‘I just turned 21… every moment is the gift of the blood and flesh of Ukraine’

A British-Ukrainian student has explained the “strange” feeling of becoming an adult during two years of full-scale war with Russia, describing life as a “gift of the blood and flesh” of her people.

Valentina Butenko, who is currently studying International Social Political Studies at University College London (UCL), was 19 when she awoke in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv to the sound of explosions as Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 2022.

She has spent the past two years of her young life aiding the war effort, first providing immediate aid to Ukrainians and now working with Ukrainian companies and her family businesses to build a strong future for her country.

Ms Butenko’s mother lives in London and her brother, father and other members of her family still reside in Kyiv and she splits her time between the two cities – returning to the Ukrainian capital roughly every month.

On January 2, she celebrated her 21st birthday.

Reaching this milestone amid the backdrop of war has given rise to mixed feelings for Ms Butenko, who said the idea of timescales “gets erased” when your loved ones’ lives are on the line, but making it to that age also carries with it a “great privilege”.

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Ms Butenko said becoming an adult during the ongoing war has been ‘strange’ (Valentina Butenko/PA)

“The idea of timescales or coming of age kind of gets erased because you only have this present moment and when your life is on the line and when those that are dearest to you are on the line, you don’t think about whether you’re 14 or 60 or 21,” she told the PA news agency.

“I just turned 21, so it’s quite strange meeting adulthood, knowing that every moment you’re alive is really the gift of the blood and flesh of the people in your country who fight for you to be alive.”

As the war reaches its second year, Ms Butenko has been continuing to study for her degree at UCL, of which she has two years remaining.

She said it has been “strange” to attend lectures and complete assignments whilst also regularly going back to Kyiv.

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Ms Butenko splits her time between London and Kyiv (Nicholas T Ansell/PA)

“After the war began, studying, to me, was quite difficult to do alone and I think in the world we live in today, we can’t afford to live in simple roles such as just being a student,” she said.

“I continued working in Ukraine alongside my studies because to me anything I’ve learnt has to be real in practice.”

She said spending time between Kyiv and London has been “incredibly difficult” and akin to “coming out of the eye of the storm”.

“When I move out to the reality of that fight, the bombings, the air sirens, that constant physical fear your body carries with you as you walk down the street, even when it’s silent – it’s the knowledge that at any point, your life is very fragile,” she said.

“Moving into the UK or anywhere in the world where life goes on, there’s this veil of blindness that you forget that the life that’s lived here and anywhere in the world where it’s safe comes at the cost of everything that happens in the place in the world where it’s not safe.”

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Ms Butenko has implored people to take responsibility for what is happening in Ukraine (Valentina Butenko/PA)

She said being around her family when she goes back to Kyiv provides a “physical sense of safety and ownership over them”.

“Both my father and my brother are incredible beacons of inspiration and strength, knowing that they’re there and they’re doing their work on the ground and I have a responsibility to them, as to every Ukrainian, to do everything I can here in terms of my work and my studies,” she added.

With the war pressing on past two years, she said each year it continues is “another year we have failed”.

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Ms Butenko initially provided aid to those in Ukraine (Nicholas T Ansell/PA)

“We’re allowing people to die, we’re allowing people to be murdered and slaughtered for the sake of an evil of another country,” she said.

“The way we cover the war, speak about the war, has become a kind of statistic and this isn’t unique to Ukraine – it’s unique to a lot of wars.

“It’s not a note on a page in a history book with clever analysis, it’s people’s lives.”

She has expressed her gratitude to the British people who “really embodied the suffering of Ukrainians”.

“They embodied the suffering of Ukrainians like no other population I saw; they took people into their own homes,” she added.

“I’m forever grateful for the safety and sanctuary that people from the ground took upon themselves – that’s very special – and Ukrainians and me personally will always be grateful to you.”

She hopes people globally will continue to support Ukrainians.

“The war in Ukraine has given the entire world and every single person the starkest choice – that is to take responsibility of the world around you or to take no responsibility and become a slave and a victim of the consequences,” she added.