In Spain’s ‘little Ukraine’ locals team up to help homeland

On the calendar in Mykola Grynkiv's internet cafe, every day since February 24 is ringed in black, Russia's war stopping time in this northern Spanish village where one in seven residents is Ukrainian.

In Spain's 'little Ukraine' locals team up to help homeland
An Ukrainian volunteer receives donations at a cybercafe used as coordination centre for the international aid. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

Before the invasion, locals in Guissona – which lies about 115 kilometres (70 miles) northwest of Barcelona – would come to Grynkiv’s business to go online, make photocopies or a phone call from one of the private booths at the back.

But since Russia invaded Ukraine, this internet cafe in the heart of Spain’s northeastern Catalonia region has been transformed, its floor covered with boxes filled with donations that will be sent by truck to Poland.

Like millions of other Ukrainian expats, Grynkiv’s priorities have totally changed within the space of a week.

“Now the business isn’t running any more. I’m losing money but I don’t want my country to lose” the war, says this stocky 48-year-old, who arrived in Guissona from western Ukraine more than 20 years ago.

“If I lose out and my country wins, no matter. I’ll make up for it one day,” he says in a rare moment when his mobile stops ringing.

Among the dozen or so volunteers filling boxes with medicines, clothes, blankets or women’s sanitary products is Sofia Shchetbiy.

Until last week, she was working as a dermatologist in Ivano-Frankivsk, a city in western Ukraine.

But when the invasion began, she left, heading for Guissona where she spent part of her childhood and where her parents still live.

“My uncle told me to go to Poland because I didn’t know what to do in Ukraine, I was really scared,” admits the 24-year-old.

‘The war’s started’

Of Guissona’s 7,200 residents, 1,053 are Ukrainians, who make up the second-largest nationality group after Romanians, with many drawn to the area by the job opportunities offered by bonArea, a powerful agri-food business based there.

The growth of the company, which began taking on foreign labour in the 1990s, has transformed the town, which is now home to more than 43

Many balconies, including that of the town hall, are draped with anti-war banners and posters or Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow flag in a widespread show of support, for which Natalia Tvardovska is grateful.

Ukrainian woman Natalia Tvardovska poses for a portrait in Guissona, near Lerida, on March 3, 2022. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

When the war broke out, this 40-year-old waitress, who has been in Guissona since 2006, said she didn’t need the media to tell her the Russians had invaded.

“My aunt called me from (the southern port city of) Kherson and said: ‘The war’s started’,” she says, recalling the anguished early hours of February 24.

Since then, she’s barely managed to sleep, her huge eyes dark with exhaustion.

Her husband, who had returned to his hometown in western Ukraine after a death in the family, had been trapped by the sudden outbreak of war, unable to leave with all men between 18 and 60 called up to fight.

“I hope all this is over quickly because I just don’t know what to expect. I don’t know when he’ll get back,” she says.

Also unable to drag himself away from the news is Leonid Komirenko, who fears the Russian army could at any moment enter the southern port city of Odessa, the hometown he left 13 years ago.

“I was really on edge for the first few days and wondered whether I should go back to help or what to do,” admits Komirenko, 41, who works in the local slaughterhouse.

Ukrainian man Leonid Komirenko poses for a portrait in Guissona, near Lerida, on March 3, 2022. (Photo by Pau BARRENA / AFP)

“But my wife just cried and told me: ‘When you die in the war, I’ll be left all alone’,” he sighs, admitting he still hasn’t quite made his mind up.

“If it gets worse for Ukraine, I’ll think about going back.”

12.5 tonnes of aid

At the town hall, they only know of one case in which a resident has gone back to join the fighting, although some have gone to Poland to pick up family members.

So far, there are already 13 refugees in Guissona and the local authorities are preparing to take in around 100.

“The Ukrainians were the first to arrive and they have really helped us build this town,” says mayor Jaume Ars.

Following hours of paperwork to obtain the necessary permits, a lorry carrying 12.5 tonnes (27,558 pounds) of humanitarian aid is soon ready to set off for Poland.

As the driver clambers up behind the wheel, Grynkiv and the mayor wave him goodbye.

It should take him three days to reach Pruszkow near the capital Warsaw, where different groups will distribute the goods among the thousands of Ukrainian refugees flooding into Poland.

As he pulls off, Guissona is already busy preparing its next shipment.

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Russia expels dozens of Spanish and other European diplomats

Moscow on Wednesday kicked out 27 diplomats from Spain, as well as dozens more from France and Italy in retaliation for the expulsion of Russian diplomats from European countries as part of a joint action against Russia's campaign in Ukraine.

Russia expels dozens of Spanish and other European diplomats

Spain has lashed out at Russia for expelling 27 Spanish diplomats in what appeared to be a tit-for-tat response over a similar move by Madrid against Russian diplomats over the Ukraine conflict.

The employees of the Spanish embassy in Moscow and the Spanish Consulate General in Saint Petersburg “have been declared persona non grata” and will have seven days to leave Russia.

 “Russian authorities justify this decision on grounds of reciprocity for the expulsion of 27 Russian embassy officials in April. But that expulsion was based on justified security reasons, which are not present in this case,” a foreign ministry statement said.

The Spanish decision was taken in early April just days after dozens of bodies in civilian clothing were found on the streets of Bucha just outside Kyiv following the withdrawal of Russian troops, raising allegations of Russian war crimes.

At the time, the foreign ministry said it would expel the Russian diplomats on grounds they were “a threat to (Spain’s) interests and security”.

The Russian ambassador was not among those asked to leave.

The ministry told Spanish ambassador Marcos Gómez Martínez that the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Madrid “would have a negative impact on Russian-Spanish relations”.

Spain’s decision was part of a coordinated move across Europe that saw more than 200 Russian envoys sent home in 48 hours on grounds of alleged spying or “national security reasons” as outrage grew over the atrocities in Ukraine.

More European diplomats expelled

Russia’s foreign ministry said in a statement it was expelling 34 “employees of French diplomatic missions” in Russia and gave them two weeks to leave the country.

Moscow made the announcement after summoning France’s ambassador to Russia, Pierre Levy, and telling him that the expulsion of 41 employees of Russian diplomatic missions was a “provocative and unfounded decision”, the statement said.

While there was no official statement, the foreign ministry’s spokeswoman Maria Zakharova confirmed to Russian news agencies that 24 Italian diplomats had also been expelled.

The foreign ministry in Paris said France “strongly condemns” the expulsion of its diplomats by Russia, adding that this step from Moscow had “no legitimate basis”.

It said the work of French diplomats in Russia “takes place fully within the framework of the Vienna Convention on diplomatic and consular relations” — whereas Paris expelled Russian staff in April on suspicion of being spies.

‘Hostile act’

Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi condemned the expulsions as a “hostile act” but said diplomatic channels must remain open “because it’s through those channels that, if possible, peace (in Ukraine) will be achieved”.

Separately, municipal lawmakers in Moscow on Wednesday backed a decision to name a previously unnamed area in front of the US embassy in Moscow “Donbas Defenders Square”.

The name refers to a majority Russian-speaking region in eastern Ukraine that Russia says it is liberating as part of its military campaign.

In February 2018, a street outside the Russian embassy in Washington was named after Boris Nemtsov, an opposition politician who was shot dead outside the Kremlin in 2015.

President Vladimir Putin in late February sent troops into Ukraine, saying the campaign aimed to stop the “genocide” of Russian speakers in the pro-Western country.

In response Moscow has faced a barrage of international sanctions and growing isolation from the global community as relations with the West deteriorate to Cold War levels.