A COUNTY Durham woman who has just returned from a trip to Ukraine has described what life was like in the country just days before Russia launched its invasion.

Barely 72 hours ago, Julie Ward, who lives in Teesdale and is a former Member of the European Parliament, was in the country's capital, Kyiv.

Part of an unofficial delegation, she had travelled into the country on Saturday (February 19) to talk to people on the ground and discuss what had happened so far.

Read more: Ukraine crisis LIVE: Updates as Russia invades country

But speaking to The D&S Times, Ms Ward described how her visit had been cut short, a day earlier than planned, due to the escalating situation.

Darlington and Stockton Times: The delegations met family members of imprisoned Crimean TartarsThe delegations met family members of imprisoned Crimean Tartars

Friends had prepared to make arrangements

Ms Ward, who left the country on Tuesday (February 22), said: “While I was there my friends were beginning to put together things they would need if they had to flee.

"They had a pack of things by the door so they could grab them and a full tank of petrol."

Ms Ward had been staying with Ukrainian friends, who have since fled their home in Kyiv along with their two-year-old child.

She said: “When I left on Tuesday morning there was still a degree of normal life.

“One of my friends had gone to work as a nuclear engineer because he had an exam to do as part of his work at a science institution.

“One day he was going to work and the next day they fled and they are driving to try and get across the border into Slovenia or Poland.

'Some had already gone'

“Some families had already gone. They have been fearful for their children.”

Part of a message sent from her friend at 10.48am on Thursday said: “It’s hard times for people in Ukraine. There will be a lot of lives taken away. My home town is on fire, Kyiv also.

“We are trying to get to Slovenia or Poland. This morning we heard explosions. We are together trying to get to the border.”

The delegation arrived in Kyiv on Saturday, when commemorations were taking place in Kyiv for the eighth anniversary of the Maidan revolution, when more than 100 people were killed during protest to oust Ukraine’s pro-Russia president Viktor Yanukovych.

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Why Ms Ward was there

The party included Welsh Senedd member and half Ukrainian Mick Antoniw, Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price, journalist Paul Mason, Chris Kitchen, the president for the National Union of Mineworkers and Mick Whelan, general secretary of ASLEF, the train drivers union.

They met with a number of people, including former heavyweight boxing champion and Mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko, the Ukrainian ombudsman, members of the civil defence unit, the families of imprisoned Crimean Tartars, human rights lawyers and labour activists and the Trade Union Federation of Ukraine.

Ms Ward, who has been going to Ukraine for more than a decade and is a member of progressive alliance group Another Europe is Possible, said: “We went to listen to people on the ground and have in depth conversations and discussion about what was happening.”

Darlington and Stockton Times:

Damning remarks over sanctions

Describing the sanctions approved on Tuesday as “absolutely pathetic and completely inadequate, she added: “The message we were getting that that more needed to be done. While the declarations and solidarity from America and the EU and Britain are welcome, it has been too little too late.

“The conversations have been the US talking to Russia and the UK talking to Russia. The Ukrainians haven’t been in the room. They are talking about the future of a sovereign people who want to be European and they were not in the room.”

She added: “Ukrainian people want to be European. They do not want to return to Soviet times. They have a distinct culture, particularly young people.

“Ukraine is not the aggressor. Putin is painting a picture where he is defending Russian speakers from Ukraine

“Many Ukrainians are Russian, many are married to Russians. They were born there and they have friends and family there. In the break-away areas where in the east where Putin has been backing the rebels there is a narrative that these people have been oppressed but that is totally untrue.”

The founder of Crook-based Jack Drum Arts, she first started getting involved with arts organisations in Ukraine in 2011.

She was also vocal about the annexation of Crimea, when she was a Labour MEP.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A delegation of people in the UK were in Ukraine this week to show solidarity with its peopleA delegation of people in the UK were in Ukraine this week to show solidarity with its people


'Years in the making'

She said: “This crisis has been years in the making. It didn’t just happen overnight. People woke up this morning to hear there was a full scale war in Europe but there has been a war against Ukraine since 2014. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers have already been killed and there are other kind of consequences.

“Ukrainians will fight for their country. They have been fighting for it for a long time.”

The delegation left Ukraine a day early due to the escalating situation and ended up getting on the first flight they could to Istanbul to ensure they were able to leave the country.

She added: “Some people were still arriving. Many Ukrainians are going home to defend their country.

“As we were driving to the airport we didn’t know if we could get a flight so we were in communication with friends who could provide us with cars to drive to the border if we couldn’t get out.

“I was quite concerned about that because I have experienced the border in peace times and I knew it would be packed.

“We have another refugee crisis on our hands in Europe and we are partly responsible.

“Words are not enough.”

She asked people to show their solidarity for the people of Ukraine, adding: “People are asking what they can do to help, People feel helpless but they can help. What they need to do is demonstrate even in small communities to show solidarity with Ukraine and with the Ukrainian diaspora.”