As war rages in their homeland, Ukrainians living here in the UK are stepping up to help support the fierce resistance to the Russian invasion.
In a small courtyard a few steps from a busy shopping street, our journalist Rhys Griffiths found young Ukrainians getting much-needed supplies for their troops – and heard how they are ready to join the fight if the call comes.
Former soldier “Wozza” explains how he helps secure supplies for Ukrainian resistance fighters
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine shocked a continent into believing it would never again see the tanks of a foreign invader attempt to subjugate and capture a European capital.
Images broadcast live from Kiev and other major cities in Ukraine brought war closer to home than in a generation and raised the chilling prospect of war in Europe.
An afternoon spent in the yard at the Cheriton store of G4 Echelon Military Supplies, which operates an army surplus store in Folkestone, brought the pain and uncertainty of the crisis even closer to home as we met a steady stream of young Ukrainian men and women who had come to see if they could buy a kit to send to the fighters on the front line.
Vitalii Vovchuk, a construction driver who left Ukraine three years ago, told us that the London community had already formed a unit of fighters who traveled to their home countries to take up arms.
The 28-year-old, who is married and lives with his wife in west London, had come to the Kent coast with fellow countrymen in search of supplies.
“We’re also thinking of going there ourselves,” he said when asked about the prospects of returning to join the fight.
“But because we haven’t been in the military now, they need people who already know how to fight, how to hold their guns, all that stuff.
“We will keep an eye out and if they do training centers we will join them as soon as possible.
“We must win this war and take back our territory, like Crimea and the occupied territories.
“Because this is our chance, you can see now that these are the last days of Russia.
“It’s the end of the great country, and it’s coming to him [Putin’s] to finish.
“He never thought it would happen like this, but we Ukrainians always knew it would happen.
“Putin’s problem is that he doesn’t understand Ukrainians.
“We will fight for our freedom.”
The owner rushes back and forth across the yard, calling himself only as “Wozza”, despite being pressed for his full name.
He is a former soldier who says he is now trying to source as much material as possible to sell at a discount to Ukrainians returning to the conflict in the days and weeks to come.
His business is the army surplus business and he tries to offer what can be most useful to the Ukrainian fighters.
Although he is unable to sell body armor, he does sell military fatigues, cold weather clothing, and much-needed boots that will help prepare volunteers returning home to fight.
The 52-year-old said: “Ukrainians who live in the UK, civilians, are returning to their homeland in order to defend it against the Russians.
“Now they are civilians, they have no experience, they have no equipment and but they want to do their duty and they have been called back by their president and they are leaving.
“So what I’m doing is trying to help them as best I can, being a former military person myself, and understanding what the soldiers are going through there and obviously what these guys who are going to meet are likely to meet.”
Among those who arrived at the site on Monday afternoon was Nastia Nizalova, a photographer from Dover, who came with a friend of a friend she had never met before but had volunteered to help drive supplies to collection points.
The 25-year-old was previously an A-level pupil at Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School in Canterbury.
She told us how the entire Ukrainian community in the UK is now working together – coordinated via social media – to do all they can to support the war effort in their country.
“There are a lot of people on the ground doing things, but they don’t have enough resources and just don’t have enough equipment.”
“I’m picking up supplies because that’s the most important thing right now,” she said.
“There are a lot of people on the ground doing things, but they don’t have enough resources and just don’t have enough equipment.
“At least for now, it’s the best thing I can do from here.
“The diaspora in the UK is very active now.
And what supplies are most in demand by the men and women resisting the Russian attack?
“Mostly protection,” she said. “So body armor and helmets, there’s just not enough of them. I know people buy them and pass them on, so wherever we can find them, that’s great.
“People on the run also need a lot of things. But right now I think the top priority is to equip all the guys and girls.”
Everyone we spoke to during an afternoon in the courtyard, which is a short distance from the shops and takeaways of Cheriton High Street, told similar stories of friends and relatives in Ukraine.
They were also united in their absolute determination that their country should not be defeated, despite the might of one of the most formidable armies in the world deployed against their country.
“We have something worth fighting for,” Nastia said.
“We protect our country and they invade us, so Ukrainians are more motivated to protect what is ours and protect our culture.
“Frankly, it started a long time ago, but at least now people understand what is going on and I think western countries now realize exactly the threat.
“I think the goal now is to support Ukraine as much as possible, because it probably won’t end there.
“It’s mental. It’s mental to get messages like ‘don’t worry, I’m fine, we’re at the shelter’. Is this a message I was supposed to get from my friend? No, probably not.”
We asked Vitalii for his views on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, whose videos and social media posts from the beleaguered capital of Kiev have made him a global symbol of the nation’s defiance.
“Oh, it’s changed, completely changed, man,” he said, admitting he didn’t vote for the actor-turned-politician.
“He’s strong. You can see he has real power, you know? He can’t be weak because of the nation’s people, you know. He’s really strong. Now I change my mind about him.”
And what does he think of the prospect of returning to Ukraine to join the armed resistance to the Russians?
“We’re actually disappointed that no one is giving us a rifle,” he said of the decision to prioritize those with battle experience.
“We are ready to go now, to fight, we are ready. I was not in the army, unfortunately, but I am happy to give my life for Ukraine. We have to win and we will win. will do.”