By Agustin Geist and Horacio Fernando Soria
BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) – Viktor Paniouk and Lyudmyla Bots met and fell in love in Kyiv in October 1990 during a hunger strike for Ukrainian independence from Soviet rule, achieved a year later. Now the two 54-year-olds, thousands of miles away in Argentina, are watching in horror from afar as Russian troops invade their homeland.
Along with millions of overseas Ukrainians scattered around the world, the couple – both doctors – have been glued to news reports since Russia’s invasion last week, with tanks rolling towards capital Kyiv and missile attacks on major cities.
“It felt like it couldn’t be possible. It must be a movie,” said Paniouk about the images of shelled buildings and lines of armored vehicles that have dominated news channels in the last week. “I turn on CNN and there are explosions in Kyiv.”
Paniouk left his wife and daughter behind in Ukraine in 1996 when he moved to Buenos Aires. Eight years later, in 2004, his family was able to settle in the South American country with him. There are now some 450,000 Ukrainians living in Argentina.
They, along with others in the Ukrainian diasporas worldwide, have taken to the streets to protest against the war, which marks the most serious confrontation on European soil since World War Two and has roiled global markets and energy prices.
Both said that they felt fear about what was happening to relatives back in Ukraine, with the anxiety keeping them awake some nights glued to news channels to see what is happening.
“It’s like will I see my mom again? Will I see my brother?” Paniouk said at the couple’s home in Buenos Aires.
Paniouk last visited Ukraine five years ago, but plans to travel back in 2020 were scuppered by the COVID-19 pandemic.
But their ties to Ukraine feel as strong as ever. On Sunday, they along with members of the wider Ukrainian community gathered at a mass for peace in the Santa María del Patrocinio cathedral in Argentina’s capital city Buenos Aires.
“Due to a circumstance of life, I had to leave the country, but I never forgot or forget my country. I have my roots there. Kyiv for me is something more than capital. It is something sentimental,” Bots told Reuters.
Paniouk added that the sense of belonging had actually become stronger because of the crisis, helping break down barriers between people with different political views.
“There’s more unity and people are stronger, more united than ever,” he said.
(Reporting by Agustín Geist and Horacio Soria; Editing by Adam Jourdan and Lisa Shumaker)