“We’re not really sleeping, not really eating and there are lots of tears”
“It’s heart-breaking. It is very emotional, not just for today but for the last few days,” Stanislav Lapko told RTE as he was interviewed at Dublin airport on Sunday evening before boarding a plane which would bring him to Poland. Once there, he planned on driving with other Ukrainians who were also returning to their homeland, to defend their country against Russia.
“There are plenty of tears in the house,” he said as he prepared to leave his wife Tanya and sons Eugene and Alex behind in Ireland.
These were also the words he used when he spoke to The Argus on Saturday afternoon.
“We’re not really sleeping, not really eating and there are lots of tears,” he said of the days which followed the news that Russian troops had crossed the border into Ukraine in the early hours of Thursday morning.
Sitting outside Panama Coffee in the Market Square on a bitterly cold February afternoon it was hard not to think that just days before people across the Ukraine had been going about their daily business in a similar fashion.
They were used to Putin’s sabre-rattling and many didn’t believe that the Russian ruler would actually carry out his threat to invade Ukraine.
‘No-one in Ukraine expected this. No-one believed it would happen,” said the Paypal employee, who has been living in Ireland for over 20 years.
Stanislav said that in the days leading up to the invasion, he had spoken by phone to relatives in the Ukraine, and they reported that the mood was calm, with plenty of food in the shops.
He, however, had been so worried that the situation would escalate that he told his wife and younger son not to travel to the Ukraine for the mid-term break.
“I was listening to the speeches from the American President. I said don’t go. No-one would believe me.”
“They had flight tickets bought for mid-term and were supposed to go on Sunday (February 21st). It’s very lucky they didn’t go. I don’t know what I could do if they been over there.”
Stanislav and his family have been living in Tallanstown for the past five years. His eldest son Eugene works for IBM while Alex is at school in Ardee.
He knows other Ukrainians living locally, including some colleagues in PayPal, but the first many of them knew of his plans to return to his homeland was when they saw him on the news on Sunday evening.
Stanislav had last been in the Ukraine at the beginning of February when he had to go back home to settle legal affairs following the death of his mother a few months ago.
Life had seemed normal and he spoke proudly of what Ukraine had achieved under President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who has taken steps against corruption and to build up the economy.
“He has huge plans and because Ukraine wanted to join the EU and NATO, Putin said he would not allow that to happen.
The Ukrainian army is much stronger now than it was in 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, said Stanislav.
Over the past week, he had spoken to cousins living in the Ukraine who told him about the growing sense of panic as the country once again found itself under attack.
Most of his relatives are living in Poltava in the north west of the country, about 130 kms from the capital. ‘It’s still peaceful where they are. They are in a village so it is quiet for now.”
However, he also has a cousin in Kyiv who has told him how she could hear the sounds of artillery and bombings near the apartment block where she lives.
His wife’s family, including her 67 year-old mother and 48 year-old sister, are also living in a village near Zhitomir and don’t want to leave.
But it was his wife’s nephew that they were worried about, as he’s 30 and unable to leave the country.
“Obviously I have a lot of friends in Ukraine, some who used to be in Ireland but who moved back and set up their own business there.
“Most tragic are the people who are working here and have family back in the Ukraine,” he said, adding that there were also college students who had travelled to the Ukraine and now found themselves stuck there.
Like many Ukrainians living in Ireland Stansilav and his eldest son travelled to Dublin to join the protest outside Leinster House on Thursday.
“A lot of Irish people joined us. The Irish people are so supportive – we have quite a similar history.”
He welcomed the announcement that Ireland had waived the visa requirement for Ukrainians coming to the country, but pointed out that men aged between 18 and 60 were not allowed to leave.
People back home were getting ready to defend their country and were joining the local guard.
“A friend who used to work in Ireland signed up to join the local guard, get weapons and form local units to defend their areas for when the Russians penetrate.”
Ukrainians living in Ireland were collecting money to send back home so that these units can buy ammunition.
‘We are watching the news all the time. All the Ukrainian channels have come together and are showing the same coverage 24/7.”
He had been in constant communication with fellow Ukrainians living in Ireland as well as back home. The sadness in his eyes told of the difficult decision this family man was going to make.