As a Ukrainian musician and a combat paramedic, the UK's Eurovision efforts have lifted my heart | Taras Topolia

One day we will host the competition on our sovereign soil, but until then, solidarity means everything

Life before war broke out in my home country of Ukraine feels like a distant memory. Before, I was frontman of the band Antytila. I lived with my wife and three children in Kyiv. With my bandmates, we had plans to make new music and tour, playing stadiums across the country. But after February 2022, our only thoughts were to serve; to resist. Life changed radically overnight for all of us.

My bandmates Serhii Vusyk, Dmytro Zholud and I swapped our instruments for rifles and joined the frontline. We became paramedics with the 130th battalion of the Ukrainian territorial defence forces, giving first aid to our injured brothers and saving lives.

It was too dangerous for our families to stay in Kyiv, so our wives and children moved first to western Ukraine before settling abroad. My wife and three children landed in New Jersey, US, where they have remained with my mother and stepfather. My wife, musician Alyosha, wrote last year of how she kept her bags packed by the door, desperate to return home at the first sign of safety. Our separation was made all the more dramatic by the very real threat I was facing each day: would I leave the frontline alive?

More than a year on, I am a musician again. I was reminded of that when I took to the stage in Liverpool, playing a crowded square at the Eurovision village. The show had all the markers of the shows I played before the conflict: the fans, a huge stage, great sound. But war changes you. Between songs, we spoke about the war, how to create more support for our troops, how to enrol more people into our resistance. Music has never been more political. Eurovision has taken on a different meaning this year.

Taras Topolia, centre, performing with Bono and The Edge of U2, in a subway station converted into a bomb shelter, Kyiv, 8 May 2022.
Taras Topolia, centre, performing with Bono and The Edge of U2, in a subway station converted into a bomb shelter, Kyiv, 8 May 2022. Photograph: Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images

After seven months on the frontline, I was able to return to Kyiv in October 2022, and from there, fly to the US to be reunited with my wife and children. Since then, I try to visit my family as often as I can. I am able to travel now, but we remain separated by this war: I am still living in Kyiv, but it is still too dangerous for them to come home. Unless you’ve lived through it, it’s impossible to imagine how war devastates families – millions like mine have been separated. Being able to see my family has felt heavy at times, knowing just how many soldiers will never have the chance to return home or hug their wives and children. In Kyiv, we look after many children who have had their fathers stolen from them – our brothers in arms.

Today, my bandmates and I are playing music again around the world, but Ukraine’s independence remains our priority. Through charity concerts, we are able to raise funds to buy new weapons and continue to support our battalion fighting for freedom in Ukraine. Our ultimate goal is victory in war – if we fail, the world order will never be the same again. We try to use our music as another weapon in our arsenal.

Eurovision is an amazing platform for that message. Last year, Kalush Orchestra’s win was a vote of confidence from our European neighbours that Ukraine could win this war. Every vote for them was a vote for democracy, for shared values, for the principles of peace and fairness. It sent us a message of support on the frontline, that Europe believed we could host Eurovision in 2023 on our own sovereign soil.

As the UK hosts this year’s competition, I’m also reminded of what we haven’t achieved – not being able to host means the fight continues, more lives being lost. But seeing the UK host Eurovision in Ukraine’s name gives us a continued power to fight. Seeing crowds of British faces supporting us gives me a feeling of indescribable pleasure. It means so very much. Ukrainians see how much the British people care, we are reminded of their enduring support, how they took in our refugees.

Eurovision isn’t only about winning. It’s also an opportunity to be part of something bigger: to express what you feel using music. We are thankful the UK has given us a platform this year for creativity – an opportunity to be artists again. One day, I have no doubt that Ukraine will host with pride, and be able to welcome those who supported us so fiercely.

• As told to Lucy Pasha-Robinson. Taras Topolia is lead singer of the Ukrainian band Antytila

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Taras Topolia

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