In the midst of a domestic crisis, Sri Lankans provide assistance to stranded Ukrainians.

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As the sun dips below the Indian Ocean waves, Ukrainian tourist Viktoria Makarenko and her daughter light incense every evening at a temple in a Sri Lankan beach resort to pray for a return home. Russia’s February invasion of the 35-year-old’s homeland has left thousands of foreign travellers from the two countries stranded on the tropical island.

But Ukrainians with empty wallets, distraught over the fate of loved ones back home, say they have been overwhelmed by support from locals — despite their own travails in the face of a worsening financial crisis. “I love Sri Lanka and Sri Lankan people,” Makarenko told AFP.

“Everybody wants to help us.” She, her husband and their five-year-old daughter had been travelling around Sri Lanka for weeks when Russian forces invaded Ukraine. They were running low on cash and despairing of their predicament before locals in the resort town of Unawatuna rallied around them, offering free accommodation, food and even incense sticks to light on their daily trips to the shrine.

“The owner of this hotel let us stay here as long as we need. We have food, water, we don’t have a headache (over) what to eat tomorrow,” Makarenko said.

“We stay safe here and they take care of us.” Along the white sands of Sri Lanka’s southern coastline, dozens of tourist-oriented businesses are advertising offers or assistance for stranded Ukrainians.

AheshShanaka, the manager of the Blackgold cafe in Mirissa, said he asked one Ukrainian customer carrying a baby whether she was returning home. “She said, ‘I cannot go back, my house was destroyed, where can I go?'”

A sign outside offers half-price meals upon presentation of a Ukrainian passport, and nearby guesthouses have given empty rooms to small cohorts of backpackers from the country. Shanaka believes that his fellow Sri Lankans’ generosity stems from still-fresh memories of the island’s own experience of conflict — a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009.

“We also faced a situation like that before… We know the suffering, we know the pain,” he said. Sri Lanka’s current hardships have been bad for business: long queues for petrol and electricity blackouts are threatening to upend operators and bring a budding post-pandemic tourism revival to an abrupt end.

“We are in a bad situation, you know. The crisis, our economy is going down, everything is bad,” said Shanaka. According to official estimates, around 15,000 Russians and 5,000 Ukrainians visited Sri Lanka in the month the violence began, constituting the island’s leading and third-largest tourist sources, respectively.

Sri Lanka has allowed both nations’ residents free visa extensions.  Many Russian visitors are also stranded in the country, unable to leave due to US restrictions on international financial networks. However, no job offers have been promoted for them, and they are unwilling to speak with anyone. “We have to go meet friends,” one young Russian guy said tersely, before turning to gaze out at the ocean from the ancient Dutch Fort in Galle.

Published By : Ankit Singh
Edited By : Khushi Thakur

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