A month ago, I spoke to Oksana Platero, the Strictly Coming Dancing professional with whom I was partnered in 2016.
People who watch Strictly might roll their eyes when the couples say they have made a strong connection, but Oksana and I really did become close.
I’d practise my Russian with her, although Oksana worried that the microphones would pick up my Muscovite swear words especially during the quickstep.
I called her my ‘boginya’ – ‘Goddess’ in Ukrainian. She’s like a younger sister; we don’t speak constantly but we have a close bond.
So as soon as I heard the news about Ukraine, I messaged her, asking after her family. She was stuck in Florida with work commitments and felt helpless.
A week later, I was heading for the Ukraine-Poland border to report on the situation for Talk Radio TV. I asked Oksana if I could do anything to help.
Although her mother and brother had escaped Ukraine, her grandparents and her aunt Lidya, all in their eighties and nineties, were still there.
Her grandfather Vasily has Parkinson’s and her grandmother, Zoya, cannot walk and relies on a wheelchair. They had finally decided to flee after a Russian shell fell on their neighbours’ house, narrowly missing their own.
After driving for seven days through Russian shelling, running out of supplies – including medicine and water – they made it to the border but were turned away.
Their driver, Oksana’s uncle, aged 57, is eligible for military service so he had to remain in Ukraine – even though he has a catastrophic leg injury so is unable to fight. Without him they were helpless.
Since then, Oksana hadn’t been able to contact them and didn’t know whether they had made it across the border. She was desperately worried and asked if I could help track them down. I promised to try.
Rob Rinder with Oksana Platero, the Strictly Coming Dancing professional with whom he was partnered in 2016
SUNDAY, MARCH 13
I arrived in Rzeszow, eastern Poland, on a flight from Stansted. My producer Ricky Freelove and I headed for the border.
We went first to Przemyśl station, just across the border from Ukraine. I had seen this very location on the news but watching it on the TV is like seeing it through a prism.
Nothing prepares you for being plunged into what feels like a scene from World War II – bewildered child refugees and their exhausted parents arriving often with little more than the clothes on their back, or one small suitcase, all they could carry.
What is so jarring is that these children have Dora the Explorer backpacks, SpongeBob SquarePants jumpers and Fireman Sam pyjamas – 21st century children in a scene from history.
Just weeks ago, this was a bustling modern station much like Euston, with commuter trains passing easily back and forth across the border.
The trains now arriving are crammed with women and children. Most have been travelling for several days and had run out of clean clothes, food, and medicine.
Travelling with small children is always exhausting, but when you have run out of baby milk, Calpol, and nappies – and you have left behind your husband, brother, or father to fight, as well as your home, your job, your whole life, it’s on another level.
Many of the Ukrainian mothers are in their early twenties. A month ago, they were computer programmers, graphic designers, and the like, They were chatting at the school gates. They had good lives. That is all gone. But they are stoic, and determined to return as soon as possible.
Robert Rinder with Oksana Platero’s grandmother Zoya in Poland after he found her following the invasion of Ukraine
MONDAY, MARCH 14
We have employed two brilliant young Ukrainian women, both called Oksana, one as a driver, the other one as a ‘fixer’, interpreting and helping us meet people.
Oksana-the-fixer, tough, glamorous and efficient, a Wonderwoman in high heels and crushed velvet, told us that she would go back to Ukraine to fight if her city was attacked:
‘You must understand, the Russians, are willing to fight for our cities,’ she says. ‘We are willing to die for them.’
She makes inquiries about Oksana-the-dancer’s family. Good news; they have made it across the border and are in Tuchow, Eastern Poland.
But they couldn’t bring much with them, not even Zoya’s wheelchair, so she is stuck in bed. They are running out of the medicines they rely on.
Robert Rinder with Oksana Platero’s auntie Lidya in Poland, whom he also found following his journey to the country
TUESDAY, MARCH 15
The station is a sea of noise – trains arriving, babies crying, people calling out instructions – all echoing around the high ceilings. All this is a result of terrible darkness, yet it has produced so much goodness.
