‘We do not feel safe, but we are not afraid’

Two Ukrainian trade union staff members speak to UNISON about their new role – supporting members during wartime

Ivanna Krapko

Five minutes into my Zoom conversation with trade unionists Lesia Semeniaka and Ivanna Khrapko, there is the sound of an explosion. The two women barely react. Only nine days into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they can already identify the sound. It wasn’t a bomb, says Lesia, looking out of her Kyiv window, but her country’s air defence system.

Ivanna (pictured above) is currently in the city of Chernivtsi, near the border of Romania and therefore “a bit safer” – for the moment. But Kyiv has been under bomb attack for days. Lesia says that the Ukraine capital feels deserted. The majority of women and children have left for foreign countries or the safer, western regions of Ukraine; the men – many of whom are barely-trained civilians who have joined the territorial defence forces – are camped on the main roads around the city, ready to face the Russian soldiers who are amassed nearby.

A number of younger women are also on the roads, ready to fight, while others are with volunteer groups distributing food and medicines, and helping in the hospitals.

Those who do remain in Kyiv, like Lesia, who has stayed behind to conduct a wartime version of her trade union duties, have to hide in shelters whenever the bombs rain down – every night, and often during the day. In Lesia’s district, this means diving into one of two underground stations or the basement of the university.

I wonder how safe these places are? “We do not feel safe,” she replies, matter-of-factly. “But we are not afraid. Because we have to help our people.”

Ivanna adds to this sense of stoic determination and courage. “We have to be strong, and help our members, our people, every day, every hour.”

                                        Kyiv apartment building after Russian missile attack © Bigstock

UNISON often works with sister unions in other countries, many of whose members face different kinds of intimidation and, sometimes, threats to their lives. But it’s astonishing to think that trade union workers in Ukraine, like all its civilians, are now either fighting, or fleeing, or dying.

And the work of trade union staff and activists is not, now, to help members in their workplaces, but help them to survive.

Nuclear disaster

Lesia is the international officer for Atomprofspilka, the Nuclear Power and Industry Workers Union of Ukraine, with 56,000 members. Ivanna is head of education for the State Employees Union of Ukraine, with 130,000 members in the civil service and local government.

Their unions are disseminating information and guidance to members, providing food and medicine, or making donations that will help to buy these necessities.

The unions are reacting to whatever is needed of them, wherever the need. Lesia mentions that Atomprofspilka is donating “at different levels to different funds”, including to the Ukrainian armed forces and humanitarian funds, and Ivanna speaks of “different help in different places” including delivering food and clothing to children in Kyiv.

Chief among Lesia’s tasks is to inform the outside world, including sister unions and other international partners internationally, of what is really happening on the ground in Ukraine.

Atomprofspilka’s members work in the country’s five nuclear power plants and uranium mines, as well as some public services and in national parks. They’ve been caught in the middle of some of Russia’s most disturbing actions – the capture of the Chernobyl disaster site and surrounding exclusion zone, and the active nuclear power station at Zaporizhzhia. In both places they are effectively being held hostage.

How to support Ukraine

Lesia says that the Russians are not allowing the staff at the Chernobyl plant to change shifts, so they haven’t had the chance to rest in days. And while the notorious power station is no longer operational, remaining radioactivity still poses danger. “Any explosion, any fire, any strike could provoke a big tragedy, another ecological disaster.”

The attack on Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power station, caused international outrage, not least because shelling of the facility caused a fire that briefly raised fears of another Chernobyl.

Almost all of the 12,000 staff at Zaporizhzhia are Atomprofspilka members, who live in the nearby town, which is also occupied. “We have contradictory information,” Lesia reports. “When the mayor made a video announcement, saying everything was OK, we could see that he was reading at gunpoint. We know the education and training centres were damaged by fire, and we know that one of the residential buildings was damaged, and also a school.”

While Lesia believes that capturing the power station was a deliberate ploy by Vladimir Putin to add to his intimidation of the West, she warns of a risk even he may not have accounted for. “The Russian soldiers are young men, who are not aware what kind of objects they attack. This is a very dangerous situation.”

