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Sofie Demeyer

Testimony of a Ukrainian lawyer who fled to our country

It has been exactly 1 year since Russia invaded Ukraine. Over 63 000 Ukrainians fled to our country, they were immediately given protection here thanks to a special status of temporarily displaced persons due to the war in their country. This also allowed them to seek work here immediately. There are also some lawyers among those refugees, Viktoriia Mykuliak being one of them. She is now part of the legal team at VVBG, an international firm based in Brussels, where she focuses on commercial law cases. Sofie Demeyer, the spokesperson for, interviewed her. Master Mykuliak stressed that she speaks only on her own behalf.

The interview with Viktoriia Mykuliak, the Ukrainian lawyer now working in Brussels

When exactly did you come to our country?

Mr Mykuliak: I arrived here in March last year. VVGB Lawyers in Brussels, just after the invasion, offered me to join their team.

What was or is the impact of the invasion on Ukrainian lawyers?

Mr Mykuliak: Ukrainian lawyers, like all Ukrainians, continue their work, despite the many power cuts or bombings. Meanwhile, many Ukrainian lawyers, including some former colleagues from my law firm there, are also fighting at the front.

What is the current state of the judiciary in Ukraine? Do people still have access to justice?

Mr Mykuliak: In the Ukraine-controlled areas, the judiciary works normally but the residents of the Russia-occupied areas do not have access to the judiciary.

What is the impact of the war on the rule of law and human rights in Ukraine?

Mr Mykuliak: Russia is systematically violating international human rights in Ukraine. Words such as shelling, use of banned weapons, landmines, torture, rape, abduction and deportations unfortunately quietly sound very familiar to Ukrainians.

Every day, Russia attacks civilians and infrastructure with its artillery, missiles or drones. Particularly harrowing is the situation in the occupied territories because there Russia uses methods it has been using since 2014 in Crimea and the Donbas region: it appoints an occupation administration, imposes Russian laws on the inhabitants and forcibly forces Russian passports, number plates and driving licences on them.

Men there are forced to fight against their fellow Ukrainians. Those who are not loyal to the occupier are tortured and killed there, as was evident in areas such as Izium, which has already been liberated. The bodies of hundreds of dead civilians were found there, many of whom showed signs of torture.

To integrate the occupied territories economically, Russia introduced the rouble there, opening branches of Russian banks and requiring local businesses to re-register and pay taxes to comply with Russian laws.

"Russia is depriving the inhabitants of the occupied territories of their identity and this is therefore contrary to human rights and the principles of the rule of law."

Russia has also removed Ukrainian television and radio broadcasts from the airwaves in the occupied territories and replaced all Ukrainian telecom operators with Internet and telephone services controlled by Russia. In schools, lessons are taught only in Russian and the Russian curriculum has been introduced. Textbooks in Ukrainian were destroyed.

As part of an ethnic cleansing campaign, Russia is forcing many Ukrainian citizens to move to Russia. Since the beginning of the invasion, thousands of children from orphanages in the occupied territories have also been deported to Russia, the Belgian press reported extensively last week.

Furthermore, Russia is holding thousands of Ukrainian prisoners of war and civilians in deplorable conditions. Russian occupation authorities prevent UN officials from visiting Ukrainian POWs, while the UN is aware of torture, lack of food, water, healthcare and sanitation at the sites where POWs are held.

Do you have a specific message for your colleagues left behind in Ukraine?

Mr Mykuliak: On the front line or on the home front, we are all fighting, with only one goal: the victory of Ukraine, in order to obtain justice.

What do you think is the future for Ukraine, both in the short and long term?

Mr Mykuliak: Ukraine, the EU and Belgium, have already decided that they are in this conflict together, that they are on the same side. This is not a coincidence. It is a joint struggle for the preservation of sovereign nations. The Russian Federation's barbaric war on such a large scale is no accident. It is a deliberate tactic to intimidate European countries with a view to annexations. Clearly, the annexation of Georgia in 2008 and that of Crimea (Ukraine) in 2014 led to an even bigger war.

For Ukraine, both in the short and long term, it is very important to safeguard our identity and be able to reclaim the occupied territories as our territory. The more territory Ukraine can liberate, the greater its chances of lasting success.

It goes without saying that Russia must also be held responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, damage to Ukraine's economy and infrastructure.

Would you like to return to Ukraine after the war to work as a lawyer?

Mr Mykuliak: The question is not whether I want to return to Ukraine when the war is over. The question is when this war will be over and how much more horror and destruction it will bring us. Of course Ukraine wants to win this war, exactly for that additional weapons must be provided very urgently.

I would like to end with words of thanks to Belgium and the Belgian people. We, Ukrainians, are sincerely grateful to you for helping our country, for the compassion, solidarity and sympathy you show to Ukrainians during this war.

Personally, I am also extremely proud and grateful for the opportunity to work in a world-class law firm. I have already gained an awful lot of experience here and this experience will be very useful when I return to my country after Ukraine's victory.