By Andrew McNicol, CNN
Ukrainian professional footballer Aleks Shliakotin begged his parents to flee the country after Russian bombs went off a kilometer from their Kyiv home.
But they were adamant they would be fine hiding out in their old apartment in the leafy suburb of Bucha.
That was back in February. Four months on, much of their neighborhood lies in ruins, leveled in a Russian advance so brutal the suburb has become synonymous with alleged war crimes by Moscow’s forces.
Thankfully, while Shliakotin’s parents took some convincing, they did eventually come around — fleeing just before the first Russian tanks rolled in. Now they are awaiting refugee status in Germany and tearfully thank their son and daughter with each telephone call.
“Days after convincing them, I saw videos of crushed streets — everything looked horrible, like after the Second World War. Then I realised, ‘damn it, this looks very familiar to me,'” said Shliakotin, a goalkeeper for Hong Kong Premier League club Hong Kong Rangers.
“Then the guy in the video says it’s Vokzal’na Street, Bucha. That’s literally my street, where I spent my childhood, where I went to school, where I’ve walked thousands of times. If my parents had still been there, they probably wouldn’t be alive. Our house was destroyed.
“A few weeks after that, there were scenes of people just laying on the road with their hands tied, shot in their heads. It’s just … impossible to process. Thank God they left.”
A journey fraught with danger
Shliakotin doesn’t know what happened to his parents’ apartment, as all their neighbors fled too.
It was a journey fraught with danger for the couple, in their 60s, who had to escape by car because the airport was under heavy shelling. Temperatures were below zero and they had no spare clothes.
So crowded were the roads with fleeing Ukrainians — some of them leading children and animals on foot — that it took them four days to reach the Polish border, a journey that would normally take eight hours.
“It sounds like some kind of movie. On the last day, they helped bring three kids from another family across the border, because the father in the lane behind them couldn’t leave the country,” Shliakotin said.
The footballer is not seeking sympathy.
“You need to understand that while the stories sound wild, we’re sort of lucky. We have nothing to complain about. Right now in Ukraine, if you lost your apartment but everyone is alive (then) you don’t even open your mouth to say something bad has happened to you,” he said.
“(Many children) are living without their parents … people are writing phone numbers, surnames and date of births on their kids’ backs just in case they die the next day.”
A higher goal
What Shliakotin — a former Ukraine national youth team goalkeeper — is seeking, however, is funding to help those stuck back home.
And he has found a surprising level of support in his adopted home of Hong Kong.
Starting his football career at the prestigious Dynamo Kyiv youth academy, the now 32-year-old Shliakotin has been a Hong Kong fan favorite since moving to its top league in 2016.
And he has found he can leverage that popularity for a good cause, receiving an overwhelming response to his Instagram video posts in which he asks Hongkongers for help.
“I got thousands of messages of support from day one,” he said. “I was shocked at how many people wanted to help,” Shliakotin said.
His appeals have since helped to fund nine ambulances to be sent to Ukraine, three of them paid for specifically by donations from Hong Kong, and countless smaller offerings.
“There was one man who contacted me on Facebook, a Mr. Lam, who wrote ‘hey Aleks, I saw the news on Ukraine and I want to donate $10,000 Hong Kong dollars (about $1,300), but I want to help a specific person or family who really need it. If you know someone, please let me know.’
“I had just heard from a mother and two daughters from Chernihiv whose house was destroyed and were in panic with nowhere to go. So we sent the money to them.
“The family were shocked — they couldn’t believe something like this was possible. That a man from Hong Kong, a place they didn’t hadn’t even heard of, would help all of a sudden.
“Those are the moments where I know that humanity is still alive — that there is still some good in the world.”
A team effort
Two close friends are helping Shliakotin in his efforts.
Oresta Brit is a volunteer who has been feeding and transporting children and the elderly since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, while Roman Zozulya is a former Dynamo Kyiv youth teammate playing in Spain, who helps to buy, service and repair the ambulances in that country before they are sent to Ukraine.
Each ambulance needs documentation from the Ukrainian Embassy, then must be registered to a specific military unit.
Once those boxes are ticked, “we stuff our ambulances with humanitarian aid, and our volunteers drive them to the border, before my (team) takes over to the final destination,” Shliakotin.
Zozulya said he and Shliakotin were just one part of a network of overseas Ukrainian footballers “uniting to help.”
“While some are fighting on the front lines, we have our own [role] as public figures,” Zozulya said.
“We have this opportunity that others don’t have — we can speak to the whole world and can be heard by a huge number of people.”
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