Ukraine fencers refused to fight Russian team at World Cup now saving lives in besieged Kyiv

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Ten days ago, Andrii Scherba stood shoulder to shoulder with Ukranian compatriots, the day after Russia mounted its brutal assault on his country.

Scherba was not on the borders of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine or looking out on the Crimean Peninsula as the Russians gathered their forces to attack.

He was in a sports hall in Cairo, the capital of Egypt, where he was competing in the 2022 fencing World Cup. Dignified and calm, the Ukraine team stood face-to-face with their Russian opponents and explained they would not fight them in competition. 

Instead, they were going home to protect their homeland and to look after their loved ones following Vladimir Putin’s merciless assault.

Now, back in the Ukraine capital, Kyiv, Scherba and his team mate Andrei Pogrebniak are delivering life-saving medicine and food to help their shattered countrymen.

‘The moment we refused to participate was one of the most emotional in my career, we understood that now our people need support, especially in the international arena,’ Scherba told Sportsmail.

‘We decided not to remain silent and tell the world about the aggression of the occupying country so that the whole world sees the threat our army is holding back from Europe,’ 

Kyiv has been hit by rockets with residents forced to seek shelter when air raid sirens sound

Kyiv has been hit by rockets with residents forced to seek shelter when air raid sirens sound

Kyiv, like other cities in Ukraine, has been battered by Russian shells and rockets. And as Putin’s forces struggle in the face of determined opposition they have become increasingly desperate and are expected to maintain the bombardment. 

But after more than a week in stalled positions, Russian forces have made small gains in their attempt to surround and assault Kyiv

Hundreds of civilians tried to evacuate Irpin – on the outskirts of Kyiv – across a destroyed bridge after days of heavy attacks. A family-of-four were killed by a Russian mortar round as they tried to flee. 

Meanwhile, in the city itself, Scherba, 25, picks his way through the wreckage and rubble to deliver vital medicines to trapped citizens.

If they’ll let him, Scherba will fight, but until now, the Ukrainian authorities have wanted only men who have some military experience.

Ukraine's national fencing team refused to face the Russian in World Cup competition and instead went home to protect their country and their loved ones following invasion. Source: Facebook

Ukraine’s national fencing team refused to face the Russian in World Cup competition and instead went home to protect their country and their loved ones following invasion. Source: Facebook

Ukrainian police officers check the documents of passer-by next to anti-tank obstacles in the center of Kyiv

Ukrainian police officers check the documents of passer-by next to anti-tank obstacles in the center of Kyiv

So, the athlete puts his skills to good use and assists his mother, a pharmacist, to nimbly deliver life-saving drugs around the city.

Scherba skips carefully through the suburbs, dodging the bombs and ducking into shelters when Russia attacks as he goes on his rounds.

Despite the war, those who remain of Kyiv’s three million population still suffer from the life-threatening ailments – heart disease, diabetes, cancer, infections –they had before hostilities broke out. Many have been unable to leave and they rely on Scherba and other volunteers to help them.

Today, Moscow claimed to have opened up evacuation routes out of Mariupol, Sumy, Kharkiv and Kyiv, but Ukraine quickly rejected the plan after it emerged most of them led into Russia or Belarus.

So, Scherba will continue to have no shortage of customers. 

Andrii Scherba, a member of the Ukraine fencing team, has made it back to Kyiv where he is giving out medicines Source:Andrii Scherba

Andrei Pogrebniak, has procured five ovens and is making and giving out bread. Source: Facebook

Andrii Scherba, a member of the Ukraine fencing team, has made it back to Kyiv where he is giving out medicines and Andrei Pogrebniak, has procured five ovens and is making and giving out bread. Source: Facebook

Heavy damage in the residential area of Borodyanka, on the outskirts of Kyiv

Heavy damage in the residential area of Borodyanka, on the outskirts of Kyiv

A woman weeps as the sound of shelling intensifies in the city of Irpin, to the west of Kyiv, with Russians trying to surround the capital ahead of an expected bombardment

A woman weeps as the sound of shelling intensifies in the city of Irpin, to the west of Kyiv, with Russians trying to surround the capital ahead of an expected bombardment

‘I wanted to enlist in the military or the territorial defence unit, but I was refused,’ the fencer told Sportsmail via the messaging app, Telegram.

‘I was told that there were already enough people and only recruits with military experience [were wanted]. So now I’m volunteering, taking medicine to the least accessible places and helping with fundraising and equipment for the army.’

‘There is an acute shortage of medicines. It is dangerous to deliver, there is often an evacuation siren and you are on the road and there is no shelter nearby.’

He is ready to fight whenever he is needed. Scherba’s younger brother has already taken up arms, operating one of the many checkpoints into and out of the city and its neighbourhoods.

‘I think if the Russians attack the city, we will all take part in the defence, we will not give up our city,’ he said.

Despite ten days of brutality, sheltering underground, shortages and fear, Scherba is as defiant as he was in Cairo. Even more so.

‘It is very painful to watch families at railway stations and airports trying to save their children and going abroad. A lot of people are scared and not sure that tomorrow will come,’ he said.

‘But I want to tell you that when I returned home, I saw that our people believe in the army and the president and are not going to give up their country. Why should I leave it if it is our land, my homeland? Moreover, our people are so ready to fight.’