Locals have left buggies at the station for the new arrivals, Polish volunteers in fluorescent jackets lead people off the trains, give them a hot meal, clean clothes, medicine, nappies and help them onto their next destination. Many refugees don’t want to travel far from Ukraine: they want to go back as soon as they can. This, for them, is au revoir, not goodbye. They are deeply patriotic. Every single person’s message begins: ‘Free Ukraine!’
Robert Rinder with Oksana Platero’s grandmother Zoya (to his left) in Poland as he helped Ukrainian refugees in the country
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16
After a two-hour drive, we arrive in Tuchow and find the two-room bungalow where Oksana-the-dancer’s family are staying. We hand over the wheelchair, a commode and some medicine that Oksana-the-fixer has miraculously managed to source. It was incredibly emotional.
I hugged Zoya, Oksana-the-dancer’s grandmother, and her aunt Lidya. They are so touchingly grateful to us, and to everyone offering help.
These are people who in the blink of an eye have gone from having everything to nothing, yet they insist on sharing everything they have, more concerned about my wellbeing than their own. ‘Have you eaten? You must eat!’ they insist, laying a table with all the food they have. It’s like going to my own Jewish grandmother’s house.
Oksana-the-driver cries – the only time I see her weep – thinking of her own grandmother. I share a bottle of Scotch I’ve brought with Oksana’s uncle, who was eventually allowed to leave due to his disability.
All they want is to get back to their country, but they are relieved to be safe. When it’s time to go we hug again.
Her aunt rests her head on my shoulder and says, ‘Thank you,’ the only English word she knows.
Their only complaint? That I didn’t eat enough!
It was such a privilege to be able to do something for them. I’m humbled by their courage.
Rob Rinder with Oskana’s family’s dog Tesla following his journey to Poland to help Ukrainian refugees
THURSDAY, MARCH 17
On the border, a Tesco superstore has been converted into a refugee help station full of volunteers and NGOs from all over Europe, and beyond.
I meet an old man who gives the thumbs up when he learns that I’m British, saying, ‘Johnson, Good, Guns.’ Many refugees thank the British for sending military hardware.
They are all such fair-minded, positive people.
All the volunteers are so kind, and so tireless. I’m getting messages from people back home, offering their homes to refugees, many from the poorest communities in Britain.
I’m witnessing both the best and worst of humanity. The worst is beyond the border in Ukraine. The best is all around me.
I meet a young woman just arrived from Ukraine. When I tell her that 100,000 British people had offered to host Ukrainian refugees in their homes she bursts into tears and hugs me, moved by their generosity.
I’m moved too, but not surprised. My Polish grandfather, Morris Malenicky, came to Britain in 1945 as an orphan, having survived several concentration camps but lost all his family.
He came to Lake Windermere, along with other Jewish orphans, where he was welcomed by the local community. He built a new life and had a rich love of Britain, the country that had given him sanctuary its protections and freedoms.
My other grandparents were evacuated from London during the war to the countryside where they too were taken in by other families. The British were – and remain – a kind, generous people.
A group of dozens of Ukrainian orphans who were rescued and taken to safety at Znin in Poland but then struggled to get to the UK due to red tape issues
FRIDAY, MARCH 18
I’m back in Britain to talk to Lorraine on ITV about what I have seen: so much goodness and humanity, so much kindness and decency.
There are British Sikhs giving out food, British ex-servicemen who drove 30 hours with supplies, a policeman who drove from Scotland, ambulance drivers taking unpaid leave to bring nappies, baby formula and other essentials. Many British charities are helping, including the Red Cross.
Sadly, this generosity and Dunkirk spirit is not matched by our government’s administration.
The Ministry of Defence has managed to get missiles to the Ukrainian defenders at breakneck speed. Why can’t the Home Office act with similar agility and sort out the bureaucratic barriers that are keeping refugees stuck in limbo, sleeping on floors when British families are offering their homes?
The few Home Office staff that are here on the ground are brilliant, but they need many, many more staff here.
There are helpers from other European countries at the station but not from Britain. The nearest British office is an hour and 20 minutes away and it’s swamped. The next nearest is 120 miles away in Krakow, but if any refugee does get there, they will find the office closed due to Covid, a shocking administrative failure.
