sports

Ukrainian Shuttlers Find A 'Home' In M'sia As Russian Bombardment Destroys Their City

It has been difficult for the players to maintain their concentration given the situation back in Kharkiv, where Russian forces have killed more than 600 civilians and destroyed schools and the sports hall where the players practised.

Cover image via Provided to SAYS & Sadho/SAYS

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In February, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Kharkiv — its second largest city — became a major target for the Russian military

In the battle of Kharkiv since then, relentless Russian shelling has destroyed playgrounds, sports centres, and apartment buildings among other structures, and killed more than 600 civilians.

A couple of weeks back, Russian shelling killed at least three people, including a 13-year-old boy, and injured at least 23 others with a barrage that struck a mosque, a medical facility, and a shopping area.

Amnesty International has said that the Russian military is committing war crimes by using cluster munitions and scatterable land mines to ravage the city, forcing over 600,000 residents to be evacuated.

While Ukrainian forces have held strong and pushed Russian forces out of the city, the Russian side has continued to shell Kharkiv, making it impossible for life to return to normalcy.

The city centre in Kharkiv after Russian shelling ravaged much of it.

Image via Provided to SAYS

The battle of Kharkiv has since forced many of the residents to leave behind everything and seek shelter away from their homes.

Among them are top Ukrainian shuttlers, some of whom have found a 'home' in Malaysia and have been training here since June.

This SAYS writer met with them and their Malaysian national coach, Salim Samion, over the week at the Dewan Sukan Klang, a community sports hall at Lengkungan Sri Mersing 35 off Jalan Tun Abdul Razak, which has been leased to a private firm for 15 years by the Klang Municipal Council (MPK) earlier this year.

The community sports hall is now called the Andalas Sports Complex.

When this writer reached the sports hall early Wednesday morning, 3 August, Salim — who is the first-ever non-Ukrainian citizen to be hired by the Ukrainian Badminton Federation as the national head coach — was hard at work, training the girls as his two daughters, aged six and seven, watched from the sides.

The Perak-born, who has assisted former Malaysian badminton legend Misbun Sidek to coach the national badminton team for the 2016 Summer Olympics, is helping prepare the Ukrainian badminton players in Klang for the 2022 BWF World Championships in Tokyo, Japan and the European Junior Championships in Belgrade, Serbia, scheduled to be held from 22 to 28 August, and 18 to 27 August, respectively.

As the players — women's doubles pair Yelyzaveta Zharka and Mariia Stoliarenko, women's singles player Polina Buhrova, along with a couple of other female teammates — continued with their morning training, Salim shared that while it hasn't been easy adjusting to a new environment, they are doing their best under the circumstances, given that they are constantly worried about the safety of their family back in Ukraine.

According to Salim, who arrived home on 2 March with the help of the Malaysian Embassy in Poland, only Zharka was in Kharkiv, with the rest of the players being outside the country, when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Amidst the practice session, the players took turns sharing details about the ongoing Russian invasion and the toll it has taken on them

While both Zharka and Mariia are from Kharkiv, Mariia was in Dnipro when Russian forces bombed her home city and destroyed the sports hall where the team practised. The pair are ranked 68th in the world, but due to the direct impact the invasion has had on their mental health, they have struggled with their game.

30-year-old Zharka and 18-year-old Mariia have had disappointing outings in the recent matches they have appeared in, including at the prestigious Indonesia Open, the Malaysia Open, and the Malaysia Masters.

According to Zharka, it has been difficult to maintain her concentration given the situation back in Kharkiv, where her family members are stuck. The anxiety from worrying about their safety often overwhelms her.

"My days here in Malaysia start with calls from my family, they share how our city is bombed almost every night. While our house still stands, it's a question of luck and statistics. Because the Russians are bombing everywhere, destroying civil houses, schools, and our sports hall. Everything has been destroyed," she said.

The ruins of the badminton hall where Zharka and Mariia practised.

Image via Provided to SAYS

Zharka shared that she was, in fact, scheduled to fly to Dnipro to join her clubmates for the national cup, but everything changed when the Russian forces started their bombardment on 23 February.

"I was to join them on 24 February, when around 5am, my father called me to say that the Russian military had bombed our city and that we are now at war. Soon after, I heard explosions," she recounted.

Following that, she and her family were forced to seek refuge in a bomb shelter.

"All of us were just shocked. Because nobody could believe that we were suddenly at war. And despite the prior border situation, none of us really thought that Russia would invade our country," Zharka said, adding that for the next couple of days they just remained inside the bomb shelter.

"We just didn't know what to do next. Because none of us had imagined a situation like this."

While Zharka's parents have moved to relative safety, it's not the same for Polina.

Polina's father and brother cannot leave Ukraine and seek safety elsewhere, as most Ukrainian men, ages 18 to 60, have been banned from leaving the country, in anticipation that they may be called to fight.

Her mother, who was initially with Polina in the Czech Republic, is now staying with friends in Spain.

On the other hand, Mariia — describing the grim situation — noted how she and the other players are now basically homeless, with no possibility of being able to return to Ukraine any time soon.

"When you don't know when you can come back, and when you can actually see your family face-to-face, it's really difficult. But I'm grateful for badminton, as it has helped me take my mind off the invasion. While concentrating is hard, being on the court does help in coping with the anxiety," Mariia shared.

The Kharkiv city centre with its buildings destroyed due to Russian shelling.

Image via Provided to SAYS

While life in Ukraine came to a standstill, other doors started to open for Zharka. She received an invitation from France to train there.

She wasn't keen on leaving her family behind, but then she realised that by accepting the invitation to practice and play outside her country, she may be able to raise awareness about the situation back home.

"I thought maybe I could help, like by sharing our stories with the world," Zharka shared, adding that she then left Ukraine towards the end of March with just her passport, a one-way ticket, and some money.

She first travelled to Poland, then Germany, and after that France, where she stayed for a few weeks. In France, she invited her doubles partner, Mariia, who was in Poland with her mother and little brother.

From there, the Ukrainian Badminton Federation arranged for them to travel to Asia in May.

Zharka looks on as Salim spars with Mariia.

Image via Sadho/SAYS

According to Zharka, before moving to Malaysia, the players from Kharkiv had never practised under Salim as he was stationed in Kyiv

However, practising under Salim at the Andalas Sports Complex has introduced the players to new techniques and has allowed them to enjoy the game more, Zharka and Mariia shared with this writer.

"I quite like how Salim trains us. The style here is very different, especially when compared to Europe," Mariia shared, adding that Asian players are faster whereas, in Europe, it's more about technique.

Meanwhile, 18-year-old Polina — who, too, is from Kharkiv — said that training in Klang under Salim feels more like a summer camp due to the temperature here. "It's so hot," she added.

While the Ukrainian players are really appreciative of the care and support they have received in Malaysia, one thing that they all have come to love is roti telur, saying, "it's very tasty".

"Of course, with the curry," Salim chimed in, as the three girls laughed in joy.

Lastly, the players, with their spirits unbroken, shared that while they would love nothing more than to be able to get on the next flight and head back home, they are determined to do their best for their country

The players, Zharka, Mariia, and Polina with their coach Salim, holding the Ukrainian flag.

Image via Sadho/SAYS

Meanwhile, at the start of Russia's invasion, SAYS spoke to a woman in Ivano-Frankivsk, who described Putin as an adamant child:

Wondering how you can help Ukraine? Here's a guide: