Ukraine-Russia conflict: life echoes art for Ukrainian Eurovision winner Jamala

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Six years ago, Ukrainian singer Jamala conquered Europe with a song about Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s deportation of hundreds of thousands of people from his Black Sea homeland of Crimea during World War II.

“When strangers come, they come to you. They kill you all and say ‘We’re not guilty,’” she sang in a dark anthem that was the surprise winner of the 2016 Eurovision Song Contest.

Today, Jamala is a refugee herself, having fled Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion, which pushed her and her children to seek refuge outside Ukraine.

“On February 24, my husband woke me up and told me the war had started and Russia had attacked us. At that time, I was shocked. It was like a nightmare,” she said Reuters in an interview in Istanbul.

The 38-year-old, real name Susana Jamaladinova, took refuge in a kyiv bomb shelter before fleeing to Turkey with her two children – leaving her husband to fight the approaching Russian army.

The journey to safety was not easy and she sang to her children to distract them from danger.

“We were in the car and we heard this noise bzzzz. We saw (a rocket) ahead of us,” she said, describing her confusion over whether to continue or turn back. “I was lost, but I had to move on. It was scary.”

This map shows the extent of the Russian invasion of Ukraine

(Images from the Press Association)

Jamala, a Crimean Tatar whose relatives were victims of the 1944 deportations, urged Europeans to unite behind her country.

“It’s not just a Ukrainian war, it’s a war against European values,” she said. “I think we’re all in the same boat.”

She delivered that message earlier this month to Berlin, where she performed her 2016 song again in a preliminary round of this year’s Eurovision – this time to promote support for Ukraine’s military. Russia, which describes its offensive in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, is banned this year.

The Kalush Orchestra of Ukraine is one of the favorites for the Eurovision final, which enjoys a huge global television audience. Even though it operates out of the west of the country, which is less affected by the three-week conflict, band members have had to rehearse separately as they take on wartime duties.

Singer Oleh Psiuk leads a group of 20 volunteers, providing medicine and helping people flee war. His girlfriend makes Molotov cocktails and another member of the group serves in the Territorial Defense Unit.

For Jamala, initially hesitant to perform while her country was under fire, doubts melted away when she began to sing: “It seems to me now that’s what I can do. If I can sing and raise funds to help Ukraine, I will continue to do so.

Yesim Dikmen for Reuters

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