Lancaster man speaks of ‘humanitarian catastrophe’ after fleeing war in Ukraine

A Lancaster man has spoken of how he had to flee Ukraine due to war and how the generosity of people is making a difference in the war-torn nation.

By Gayle Rouncivell
Thursday, 14th April 2022, 12:30 pm
Updated Thursday, 14th April 2022, 11:03 pm

Andrew Ness, 29, has lived in the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv since 2015 but is now back living with his family in Scotforth Road.

He left his home on the morning of the invasion on February 24 to stay with his girlfriend in the safer countryside, but eventually decided to leave, reaching Budapest where he flew back to the UK.

Andrew has been teaching English to professors in Mykolaiv, a city of 400,000 people. He has been keeping in touch with friends and stressed the need for ongoing support for the nation.

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Andrew Ness pictured in Ukraine in November 2021.

Andrew said: “I have shown my students pictures from Lancaster and they appreciate that the world is thinking of them.

“Donations are making a difference. I have seen how with getting refugees to the borders, money is being used very well. It is not being wasted.

“It is a humanitarian catastrophe. Even when the war has finished, the country will need rebuilding to be what it was. But help is getting through and it is making a difference to people who are in unimaginable circumstances.

“I was very comfortable in Ukraine, I liked it a lot. Ukrainian people are very hospitable and friendly when you get to know them. The way of life is very relaxed.

Andrew Ness pictured in Dnipro in January.

“They are extremely patriotic. You see the Ukraine flag on lots of buildings – even benches are painted in the colours of the flag.”

Andrew recalled when he realised war had started.

“On February 24, I woke up quite early, about 6am. I could hear sounds and it was difficult to work out what it was. It felt like a lorry going passed your house, or my old Soviet boiler.

“I read the BBC front page on my phone and it said that the invasion had started. I heard noises followed by louder explosions. It was the Russian Air Force, taking out key military infrastructure.

Andrew Ness pictured in Mykolaiv in October 2015, just after he arrived in Ukraine.

“I went across to my kitchen. I looked up and saw a military fighter plane from Ukraine, very low over my head. That was the first visual sign that something was different.”

His initial plan to head West to Moldova was cut off due to Russian bombing of Odessa, so he decided to go to his girlfriend’s house in the countryside, four hours away.

“As I went to the bus station, I saw queues at the ATMs, the petrol stations and the chemists. Now it was real. You could see it on people’s faces.

“People were crying. Others were on the phone to relatives. All this to the backdrop of bombs exploding.”

Andrew Ness pictured in Dnipro in January.

The main fear was invasion of troops as the coast was not far away. Checkpoints had been set up with police in bullet-proof vests, demanding to see documents.

Andrew spent about 10 days at his girlfriend’s house before deciding to try to get back to England. He headed to Kryvyi Rih to catch one of the evacuation trains that were taking people to the safer cities in western Ukraine.

“Things had changed. The checkpoints were more significant with sandbags and heavy equipment.

“There were the metal hedgehogs everywhere to stop tanks and military personnel on the streets. You could see on people’s faces that the situation was different.”

The platform was packed, with police keeping the crowd back. After a failed first attempt to get in one carriage, Andrew was successful the second time.

“When they opened the doors, a huge crowd of people pushed towards the doors. Children were being passed over people’s heads. It was crazy, extremely chaotic.”

The local government administration building in Mykolaiv, taken two weeks before the war started. This building is located in the centre of the city and was recently destroyed in a missile strike.

With 12-16 people packed in compartments, Andrew had to spend the night in a corridor. The train journey took about 24 hours with all the lights off and blinds down for fear of alerting a Russian plane.

“The attendants were saying how it was war time and so we were one big family who had to take care of each other. Everyone tried to make it easier for each other.

“Once the train got going, people relaxed as they knew they were going to safety. It was relief more than anything else.”

Andrew met some old friends on the train who were heading to Budapest and they invited him to join them. The train took them almost to the Slovakian border, the town of Uzhgorod. They stayed there for a couple of days in a shelter run by a Greek Orthodox Church.

“It was much calmer there. We were still in Ukraine, but because we were behind the Carpathian Mountains, we were very well protected. It was probably the safest place in Ukraine.”

The queue to cross the border into Slovakia was about two hours. There were people giving food and drinks. There were even psychologists on hand, as well as journalists, and Government officials advising on accommodation and other essentials.

Three hours of driving took him to Budapest, where Andrew spent about a week before flying to Liverpool to rejoin parents Lawrence and Karen.

“In Budapest there were lots of refugees coming by train from Ukraine. But I saw the first civilian planes I had seen for a while. It felt more normal and nice to be in a place without the stress.”

He added: “It was a relief to see mum and dad.”

Andrew has been home for about a month but is still conducting lessons with students online.

“It has been hard talking to friends who are going through this. If the Russians are in the city, then there is lots of shooting and artillery. If Ukraine army pushes them back, the Russians are using rockets and missiles into the middle of the city.

“A couple of weeks ago, a missile struck a government building where I used to go to get my resident permit renewed. Seeing the hollow shell was very surreal.

“My friends have shown me pictures of blown-up Russian tanks in the city. That is rather weird – it’s like seeing a picture of tanks on Marketgate in Lancaster.

“The city will look very different when I get back,” he added.

But he is determined.

“I will return when the war is over. It could be weeks, months, even years.”