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Ex-Malta swimming coach in Ukraine describes terror of waking up in a war zone

A former Malta national swimming coach has described hearing explosions and seeing walls and windows shake as his home city of Kharkiv was turned into a war zone.

Artem Goncharenko lived and worked in Malta for more than five years coaching the national swimming team, but left in October for a similar role in Ukraine. 

Before dawn on Thursday morning, he heard the terrifying sounds that signalled a full scale invasion by Russia.

“It started yesterday at 5am. We heard explosions. Windows shaking, sometimes even walls,” Goncharenko told Times of Malta on Friday.

Black smoke rises from a military airport in Chuguyev near Kharkiv.

“We can still hear explosions from time to time,” he said. “Most of people spent last night in shelters or subway stations. Obviously, everyone here is very scared of the situation but we have belief in our army.”

Kharkiv – just 30 kilometres from the Russian border – has seen some of the heaviest fighting over the past 48 hours with a raft of missiles launched from both land and ships on the Black Sea, according to US officials.

Since the attacks, thousands of Ukrainians living in the eastern part of the country have decided to leave the region but Goncharenko said he would remain in the city.

“I can’t leave Kharkiv and Ukraine for now because every man aged 18 to 60 has to stay by law to protect and help army,” he said.

Despite the terrifying situation, people are trying to continue their lives. TV pictures on Thursday showed long queues of civilians trying to withdraw money from banks’ ATMs.

“At the moment, ATMs are still working but you can only cash around €100 a day,” Goncharenko said.

“Some shops and supermarkets are open and they accept payments as usually so the situation is still under control from that sense.”

The invasion of Ukraine is an event that analysts have feared for months, and indeed, years. It centred initially on the status of Crimea and parts of the Donbas which are internationally recognised as part of Ukraine.

Goncharenko said that he while he expected Russia to invade Ukraine but never expected that they would attack Kyiv and use ballistic missiles.

“We couldn’t believe they will attack Kyiv and will use ballistic missiles,” he said.

“Our army is much different to 2014. What we need is strong support from the European Union, Great Britain and the United States of America.”

However he doesn’t believe that sanctions imposed by the West will stop the war.

“People in the west don’t understand that no sanctions will stop Vladimir Putin,” he said.

“I am not a politician to say what more can be done but I believe sanctions must be much tougher even though they will not stop the Russians from continuing with their plan.”

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