The youth network making a difference

Ivanna was in Kyiv at the start of the war, but accompanied a friend and her daughter to Chernivsti, from where it was easier for them to leave the country (to Stockholm, with the help of a Swedish trade union). Having helped her friend, Ivanna then stayed put in the city – also, crucially, with a workable internet – and got to work.

She’s heavily involved in the trade union youth network, created under the umbrella of Ukraine’s trade union federation, which is using Viber messaging to offer an effective means of communication around the country.

“We can help a lot of people. We gather information – what happens in different regions – on our messenger group. Maybe somebody needs some medicine, some food, or someone wants to move from Kyiv to west Ukraine and we try to find them somewhere to live. So it’s a helpful channel, you know.”

Members of the network recently created a video statement aimed at young people in Russia and Belarus, asking for their support. “We ask these young people, ‘Don’t be afraid, speak and speak true, because a lot of people are dying in Ukraine now.”

Lesia (pictured above), who stayed in Kyiv partly because her mother lives near the city, is close to much of the horror. “We expect the attacks on Kyiv every day. Several towns which are not far from Kyiv are destroyed already. In Bucha they destroyed everything – the air strikes hit residential buildings, the oil refinery, kindergarten, schools. People were staying underground for two days before rescuers came.”

She speaks of “our heroes, ordinary people” who are defending the towns and cities, the union members and townspeople who refused to collaborate with the Russian soldiers at Zaporizhzhia and those defending the other nuclear plants, the women in the small towns who are “baking bread, making everything possible to help these territorial defenders,” and elderly people, as old as 70 or 80, who take up guns or give their life savings to support the army.

How does she explain such collective heroism?

“It’s very easy to understand. We have more than 1,000 years of history, and all our history has been about the struggle for independence. The people love Ukraine. The new generation, for 30 years they are free people, they did not live in the USSR.

“My daughter is 30 years old, she doesn’t know what the USSR is. The young generation like Ivanna are free independent people. We want to live in a democratic, free country.”

‘We have to be in solidarity now’

I ask what more can the international community do for them. “Please close our skies,” Ivanna answers passionately. “A lot of my close friends are sitting in shelters for five or six days. We contact them, they are afraid to go up, because every time there is bombing.

“I can’t understand what more we need to say, to Europe, to USA, so that they understand that this is a world catastrophe. Ukraine protects the whole of Europe from this Russian attack.”

I mention the NATO argument that to engage with Russian warplanes would start a world war. Lesia replies: “The Third World War has started already. Some ships belonging to other countries – Romania, Estonia – in the Black Sea are damaged already by Russian missiles. Putin doesn’t want to destroy only Ukraine. Another aim is to show the democratic world that he is bigger than them, he has more power.”

When I spoke with Lesia and Ivanna on Friday (4 August), both women predicted the fact that Russia would break its promise to allow civilian evacuation from the towns and cities that have been destroyed. After all, they said, Putin had done the same thing in 2014.

They urged the UN and international agencies, especially the Red Cross, to try to take a more active role in creating humanitarian corridors. This remains an urgent need.

And, as is increasingly the case in the modern world, information is power.

“Of course we are very grateful for the international community of trade unions, not only for their messages of support but concrete, humanitarian aid, also organising different funds to collect money,” says Lesia. “But we want to encourage them to learn more and to spread information.”

Ivanna adds: “We have to be in solidarity now.”

UNISON condemns the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has called for Russian troops to withdraw and allow meaningful peace talks to go ahead. The union has also reached out in solidarity to public service unions in Ukraine whose members are on the frontline, trying to save lives as civilian casualties rise.

The union has donated £10,000 to an appeal established by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) to support the Ukrainian trade union movement and is encouraging its branches and members to do the same.

The union is also encouraging members and branches to donate to the Disasters Emergency Committee DEC) appeal.

6 thoughts on “‘We do not feel safe, but we are not afraid’

  1. Michelle Smith says:

    The date in the below para appears to be incorrect

    When I spoke with Lesia and Ivanna on Friday (4 August), both women predicted the fact that Russia would break its promise to allow civilian evacuation from the towns and cities that have been destroyed. After all, they said, Putin had done the same thing in Crimea in 2014.

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