Ukrainian children lead poignant London service marking one year of war

Hundreds of paper angels hung in cathedral to represent young victims of conflict

Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

At the tender age of 10, Sofiya Hanishevska has been forced to grow up quickly as a result of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Like many children in her homeland, she displays maturity beyond her years.

The schoolgirl had been living in London with her mother when the war began.

Speaking to The National as she marked its first anniversary, Sofiya said her relationship with her relatives in western Ukraine quickly took on a new meaning. Instead of offering updates on her life in Britain during phone calls, the little girl took it on herself to serve as a beacon of hope and strength to her loved ones suffering amid the fighting back home.

“My grandparents are there and my cousins and I pray for [them],” she said. “I speak to them, I FaceTime them, I try to calm them down sometimes, like, make them happy.

“I say to them ‘don’t worry, there will soon be peace, we will come with victory to the city', and I really love them.”

Sofiya was among the dozens of youngsters who packed to the pews of the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London on Friday to sing solemn hymns at a prayer service to mark the anniversary of the invasion.

After the service, the UK observed one minute of silence to remember those who have died in Ukraine war over the past year.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife Akshata Murthy were joined by Vadym Prystaiko, the Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK, and his wife Inna outside No 10 Downing Street.

Ukraine's ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, and his wife Inna meet Larry, the Downing Street Cat, at No 10 on the first anniversary of the invasion. EPA

Mr Sunak urged people to "reflect on the courage and bravery of our Ukrainian friends" whom he said had "fought heroically" against Russian troops.

“I am proud that the UK has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukraine through this horrific conflict," he added. "As I stand with brave Ukrainian soldiers outside Downing Street today, my thoughts will be with all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to defend freedom and return peace to Europe.”

Hundreds of guests turned up to the cathedral, which was decorated with 461 paper angels hanging from rows of string. They served as a grim reminder of the official number of children who have died in Ukraine as a result of the fighting.

The Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London is decorated with 461 paper angels, one for each child who has died in the past year.  AFP

“I sincerely hope that we don’t have to put [up] another row of angels,” Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski, head of the cathedral, told the congregation.

The choir of pupils from St Mary’s Ukrainian School near Holland Park belted out the notes of traditional Ukrainian ballads, providing a poignant backdrop to a sombre service attended by diplomats, MPs, faith leaders and Ukrainian refugees and expats.

Supported by her mother Mariya Hanishevska, Sofiya explained how she empathises with people across Ukraine, many of whom are not as blessed as she is.

“I feel sorry for the people that have died in the war and I am grateful for what I have,” she said. “I am sorry for the people that sit in bomb shelters in Ukraine and cry for peace.”

Echoing the message delivered to the congregation by Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK, Sofiya said she feels “really grateful for London being there” for herself and her mother and many other Ukrainians who have come to call the city home.

Boris Johnson, who was prime minister when the war began, drew a round of applause when he declared “Slava Ukraini” which means “Glory to Ukraine”.

In a speech, London mayor Sadiq Khan praised the “remarkable” defiance Ukrainians had shown, and told them: “Your valour inspired the world.”

Bishop Nowakowski told guests at the prayer service that “some had thought that a white flag of surrender would be raised” when Russian soldiers arrived in Ukrainian towns, cities and villages on February 24, 2022. But he said that “through the courage of the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the Ukrainian flag was raised and still flies”.

Looking back to the first day of the war in Ukraine, Natalie Parasiuc, from the western city of Chortkiv, remembered desperate phone calls to her parents. Speaking to The National alongside her nine-year-old son Alexander, she said the couple initially didn’t want to join her in London and fiercely resisted her pleas. Eventually, they relented, much to her relief.

“It was terrible,” she recalled. “Many people do not want to leave their homes in Ukraine. I wanted them to be safe.

“It’s very hard for them to be here, they don’t speak English and it’s a different culture.

“My father wants to go back in the summer for one or two weeks. He wants to see what has happened with their home, with our relatives. I will be worried if he goes back.”

Natalie Parasiuc and her son Alexander at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral in London. The National

Zhanetta Manilich was among the members of the congregation who turned up draped in the Ukrainian flag. While she has lived in Britain for 18 years and considers herself a Londoner, the destruction of her motherland has weighed heavily on her mind over the past year, she said.

“It was more like a jumble of emotions to be honest,” she said of the day Russia invaded. “I remember it as a very dark, heavy day. We were brought back to a dark medieval age of one country invading another just for the sake of territory and I don’t think we were prepared for that mentally.

“It’s hard to reconcile the emotions of that day and the injustice that happened. When it happened it was heartbreaking but I am very proud to be Ukrainian.”

Britain marks first anniversary of Ukraine war — in pictures

Updated: February 24, 2023, 3:30 PM