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Ukrainian conflict has dragged on nine years

Crowd of 200 attends evening vigil at Prince George city hall to mark one-year anniversary of Russian-Ukrainian war

While people the world over marked the one-year anniversary of the Russian-Ukraine war, Vova Pluzhnikov knows the conflict in his native country has been going on for not just one, but nine years

On Feb. 23, 2014, Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine and brought with it death and destruction that continues to ravage Pluzhnikov's Ukrainian homeland.

On a chilly Thursday evening on the steps of Prince George city hall, the 28-year-old joined a crowd of about 200 in a vigil to remember the victims of the events of the past year in Ukraine that have horrified the world.

“It’s a time of reflection about what’s happened in the last year with our family and friends and we need to be proud of how everyone has dealt with the situation,” said Pluzhnikov.” It could have been much worse and we have to be thankful for all the support we have received. On this day we obviously pay respects to all the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for our safety and the people who were accidently affected by this war.

“It’s been a struggle for the past nine years since the initial annexation of Crimea and Donbas and the struggle continues and it will not end until Ukraine proves it’s an independent country,” he said. “We want democracy and we want to be part of Europe and the European Union and NATO and we’re finally walking away from communism and the Soviet Union.”

Pluzhnikov is from Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, one of the hardest hit cities in the conflict, and for the past six years he’s been living in Prince George, where he was recruited to play basketball at UNBC for the Timberwolves, where one most impactful guards in school history.

Nearly a year after he completed his U SPORTS career while graduating with a marketing degree, Pluzhnikov is now working for RBC as a banking advisor and he’s helped many of the 167 Ukrainian refugees now living in Prince George get established in their new country.

“The first thing every Ukrainian family says is how incredible Canadians have been with their kindness and that’s been great,” said Pluzhnikov. “There’s a lot of people who come to Prince George and they’re afraid of their English skills or just shy in general. People have different values and the culture is completely different in Ukraine and I would encourage people to be more patient with the Ukrainian families who come here and support us. The support has been amazing.”

The United Nations estimates 300,000 people have died over the past year in Ukraine. In addition to the tens of thousands of military troops on either side who have been killed, the war has cost the lives of at least 8,000 civilians, with another 13,000 injured. Russia has amped up its missile attacks and it’s expected Putin is already launching a major offensive in anticipation of the one-year milestone.

“My heart breaks every time I hear the news and the regular people, the civilians having to go through this, it blows my mind that we still have to deal with this,” he said. “Kharkiv is close to the eastern border with Russia and the territories they tried to occupy back in February of last year. Having my hometown that close to the action, I can only imagine how difficult it is for the people who are still there.

“For the last month, starting in mid-January, Kharkiv has been hit multiple times and I think they’re just ramping up their efforts to take Kharkiv, because that would d be a huge victory for them, but that will never happen.”

The response from Western countries when the invasion was launched a year ago was immediate. The flow of weapons and money to arm Ukraine has continued throughout the conflict and that’s helped Ukrainians on the ground successfully repel Russian attacks and retake some of the territory lost earlier in the war.

“What I really appreciate is the continued support,” said Pluzhnikov. “The countries could have chosen to provide a one-time supply of weaponry or ammo, but people need to remind themselves it’s been a year of continued support from our western allies and that’s very important. We could have been left abandoned and alone and I can’t be more thankful for the support we have received and it seems like our relationship with NATO and European Union is only getting stronger.

“It’s a humanitarian catastrophe and all these countries are trying to help us because there are so many civilians struggling.”

Pluzhnikov’s parents and grandfather fled to a family cabin not far from Kharviv. A former basketball teammate from Mykolaiv came to Prince George earlier this month ago as a refugee and Vova is hopeful his own family will eventually come to escape the war. His 30-year-old brother Anton has been conscripted into the Ukrainian army and is putting his information technology skills to use working with his unit in the western part of the country to create fundraising connections that bring money to the military.

“My family is doing all they can to stay safe and healthy and away from trouble,” he said. “They’re a bit disbursed and scattered but I try to stay in touch with them. It’s nice to get them together on a Facetime call with them and see their faces all at the same time and share some stories to kind of forget about what’s happening at the moment and dream about the future.”

Last year on March 8, Pluzhnikov organized the Run For Ukraine: 44 kilometres for 44 million fundraiser through the streets of Prince George. The event raised more than $67,000 for the Red Cross relief efforts in Ukraine and he plans to do the run again but says it will likely happen later in the year once the weather warms.