Russian forces are continuing to pound Mariupol, in the south, Kharkiv, in the east, Chernihiv, in the north, and Mykolaiv, in the south, with artillery - but have made little or no gains in territory in recent days. Forces continue to work to surround the capital Kyiv, though progress has been slow. Attacks on civilian areas on the outskirts have increased

Russian forces are continuing to pound Mariupol, in the south, Kharkiv, in the east, Chernihiv, in the north, and Mykolaiv, in the south, with artillery – but have made little or no gains in territory in recent days. Forces continue to work to surround the capital Kyiv, though progress has been slow. Attacks on civilian areas on the outskirts have increased

After more than a week in stalled positions, Russian forces have made small gains in their attempt to surround and assault Kyiv - with Ukraine saying enough firepower has now been amassed for the mission

After more than a week in stalled positions, Russian forces have made small gains in their attempt to surround and assault Kyiv – with Ukraine saying enough firepower has now been amassed for the mission

Another member of Ukraine’s team, Andrei Pogrebniak, also made it home from Cairo. Like, Scherba, he is not yet fighting, but feeding his fellow citizens.

Incredibly, Pogrebniak has set up a bakery for people to come for food and other supplies. They are baking 4,500 loaves a day.

‘Brought 5 convection ovens from other institutions,’ Pogrebniak wrote on Facebook, last week. ‘Bake 4,500 loaves of bread, bring 1,500 loaves to the hospital.’

Pogrebniak has promised to provide updates for those sending money for supplies. 

He and colleagues have set up a drop in, which operates from 1pm to 3pm each day on the embankment beside the Dnieper River, which before the war broke out was a popular promenade for the people of Kyiv. Now, it is a lifeline.

‘Come and take bread for free, come, do not be shy, everyone [needs] help!’ urged Pogrebniak.

People cross an improvised path under a destroyed bridge while fleeing the town of Irpin close to Kyiv, Ukraine

People cross an improvised path under a destroyed bridge while fleeing the town of Irpin close to Kyiv, Ukraine

That competition in Cairo seems a long time ago, now. Before it began, on February 25, the Ukrainian fencers trained in London. There was discussion about the worsening situation with Russia, bit no one could imagine the horrors Putin was planning.

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‘I said we are living in the 21st century,’ Klod Yunes, told Sportsmail in a WhatsApp call, recalling the conversations at the camp. ‘It is impossible to declare war in the middle of Europe. I said they were bluffing.’

But as the crisis in their homeland deepened doubts crept in.

‘Even before the war started, I told my coach that if I am going to face a Russian fencer I am going to refuse. Then, the next day at 6am we got this terrible news [the invasion had begun].’

On the first day of competition, Ukraine beat Singapore and  Russia had a bye bringing the nations together in aRound of 16 tie.  It was Yunes who made the speech on behalf of the Ukraine team. As he lined up with his compatriots and explained why they would not fence, the Russians stood opposite them, in full kit, barely five feet away.

Their opponents’ emotions were mostly concealed behind their sabre masks, but two of the team showed their appreciation of the Ukrainians’ position and applauded with the rest of the arena.

The Ukrainians displayed a sign, which read ‘Stop Russia! Stop The War! Save Ukraine! Save Europe!’

Afterwards, a Russian team member came over to speak to them. He was unaware of what had happened between their neighbouring countries.

‘I showed him the news and he did not know what to say,’ said Yunes.

‘[The Russians] were shocked. They could not expect their crazy, insane president to do this. Now all the world is against them.’

In the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion and the Ukrainians protest, their team scattered in search of sanctuary and loved ones who were already fleeing, or in the case of Scherba, and Pogrebniak, to get back home.

The Polish Fencing Federation took in some of the Ukrainians at its training base in Gdansk, while another went to Sweden and one to the USA.

Yunes went to Krakow in Poland to find his girlfriend who had made it across the border, but with no passport or papers. His mother and brother are in Lviv, across the frontier just inside Ukraine.

Meanwhile Volodymyr Zelensky vowed that ‘God will not forgive’ and Ukraine ‘will not forget’ the slaughter of civilians by Russian forces, saying a ‘day of judgement’ is coming for them.

Zelensky, in a late-night address to his countrymen on the Orthodox Christian holiday of ‘Forgiveness Sunday’, recalled how a family of four were among eight civilians killed by Russian mortars while trying to flee the city of Irpin – near Kyiv – earlier in the day. ‘We will not forgive. We will not forget,’ he told listeners.   

‘We cannot forgive the hundreds upon hundreds of victims. Nor the thousands upon thousands who have suffered,’ he added. ‘God will not forgive. Not today. Not tomorrow. Never.’

‘Instead of humanitarian corridors, they can only make bloody ones,’ Zelensky said, as Interior Ministry adviser Anton Gerashchenko added: ‘There can be no ‘green corridors’ because only the sick brain of the Russians decides when to start shooting and at whom.’

Shortly after they spoke, columns of smoke were seen rising over the city of Mykolaiv, on Ukraine’s Black Sea coast, as Russian forces resumed shelling. 

The exact number of civilian casualties is unclear, though is estimated by Ukraine to be in the thousands as residential areas of major cities are indiscriminately bombed using thermobaric and cluster munitions amid evidence of ‘hit squads’ targeting civilian vehicles. 

The UN has confirmed 406 civilian deaths, though admits the true toll will be higher, and says that that 1.5million people have fled the fighting. 

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