‘It’s a fight for freedom.’ Ukraine backers call for continued arms support 1 year into war.

Local supporters of Ukraine hold signs and flags during a rally at Railroad Park on Saturday, Feb. 25. (Photo by Zoe McDonald, WBHM)

A crowd of more than 50 people gathered in Birmingham’s Railroad Park Saturday, a day after the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Supporters dressed in yellow and blue held 365 signs to remember each day since the war started, and they fell silent for 365 seconds to honor those fighting for Ukraine and to remember the innocent civilians that have died at the hands of Russian troops.

The crowd in Birmingham consisted of many from the local Ukrainian and Russian communities. They joined people in cities around the world that held similar gatherings in support of Ukraine’s cause.

The supporters stood in the rain to listen to speakers and hear Ukrainian songs. Some held homemade signs.

Anastasiya Klyuyeva attended the rally with her parents, who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine before the war. She said she wanted to bring attention to the thousands of Ukrainian children who are being taken from Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine to Russian reeducation camps.

“This is a crime against international law and they’re researching about how it could be constituted as a part of genocide of the Ukrainian people,” Klyuyeva said.

Alla Klyuyeva, Sergiy Klyuyev, Anastasiya Klyuyeva and Ethan Miller show their support for Ukraine at a rally in Birmingham on Feb. 25, 2023.

A week ago, Vice President Kamala Harris announced the United States’ determination that Russia committed crimes against humanity in Ukraine, saying Russian forces “pursued a widespread and systemic attack against a civilian population.”

Sergiy Klyuyev, Anastasiya’s dad, said he wants to continue to see the United States and other countries empower Ukraine during the war.

“We can defeat Russia, but we just definitely need more weapons,” he said.

That sentiment was echoed by Alex Drueke, a U.S. military veteran from Tuscaloosa who traveled to join Ukraine’s fight against Russia early in the war. Drueke and Andy Huynh, another military veteran from Alabama, were captured and held as prisoners of war by Russian forces last summer. The men told they were interrogated and tortured before they were released as part of a prisoner exchange in September.

During a speech at the rally, Drueke thanked Alabamians for advocating for his release and notifying state and national leaders. He said it’s important to keep pushing for more support from lawmakers to help Ukraine win the war.

“Tell them that we need to support Ukraine. Tell them that Ukraine needs money, it needs equipment, it needs munitions. This fight is not just for Ukraine. It’s a fight for freedom. It’s a fight for democracy. It’s a fight for everything that’s good and right in this world,” Drueke told the crowd.

Alex Drueke, who helped fight for Ukraine early in the war and was taken as a prisoner by Russian forces, says he’ll continue to speak out in support of the Ukrainian people.

Drueke said that these efforts are not just imperative for the future of Ukraine, but also for the rest of the world.

“If Ukraine does fall — which it won’t, Ukraine’s gonna win — but God forbid if they fall, Putin’s not going to be satisfied. He’s not going to stop with just Ukraine. He’s going to start going for other countries. So we have to stop him now. We have to stop him here,” he said.

Drueke doesn’t want Americans to forget about human rights violations against Ukrainians. He says people should keep pushing their representatives to support Ukraine, and if they can, donate to organizations like United 24, which was founded by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Ira Mokrytska, who spoke at the rally about leaving her family in Ukraine to flee to Birmingham last year, says it was important to gather with the Ukrainian community.

“For me it’s important to see Ukranians and to speak Ukrainian. … It’s just a good reminder that you belong to a community that really cares,” Mokrytska said.

Ira Mokrytska talks about the experience of leaving her family to flee Ukraine last year.

Ira Mokrytska talks about the experience of leaving her family to flee Ukraine last year.

Mokrytska is holding out hope that she will one day be able to return to peace in her home country. Until then, she’s doing all she can to keep people from forgetting the violence plaguing Ukrainians every day.

“If you support Ukraine, you don’t need to be a Ukrainian, you just need to be a human being. And that’s enough to tell the world that you stand with us and that you stand for freedom and democracy in this world,” Mokrytska said.