a physical – and emotional – front line between her and her family living across the border in the Russian city of Belgorod.

And despite efforts by Dzhafarova’s mother to keep the family united, the war has created an irreparable rift between Dzhafarova and her brother.

“Anytime (my mother) would mention my brother, I would shout that I hate him and I want them all to die ... all 140 million Russians,” said Dzhafarova, 57.

“She would say, ‘How can you hate your own brother, your blood?’ But he’s not, he’s a stranger,” Dzhafarova said.

She cut all ties with her “former brother”, who she said supported Russian President Vladimir Putin, at the start of the invasion.

Similar stories – of families divided by front lines and allegiances – abound in Ukraine, where almost half of the population had close relatives in Russia, according to a pre-war survey.

“We have a right to this hatred,” Dzhafarova said. “That was very hard for (my mum) to understand.”

Dzhafarova said her mother had once believed the Kremlin’s propaganda, but has changed her mind throughout the war.

But she has refused to reject her son.

“He remains her child, she loves him. I realised that it’s wrong of me... to try to change her mind.”

As Russian troops surged on Vovchansk in a fresh counteroffensive, Dzhafarova was desperate for her mum to leave the village – even if that meant going to live in the relative safety of Russia.

But the 85-year-old has so far refused to evacuate.

She is paralysed by fear and attached to her land, Dzhafarova said.

Her mother had long searched for a house in Vovchansk, where her family – especially her “adored” grandchildren – could visit from both sides of the border.

“She wanted to feed everyone strawberries,” Dzhafarova said.

“She wanted everyone to come visit her together and see her beautiful home and her garden where roses grow.”

It is unlikely that much remains of the carefully cultivated plot.

Two weeks of bombardment and fighting have devastated much of Vovchansk, drone footage shows.

Evacuees from the town of Vovchansk arrive at an evacuation point in Kharkiv region, on May 12, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thousands of people have been evacuated from border areas in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, as Russia kept up constant strikes on a key town as part of a cross-border offensive, officials said on May 12, 2024. The surprise Russian attack across Ukraine's northeastern border began on Friday, with troops making small advances in an area from where they had been pushed back nearly two years ago. (Photo by Roman PILIPEY / AFP)Evacuees from the town of Vovchansk arrive at an evacuation point in Kharkiv region, on May 12, 2024, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thousands of people have been evacuated from border areas in Ukraine's Kharkiv region, as Russia kept up constant strikes on a key town as part of a cross-border offensive, officials said on May 12, 2024. The surprise Russian attack across Ukraine's northeastern border began on Friday, with troops making small advances in an area from where they had been pushed back nearly two years ago. (Photo by Roman PILIPEY / AFP)

Ukraine has accused Russia of using scorched earth tactics – razing towns and villages to the ground before seizing them. Moscow denies the charges.

Vovchansk was under Russian occupation for six months at the start of the war, captured by Moscow’s forces in the first hours of the invasion and then liberated by Ukraine in a September 2022 counteroffensive.

Some evacuees arriving in the city of Kharkiv held mixed feelings toward their Russian relatives.

“We did not expect such a war (between) brothers,” said Irina Shirokorad, 62, sitting in the courtyard of an evacuation centre.

In 2021, around 43% of Ukrainians had close relatives in Russia, according to a survey by the Kyiv Institute for Sociology.

That rose to 53% in the eastern border region.

Shirokorad teared up at the thought of her cousin, living in the southern Russian city of Rostov.

“It was insulting – I told them the truth, that they were shooting at us. But she did not believe us. They were brainwashed,” Shirokorad said. The feeling is a common one across Ukraine.

Despite protestations, many Ukrainians say their relatives in Russia are convinced by the Kremlin’s claims that it was waging a “special military operation” to “liberate” parts of Ukraine.

Security fears, rather than political differences, finally severed ties between Shirokorad and her cousin.

“We’re afraid to talk to them, and they’re afraid to put us in trouble by speaking to us,” she said.

Galina Konoval said she had not spoken to her brother, who lives in the Siberian Russian city of Tyumen, for many months.

“Wait it out, maybe this will end soon,” she recalled him telling her in their last phone call shortly after the war began.

A resident from Vovchansk who fled due to Russian shelling, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, arriving at an evacuation centre in Kharkiv. — ReutersA resident from Vovchansk who fled due to Russian shelling, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, arriving at an evacuation centre in Kharkiv. — Reuters

Now Konoval, 61, is at an evacuation centre in Kharkiv, her home destroyed by a new Russian assault.

“What can I tell him? He’s my brother, is he really guilty?” she asked calmly.

Around her a frenzy of volunteers and evacuees rush in and out of the centre.

Some 56% of Ukrainians say Russian citizens hold responsibility for the war, a survey from the School for Political Analysis NaUKMA found.

Dzhafarova is part of that majority.

“Until everyone repents, until they are on their knees asking for forgiveness for what they did to Ukraine, I don’t want to see them, I don’t want to talk to them,” she said. — AFP

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