Those wanting to come to Britain must complete an extensive form – I’m a lawyer and I found it impenetrable – and produce endless documents. These are people who fled their homes with Russian shells raining down – they were lucky to escape with their lives, let alone reams of paperwork. It’s absurd and cruel.
Rob Rinder also posted this picture at Przemysl border station on March 23 with Sacha and Natasha along with their mother Aliona and their guinea pig Bonnya. He said: ‘They stayed as long as they could until the kindergartens were bombed’
SATURDAY, MARCH 19 – TUESDAY, MARCH 22
While I’m back in the UK I become involve with Operation Light. An amazing charity,
Dnipro Kids, established by Hibernian FC supporters who travelled to Dnipro, Ukraine for a match in 2005 and have been helping children there ever since. They joined up with Save a Child, and are trying to bring 54 orphans and their carers to Scotland.
They’ve got out of Ukraine and are now in Poland. I’ve acted as a matchmaker before, setting up five couples successfully. Now I matchmake them with Magen David Adom (MDA) UK, a humanitarian charity for which I am an ambassador. They help organise a flight, with Virgin Atlantic kindly providing a plane.
Everything is ready but – unbelievably – they are being grounded by bureaucracy.
Sometimes celebrity has its uses. I want to bring this to the public’s attention and grease the wheels to get this plane off the ground.
MP Ian Blackford of the SNP and Lord Harrington, Refugees Minister also work around the clock to make it happen.
Rob Rinder travelled to Poland to help Ukrainians who had to flee their home country following the Russian invasion
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 23
It seems to work. I’m back in Poland and Operation Light is ready to go. The children are excited and anxious – most have never flown before.
I’m busy working with another NGO so I can’t be there to wave them off, but when I hear that the plane has taken off, I am tearful with relief.
I think of my grandfather, who was welcomed to Britain. Now these children too – although only here temporarily in our country – will experience our nation at its best.
At Przemyśl station there are fewer people now arriving. The new arrivals are even more ashen and exhausted, after travelling for days through a war zone. They have spent days and nights sheltering in basements and bomb shelters. Almost all have lost a loved one, close friend, a teacher, their homes. They have relatives in Mariupol or Irpin who they haven’t heard from and fear the worst.
Every mother has a story of what it’s like to be in an air raid shelter with their child as the sirens wail and the shells come crashing down, shaking the building, emerging to find everything they knew and loved shattered.
Several young mothers tell me that they pretended to the children that it was all a game.
At the station there are psychologists, ready to help these traumatised children.
I meet sisters Sacha and Natasha with their mum Aliona and their Guinea pig Bonnya. They stayed as long as they could, but when the kindergartens were bombed, they knew they had to leave.
Other families tell me that one day they were planning birthday parties, home extensions and summer holidays, the next fleeing for their lives.
They are proud of their country – without exception they want to return as soon as possible and to be reunited with the men they left behind to fight.
They say again and again how grateful they are to everyone offering help and sanctuary. Almost the only time I see people cry is when they are moved by other people’s kindness.
That too is what moves me to tears; the resilience of the people here and the kindness of those back home.
The government MUST cut the red tape and make it possible for British people to deliver on their promises.
A sports hall located in Hrubieszow, Poland, which was transformed into an accommodation facility for refugees on March 21
FRIDAY, MARCH 25
I’m back home in London. In my twenty years as a criminal barrister, I have come across all types of people: ruthless people, vulnerable people, dead people on the mortuary slab – I didn’t think I could be shocked.
But nothing prepared me for those scenes on the border. I didn’t see bombs or bullets, but I saw what they caused: people who were living lives just like ours, who have now lost everything.
*Well, not everything – they have courage and tremendous gratitude to the people who are helping them – like the Daily Mail readers who have given so generously and offered their homes.
They are determined to return and rebuild Ukraine as soon as they can.
What this crisis brings home is that we must hold our families close, value our freedoms and democracy – they are more fragile than we realise. And we share more than we realise: whatever our politics, we share a belief in helping people at their most vulnerable. And that gives me hope.