On the balcony of Stormont’s Parliament Buildings, the blue and yellow of Ukraine stands out in the bright afternoon sunshine.
It is worn by a group of women – deputies on city councils in Ukraine – who have been in Belfast this week to learn from its experience of rebuilding in the wake of conflict; lessons they hope will help in the reconstruction of their own country.
As they pose for a photograph, they display their colours proudly. “Melitopol is Ukrainian” is the slogan on one t-shirt; another bears a map of the country; while the phrase “capital of dignity and freedom” weaves its way along the edge of a scarf.
“Slava Ukraini!”, they chant, arms aloft: “Glory to Ukraine!”
“In the evening, when they walk around, they’re saying it’s a very quiet place, but what they mean is there are no sirens, there are no bangs,” says Professor Monica McWilliams, who is facilitating their visit on behalf of the Women’s Democracy Network.
“When we took them out and about to see Belfast, they couldn’t believe the difference,” she says. “They said, ‘We would never have thought you could have reconstructed Belfast’, and that gives hope.”
The deputies – councillors and deputy mayors – are from cities whose names became familiar across the world following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year: Zaporizhzhia, Melitopol, Mariupol.
“I literally have no city now, I have no home now,” says Olha Pikula, a deputy on Mariupol City Council. “I’m a person who was three weeks in Mariupol, occupied Mariupol, under constant everyday bombing, missile attacks, struggling every day for life and to survive – no internet connection, no water, no electricity, no food.
“I’m a very lucky person, I managed to get my husband, my mother, my cat [out] with me, but not everyone was blessed like that.”
Now part of the city council in exile in Kyiv, she is one of many who, even as the war continues, are already thinking ahead to the rebuilding of her city and country.
It has already written a first draft of a recovery plan for Mariupol, and estimates the amount needed to repair the physical damage to the city at €4.5 billion.
“Every night, every day we hear the sirens. We have a special app on our phones which tells you when missiles and rockets are running to your home,” says Pikula.
“That’s what life is now. We’re striving every day, fighting every day, and we as women leaders, we have come here because it’s really important to start getting ready for the victory.
“We are talking a lot about [physical] reconstruction because in a lot of cities like Mariupol, 80 per cent of critical infrastructure has been destroyed or damaged, almost like Warsaw in 1944.
“We have to rebuild architecturally our cities [but we also] have to rebuild psychologically.
“Millions of people are now traumatised, our soldiers, our heroes for protecting our land will be traumatised, and we need to get ready for this.”
“In terms of reconstruction, there’s so much commonality in terms of lessons and mistakes,” says McWilliams. “I said, ‘Learn as much from our mistakes, from the things we didn’t do’.”
During their week in the North, much ground has been covered. The women have been to a police station and spoken to PSNI officers; to WAVE Trauma, which supports victims and survivors of the Troubles; and to Belfast City Hall. They have discussed everything from the challenges of demilitarisation to how to address conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence and how to manage financial aid from abroad.
McWilliams lists some of the questions: “If there’s a new constitution, if there’s reconstruction, how do women become part of that decision-making?
“This is a country which is awash with weapons, so how do heroes come home to a family? Have you all prepared yourselves for all the different directions your fighters might take afterwards?
“Language and the language we’re using, those are big issues … there’s going to be a big identity issue, and of course the geopolitical context is much bigger and much worse.
“The message was prepare, prepare, prepare. Don’t wait until there’s a ceasefire and peace talks,” she says.
“The biggest thing for us was that they couldn’t even begin to talk about reconciliation, and we had to understand they’re not in that place. They’re where we were before the ceasefires.”
“You had a different conflict here [in Northern Ireland], it was an internal one and our country was invaded, but every conflict has a lot of commonalities,” says Pikula. “The war isn’t finished yet, but you already know what problems after conflict the country is going to face,” she says, not least in regard to trauma and memorialisation.
“In cities like Mariupol, where there has been an incredible amount of people killed, when we are rebuilding, what are we going to do with the memory?
“We don’t want to make our cities cemeteries because nobody will want to live in them, but how do we honour the memories of all the people who were killed? It’s important to study these examples now.
“Talking to women leaders [in Northern Ireland], they were involved in the peace process, they were involved in the after … we are very much motivated, we will not let only men take decisions, we will take our place as well.”
The group returns home on Saturday to a Ukraine which, Pikula says, is more united than it has ever been. “I believe it’s my mission to rebuild Mariupol and to make it a city where the youth will want to come back, where people who have lost everything will want to come back,” she says.
“We have no other choice. It all depends on us.”