'I refuse to leave': Indian Ukrainian stands with adopted country in fight against Russia

Nitesh Pal brought coworkers and family to safety before returning to keep food supply lines open

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When Nitesh Pal, a Ukrainian businessman of Indian origin, sent his family and colleagues across the country's western border to safety, he assured them he would soon follow.

His wife, Veronika, knew there was some business to settle with his company, which produces seafood.

What she didn't know was that her husband would return to stand alongside thousands of Ukrainians to support their country in the war against Russia.

“I refuse to leave,” said managing director and co-owner of Polar Seafood Ukraine, a subsidiary of a popular Danish brand.

“If everybody packed their bags and left on February 24, there would be no country.”

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Every single person is protecting his own for when his family returns
Nitesh Pal, Indian-Ukrainian businessman

Though his Ukrainian citizenship is relatively new, Mr Pal is a staunch defender of his new country. He was among the first batch of people granted citizenship when President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took office in 2019.

“I chose to be Ukrainian because I love this country. The people have amazing spirit — that’s why they are still fighting and why Russia can’t break the country.”

Men aged between 18 and 60 have been barred from leaving Ukraine, with exemptions for those supporting three or more children under the age of 18, as the country attempted to build up its defence forces.

As a father to three children aged between 6 and 14, Mr Pal was exempt and could have left. Two older children live in Denmark, where he worked before moving to Ukraine 10 years ago, and he could have travelled with his family to reunite with them in safety.

Instead, he stayed.

Supplying food

The 49-year-old is a key part of a civilian network that is helping to keep the country running during the conflict, supporting the army, caring for the wounded and making sure supermarket shelves are stocked.

While providing food for people need and armoured vests for soldiers, he is also running his business with a skeleton crew.

Nitesh Pal with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy before he took office in 2019. Photo: Pal family

Several times a week, he gets behind the wheel to distribute canned fish, shrimp, mussels and herring fillets to retailers. Food runs must be completed before the night curfew kicks in at 11pm.

“The days are long and we use it well. At 4.30am, I’m packed and ready, leaving the gate at 5am sharp,” he said.

A large proportion of the seafood is given away free of charge.

“You need businesses to work, people need to eat. That is what I do. I’m not a soldier but you have to understand your use and get to work. That is how this country will win the war,” he said.

“Fish and canned seafood is in big demand because it’s cheap.

“We are privileged to have a business. We give away as much as we can and try to have a business at the same time.”

Driving lorries to restock stores across dangerous terrain, he said he has found many bodies along motorways. And atrocities such as those that took place in the city of Bucha have shaken him to his core.

“What I feel is anger; it stops the tears from coming out,” he told The National from his home in a small suburb on the outskirts of Kyiv.

“I haven’t yet cried but there will be a time when I will need to cry for a week.”

Lucky escape

The Pals live in a small village five kilometres from the capital, which came under attack soon after the war began in February.

The family slept on mattresses in the bathroom and in a passage between the house and the garage as bombs fell near their home.

The children’s hands trembled with every blast of anti-tank missiles as Russian bombs dropped on nearby warehouses and a petrol station.

They soon lost power and gas, with temperatures dropping below 5°C at night.

His older son, Alex, would follow him at night as he walked around checking the property.

“I went out not knowing what I could [do to protect us] if the Russians came. Nothing can save you, no guns, nothing. I would walk so that if someone shot at us, I would get shot and not him,” Mr Pal said.

He finally managed to convince his family and his staff to leave their homes near Kyiv for safer counties.

On the eighth day of the war, a group of 25 people — ranging in age from a three-month-old baby to a 78-year-old grandmother — packed into five cars carrying signs that read “children”, in hopes it would deter Russian forces from firing on them.

After a nerve-racking journey, the group stayed for two weeks in a town about 200km from Ukraine's western border with Romania.

He then helped staff and their families reach Poland, Spain, Romania and Canada.

The Pal family had a lucky escape, he said. The day after they left, a bomb landed in their neighbour’s yard. The explosion shattered windows and blew open the doors of the Pal home.

“If we were sitting in the kitchen that day, it would have been hell,” he said.

“Maybe nothing would have happened to us. But the kids would be forever traumatised by the sound alone.

“My target was to get people out.”

Grateful to be safe

Bombs wreck warehouses and a petrol station near the Pal's residence. Photo: Pal family

Veronika, Mr Pal's Ukrainian wife, is with their children in Turkey, where the family has rented a house.

Small sounds such as windows rattling in the wind no longer frighten the children, who are now able to sleep through the night.

“At home, the earth was shivering with the blasts. We were really not sure if we would make it alive,” she said.

“You see in the news so many cars shot, so many dead families. You can’t plan your route because roads are blown up and there is shooting all the time.

“I was 90 per cent ready for death.”

Grateful they are safe, the family feel stuck in a surreal world.

“I understand why [Nitesh] is in Ukraine so I try not to press him to come be with us,” she said.

“I just want to go home, hug my husband, have my family life back. There are still feelings of total panic inside me.”

The family constantly check in on Mr Pal. His eldest daughter, Anna, 23, works in Denmark and calls daily.

“I messaged my family every 30 minutes when the war started,” she said.

“It’s difficult to have your parent in a war zone so I call him every single day.”

Ukrainians are survivors

War upended his life once before, in 1990, during Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait.

As a child, Mr Pal lived in the Gulf country and was on holiday in India when the Iraqi army invaded.

The family never returned. Mr Pal recalls having a suitcase in his room filled with photographs of his friends.

“We had nothing, literally nothing. I never saw my room, my house again.”

He lived in India for about two years before moving to work in Russia, then on to Denmark and finally to Ukraine.

Passionate about motorbikes, Mr Pal is the owner of the official BMW Ukrainian race team.

His glimmer of hope is tied to his nine bikes and three cars parked at a nearby track, where he tries to race daily.

“All my bikes and cars are ready to race,” he said.

“This is what I live for, this is what I love.”

He believes the indomitable spirit of his fellow Ukrainians will see them through.

“People are fixing their houses knowing tomorrow maybe [the shelling] will happen again,” Mr Pal said.

“That’s why this country is winning. It’s because every single person is protecting his own for when his family returns.

“Ukrainians have that drive to live a better life. They are fighters, survivors.”

Updated: June 13, 2022, 7:33 AM
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