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Ukrainians mark independence in heart of Europe

Bernd Riegert Brussels
August 25, 2022

The Belgian capital's historic Grand Place was covered in a sea of blue and yellow as Ukrainian refugees celebrated their independence day far from home.

Two women hold the Ukrainian flag, standing in the Grand Place in Brussels
'We are celebrating this day here, because it's not possible back home'Image: Bernd Riegert/DW

To mark their independence day, Ukrainian refugees crowded into Brussels' historic Grand Place and unfurled a 30-meter-long Ukraine flag among the opulent Baroque buildings in the heart of Europe.

"We are celebrating this day here, because it's not possible back home," Olga Sklyir told DW.

Refugees singing Ukraine's national anthem in Brussels, holding a giant flag
The gathered crowd, some wearing traditional dress, came together to sing Ukraine's national anthemImage: Christina Strunck/DW

Authorities in Kyiv, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) to the east, had called off independence day festivities there out of fear of Russia attacks. Ukraine's independence celebrations, on August 24, fell exactly six months after Russia launched its invasion, and the mood on Grand Place was more subdued than usual.

"There is not much jubilation. Instead, many here are remembering the many dead, the victims and families in Ukraine," said Sklyir.

Sklyir fled the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv in March, where she used to work at one of the city's universities. It took her four weeks to reach Brussels — first fleeing to Poland, then Switzerland and finally Belgium. She now lives with her daughter and granddaughter, who left the country in 2014 when Russia first attacked Crimea and eastern Ukraine. She remains in close contact with her sister, who stayed behind in Kharkiv.

A large crowd of people hold up a long Ukrainian flag
The Grand Place was covered in blue and yellow, the colors of UkraineImage: Johanna Geron/REUTERS

Sklyir decided to come to the Grand Place with her friends to express her gratitude. "Europe helped us a lot, we are thankful, but we need more support," she told DW. At the moment, some 9,000 Ukrainian refugees are registered in Brussels. About 3,8 million are registered across the entire EU, most of them in Poland, the Baltic states and Germany.

The EU has pledged funds to boost Ukraine's state budget, and has also helped Ukraine buy weapons and assisted refugees both within and outside Ukraine. Since the start of the war, Brussels-based EU institutions provided some €20 billion ($19.8 billion) in grants and loans to Ukraine.

"The European Union has been with you in this fight from the very beginning," said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a video message on Wednesday. "Europe is with you, today and in the long run. Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine!)"

Von der Leyen, dressed in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, was also in attendance on the Grand Place. Later in the evening, EU institutions were also bathed in Ukraine's national colors — but there was no official ceremony to mark the occasion.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wearing Ukraine's national colors, surrounded by a crowd of people
Von der Leyen (center, under the flag), addressed the crowd dressed in Ukraine's national colorsImage: Bernd Riegert/DW

Ukraine was granted EU candidate status in June. One day, it aims to join the bloc — and Russia's invasion has just accelerated this process. Von der Leyen promised to help rebuild the country once the war was over, "brick by brick."

Olga Sklyir wants to be part of this postwar effort, and she wants to return home as soon as she can. For now, though, she can't say when that may be.

But this time next year, she hopes to be parading though the streets of Kharkiv waving a Ukraine flag. "We need to stay strong," she said.

This article was originally published in German

Riegert Bernd Kommentarbild App
Bernd Riegert Senior European correspondent in Brussels with a focus on people and politics in the European Union
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