Irish photographer hoping to return to Kyiv home and help with war relief

Irish photographer Bradley Stafford has called Kyiv home since 2017, it's where he met his wife and the couple are currently based in Co Leitrim after fleeing before the Russian invasion. 
Irish photographer hoping to return to Kyiv home and help with war relief

James Cox

Irish photographer Bradley Stafford has called Kyiv home since 2017 – the Ukrainian capital is where he met his wife and the couple are currently based in Co Leitrim after fleeing before the Russian invasion.

After a long and arduous journey they made it to Ireland with a friend and their Golden Labrador, Bailey.

With Russian president Vladimir Putin mobilising thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border, Mr Stafford and his wife Anastasiia made the decision to travel 300km west of their home to the city of Rivne to stay with her mother.

He said there was still a sense of calm at that point, with people hoping war would be avoided, then February 24th came and changed life as they once knew it.

"At about 4am I could hear a large humming noise, I could hear planes and fighter jets flying over our building," Mr Stafford told BreakingNews.ie.

"I was on the seventh floor, I could see people had begun leaving their homes.

"I messaged my mum at home to let her know I was safe, as I knew she'd be waking up to scary news. Then I had to wake up my wife and tell her the war had begun."

The next day, they experienced their first airstrike siren.

"We went to the basement but all the doors were locked, some people started to panic, but eventually we found one. It was narrow, dark, nowhere to sit, we were there for half an hour. Throughout the course of the day there were seven or eight and each time we had to leave with our emergency packed bags, go down seven flights of stairs with the dog. We found a bigger bunker then.

"It was more a basement than a bomb shelter. People were just trying to help each other. We had our dog, she hadn't a clue what was happening... she was going up to greet strangers, and even brought smiles to a few faces.

"Up until 11.30pm that night was the last siren. Until then my wife had not been keen to leave, she has grandparents who couldn't really leave, and her mum wouldn't leave them. Something just switched in her mind and as we sat during the last siren she said to me 'let's just go'."

Polish border

They were on the road by 6am, Anastasiia's mother and grandfather drove them, along with Bailey and a friend and colleague of Anastasiia, to the western city of Lviv which is close to the Polish border.

Anastasiia and her friend work for a tech company, who had organised a bus to take people to the Polish border from Lviv.

"The station was hugely busy, but there wasn't any real panic still.

"We started to get a bit nervous as the bus was four hours late. I even started thinking I could hear sirens when they weren't really there.

"When we got to the border, the queue to get out was around 10km long. We left my mother-in-law's at 6am on Saturday, and we got to Krakow in Poland at 1am on Monday, so the whole trip took 43 hours, usually it would be less than 10.

"Those two or three days felt like an eternity."

Bradley Stafford, his wife, Anastasiia, and their dog, Bailey.

He added: "In the space of five days we got about 10 hours of sleep. In Krakow we booked into an Airbnb and tried to gather ourselves and make some plans for moving forward. The first few days were so bizarre, even a plane flying overheard, a tram could trigger you."

They then stayed with friends in Berlin and Cologne, where they took time to make a plan and figure out how to get to Ireland along with Bailey.

Mr Stafford's father met them in Cologne, and drove to Cherbourg in France where they got the ferry to Rosslare.

All in all, it took about a month to reach Ireland from the time they left Kyiv.

Leitrim

After finding a house to rent in north Leitrim, they have all settled in well, and Mr Stafford said locals have been very welcoming.

Bailey is the happiest of all as she now has a garden, Mr Stafford added with a laugh.

However, they are all hoping to get home as soon as possible.

"Without trying to sound ungrateful, and I'm sure many Ukrainians around the world will feel the same, nobody wants to be there, they want to be back home. Despite what's going on many people have returned. Out of the 2.5 million that left Kyiv at the beginning of the war, over a million have returned.

"I've seen reports that queues at the border are now longer to return to Ukraine than they are to get out which I could have never imagined three months ago standing with throngs of people trying to get out."

Anastasiia and her friend are working remotely, while Mr Stafford is looking for work.

However, he is hoping to do something to help Ukrainians and this inspired him to start a GoFundMe that will go towards helping people who have been impacted by the war.

In just over a week, he has already raised €1,400.

I've been made feel welcome by everyone I've met, I found my wife there, I found my profession there and my dog is Ukrainian as well!

"I've started this fundraising campaign and my hope is we can move back in August/September and I want to aid in volunteering and distribute supplies with the money raised. If we don't feel safe enough to return by then I wouldn't hesitate to go back for even a week to help with the relief effort but also to check on our apartment, we're pretty sure it's still standing. It's a building in central Kyiv with 36 floors beside a military base, the last we heard a month ago it's still OK.

"Having got out safely in comparison to some of the stories I've heard there is an element of survivor's guilt. I'm hoping to raise awareness, and ask all my followers if they can donate or share the campaign. I feel like I'm in a position to help.

"I've raised €1,400 so far, in some parts of rural Ukraine that's the equivalent of seven months' work. A lot of towns north of Kyiv have been destroyed, they've no access to supermarkets, water, public transport, anything. I've found a volunteer team that travels from Kyiv under military supervision daily to all these different towns, and they pack a minibus or two with food, cleaning supplies, medicine, all the essentials.

"If I was able to raise anywhere near the goal of €10,000 I've set that money could go towards helping hundreds if not thousands of people.

"I feel compelled to do it, Ukraine is my home I've lived there since 2017, my work as a photographer has taken me all over the country. I've been made feel welcome by everyone I've met, I found my wife there, I found my profession there and my dog is Ukrainian as well! There's a strong connection there, and I want to help in any way I can."

Mr Stafford has spent the last five years travelling Ukraine and photographing its unique architecture.

While the situation is constantly changing, Mr Stafford and his wife are hoping to return home in August or September.

"While he will return to a very different country, he wants to use his talent to photograph the destruction of war, as well as people's efforts to rebuild.

"Whenever I'm back I want to document the relief effort in photo and video. It's been a pleasure bringing Ukraine to the world, I managed to build up interest and found a niche. When I get back I want to document the war damage but also the rebuilding process, parts of Ukraine will look very different to what I remember. Entire cities, towns, villages have been levelled to the ground.

"They've already begun rebuilding bridges, roads. As soon as I get back it will be 100 per cent dedication to showing as many people as possible what life is like in Ukraine.

"The news tends to move on and people forget, it's very important the world doesn't forget what's happening in Ukraine. I will return at some point and I will return to travelling the country and photographing it in some shape or form. The rebuilding, the untouched beauty that's been able to escape the horrors of war, I'll be doing it."

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