As the sun sinks beneath the waves of the Indian Ocean, Ukrainian tourist Viktoria Makarenko and her daughter light incense at a temple in a Sri Lankan beach resort every night to pray to go home.
Russia invaded the 35-year-old homeland in February, leaving thousands of foreign tourists from both countries stranded on the tropical island.
But Ukrainians with empty wallets, distraught over the fate of their loved ones back home, say they are overwhelmed by the support of locals — even as they themselves are struggling in the face of the worsening financial crisis.
“I love Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan people,” Makarenko told AFP. “Everyone wants to help us.”
She, her husband and their 5-year-old daughter had been traveling in Sri Lanka for weeks when Russian troops invaded Ukraine.
Locals in the resort town of Unawatuna have gathered around them, offering free accommodation, food and even incense to light on their daily trip to the shrine, cash-strapped and desperate over their plight.
“The owners of this hotel let us stay here for as long as we needed. We have food, we have water, we have no headaches [over] What to eat tomorrow,” Makarenko said.
“We’re staying safe here and they’ll take care of us.”
On the white-sand beaches of Sri Lanka’s southern coastline, dozens of tourism-oriented businesses are offering advertisements or aid to stranded Ukrainians.
Ahesh Shanaka, the manager of the Blackgold Cafe in Mirissa, said he asked a Ukrainian customer with a baby if he wanted to go home.
“She said, ‘I can’t go back, my house is destroyed, where can I go?'”
A sign outside offers half-price meals for Ukrainian passports, and a nearby guesthouse offers empty rooms for a small group of backpackers from the country.
Shanaka believes the generosity of his fellow Sri Lankans stems from a fresh memory of the island’s own conflict – a decades-long civil war that ended in 2009.
“We’ve been in situations like this before… We know the pain, we know the pain,” he said.
Sri Lanka’s current difficulties are bad for business: Long queues for fuel and power outages threaten to upend operators and bring the budding post-pandemic tourism recovery to a screeching halt.
“You know, we’re in a bad situation. Crisis, our economy is going down, everything is bad,” Shanaka said.
“But we’re also people, and they’re people, and that’s why we’re trying to help.”
Official figures show that in the month the conflict began, some 15,000 Russians and 5,000 Ukrainians visited Sri Lanka – the island’s first and third largest source of tourism, respectively.
Sri Lanka offers free visa extensions for citizens of both countries.
Many Russian tourists are also stuck in the country, with their funds cut off after the United States and Western allies imposed sanctions on the international payments network.
But no offer was made to them and they were reluctant to speak.
“We have to meet friends,” said a young Russian, before he and his companion turned to gaze at the seascape of Galle’s historic Dutch fort.
During the conflict, public sentiment overwhelmingly supported Ukraine. Slogans condemning the war were painted on the yellow and blue flags on the walls up and down the coast.
“Given that they are also in a difficult situation, they are very sympathetic,” Darina Stambuliak, another Ukrainian whose stay in Unawatuna was involuntary because of the war, told AFP extend.
The 33-year-old said she had been forced to flee Donetsk in 2014 when pro-Russian separatists declared areas of separation.
She now spends most of her time anxiously following news at home. But her accommodation deal gave her one less reason to worry.
“Business owners wrapped us in love and support,” she said. “We are very grateful.”