Monday, February 26, 2024
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‘I left behind a beautiful life’

ZURICH (AFP) – Clutching her baby, Alona Shevchenko’s eyes well up with tears as the plane lifts off from Krakow.

“I am alone,” she said. “I finally feel we are in safety, but I do not know what awaits us.”
The 29-year-old is among some 90 Ukrainian refugees – nearly all women and children – being flown to Switzerland as they escape the violence in their conflict-torn country.

The plane has been chartered by Swiss millionaire Guido Fluri, who said experiences from his own troubled childhood instilled a visceral sense of obligation to help those uprooted and in crisis.

“If I can help, I help,” said Fluri, who spent time in foster care as a child, having been taken from his mother who had him young and later developed schizophrenia.

“When you are fortunate later in life, you have to learn to take responsibility for people who are suffering,” he told AFP as the all-but-empty A320 plane headed towards Krakow in Poland to pick up the Ukrainian passengers.

“For me, it is an obligation.”

This is the second such flight the real estate mogul and philanthropist organised since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

On March 8, he flew in 150 people from Krakow to Switzerland, while he has bussed around 80 others to the wealthy Alpine country.

A Ukrainian refugee holds his sleeping child in a bus after landing at Zurich Airport from Krakow in a plane chartered by a Swiss millionaire. PHOTOS: AFP
Swiss millionaire Guido Fluri plays with a young Ukrainian at Krakow Airport before flying to Zurich
ABOVE & BELOW: Ukrainian refugees rest in a plane from Krakow to Zurich; and Ukrainian refugees exit a plane

The transfers are being organised with help from associations in cooperation with Swiss, Polish and Ukrainian authorities, and Fluri said he expected to bring in around 400 people in total.

“We will help for as long as it is possible. Money is not a main concern,” he said.

Upon arrival in Krakow, the youthful 55-year-old, wearing jeans and a worn leather jacket, walked eagerly towards the waiting area, flanked by his wife Tania, his 20-year-old son Samuel and 14-year-old daughter Luisa.

They greeted the exhausted-looking passengers, handing the children stuffed toy birds in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag, and asking the names of the many cats and dogs held in cages and on laps.

“I am a bit excited, and scared,” 35-year-old school English teacher Olga Titkova told AFP.
Her mother and grandmother remained behind in Pryluky, east of Kyiv, which had so far been spared in the conflict, but with shelling just kilometres away.

“It is not safe to stay… I have three kids, so I should save their lives,” she said, glancing anxiously over at the young children clambering on their father, one of only three men in
the group.

Titkova, whose cream-coloured mask accentuated the dark circles under her eyes, said she hoped to return home, but only if Ukraine wins the war.

“I want to live in a free country. I want my kids to be free.”

Once settled on the plane, the refugees listened as a Ukrainian translator told them about their destination, and joined in shouts of ‘Slava Ukraini’, or ‘Glory to Ukraine’.

As the plane took off, they burst into loud applause.

“I hope Switzerland can offer me a comfortable life,” said Olena, a 45-year-old arts teacher from Chernigiv, near the Belarusian and Russian borders, which suffered heavy shelling.

“I left behind a beautiful house, a beautiful life,” she said.

Sitting next to her, her 15-year-old son said he had been looking forward to starting high school next year, but “now I have no plans”.

When the plane lands in Zurich, double-decker buses take the refugees to accommodation in various locations.

Two dozen are shuttled about an hour away to a former children’s home in Mumliswil-Ramiswil in Solothurn canton, where Fluri spent time as a foster child.

His foundation later bought the building and turned it into a memorial to children like him, removed from their families.

After helping serve the exhausted travellers a meal of soup and bread, Fluri noted “the relief on their faces”.

It was a powerful emotional experience, he said, to “help bring people to safety who have fled, who have feared death, been shot at”.

Over 3.6 million people have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began, according to the United Nations (UN).

Nearly 13,000 made it to Switzerland, with regional authorities estimating hundreds of thousands could arrive by the end of the year.

At the Mumliswil-Ramiswil house, Shevchenko balanced a crying child, Yegor on her lap.
“The trip was very, very long,” she said.

She recalled how strong she felt in her old life as a Kyiv police officer.

“Now I am afraid. I cry a lot.”

She worries about her husband, also a police officer now defending the Ukrainian capital, and her parents, her brother and dog, all left behind.

“I am very afraid for Kyiv. They are bombing houses. I don’t know which house will be next.”