BRUSSELS — People from across Belgium convened in the capital on Saturday to express solidarity with Ukraine for the one-year anniversary of the invasion by Russia.
Braving changeable weather that included hail, rain and sun, an estimated 2,500 people congregated for a march against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression on Ukraine.
While the atmosphere itself was peaceful — with children and dogs accompanying the adult protesters — anger and tragedy hovered just underneath the surface for many of the participants.
“In December, I had to bury my mother,” recounted 44-year-old Oksana Samoylova, a Ukrainian who has lived in Belgium for more than 10 years. “She had a stroke. But when she was rushed to the hospital, they didn’t have generators, so she could not get her treatment. Her condition deteriorated,” she said, fighting back tears.
Samoylova went back to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, to attend the funeral and was shocked by the condition the city was in, with bombed houses being a common sight. Russian forces withdrew from Kharkiv after facing fierce resistance, but the city remains under constant threat of shelling.
“It’s a different reality,” Samoylova said.
She and her friends have no illusions that a protest in Brussels could change the war, but they believe that it’s important to send a signal.
Two other Ukrainians, Maryna Valentiuk and her friend Olena Karas, also from Kharkiv, echoed that sentiment. They fled the war last spring, but both hope to return to Ukraine.
“I had a really good life in Ukraine,” Valentiuk said. She said she worked in TV as a creative producer before launching her own business in Kharkiv.
The two friends not only point their fingers at Putin, but also at what they see as a let-down by the international community. Calling for a full trade embargo, Karas said sanctions so far have not been strong enough. “It’s no secret that Belgium continues to trade, for example diamonds,” she said.
The latest EU sanctions package, officially adopted by the bloc’s countries just hours before the Brussels protest, omitted banning imports of Russian diamonds.
That makes Karas angry. “If it continues like it is, it can take up to 10 years until this war ends,” she said.
And as long as the war continues, the two friends remain worried about their families and friends who stayed in Ukraine.
Valentiuk’s brother and cousin, for example, are already at the frontline, something that she said is terrifying. Her cousin’s son was born only 10 days before the war broke out and he had seen him only a few times before his wife fled to Poland with the baby. Yet, Valentiuk considers joining them in the war. A trained journalist and psychologist, Valentiuk is thinking of going back to Ukraine and enlisting in the army.
“They need educated people with my skills in the army,” she said. “Maybe I’ll be a soldier.”
Police estimated that 2,500 people participated in the demonstration Saturday, less than half the number organizers had been hoping for. A similar protest in March 2022, shortly after the start of Russia’s invasion, attracted about 8,000 people.
Ana Fota contributed reporting.