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Ukrainian group Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest during the war

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Ukrainian group Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest during the war

TURIN, Italy (AP) -- Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest early Sunday morning, clearly showing popular support for a war-t

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TURIN, Italy (AP) — Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra won the Eurovision Song Contest early Sunday morning, clearly showing popular support for a war-torn nation that goes beyond music.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the victory, the third for Ukraine since its Eurovision debut in 2003, and said “we will do our best” to host the competition next year in the fiercely contested port city of Mariupol. He emphasized “Ukrainian Mariupol”, adding: “free, peaceful, rebuilt!”

“Thank you for the victory, the Kalush Orchestra and everyone who voted for us!” Zelensky wrote in a message on the Telegram messenger. “I am sure that our victorious chord in the battle with the enemy is not far off.”

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Kalush Orchestra frontman Oleg Psyuk took advantage of a huge worldwide audience of more than 180 million last year to make an impassioned appeal to the fighters to free the fighters who, after their performance, were still trapped under the huge steel plant in Mariupol.

The song of the Kalush Orchestra “Stefania” became sentimental and beloved by bookmakers among the 25 performers who participated in the final. A public vote from home via text message or the Eurovision app proved to be decisive, lifting them above British Tik Tok star Sam Ryder, who took over after national juries in 40 countries cast their votes.

“Stefania” was written by Psyuk as a tribute to his mother, but after the Russian invasion on February 24, it became an anthem to the Motherland with lyrics that promise: “I will always find my way home, even if all roads are destroyed.”

The Kalush Orchestra itself is a cultural project that includes folklorists and mixes traditional folk melodies and modern hip-hop in a targeted defense of Ukrainian culture. This became even more important as Russia falsely sought to claim through its invasion that Ukraine did not have its own unique culture.

The call to release the remaining Ukrainian fighters captured by the Russians under the Azovstal plant served as a grim reminder that the hugely popular and at times flamboyant Eurovision Song Contest played against the backdrop of war on Europe’s eastern flank.

“Help Azovstal, right now,” Psyuk pleaded from under the bright Panama hat, which has become the group’s hallmark among fans.

The Azov Battalion, which is among the last 1,000 defenders of the plant, sent thanks from the labyrinth of tunnels under the plant, posting on Telegram: “Thank you to the Kalush Orchestra for your support! Glory to Ukraine!”

The city itself has been the site of some of the worst destruction in the 2.5-month war as Russia seeks to secure a land bridge between separatist-controlled Donbas and Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

A group of six, all male, received special permission to leave the country to represent Ukraine and Ukrainian culture at a music competition. One of the original contestants stayed to fight, with the rest planning to return once the competition is over.

Before the competition, Psyuk told The Associated Press that he would return to a volunteer organization he created at the start of the war that uses social media to help find transportation and shelter for those in need.

Although support for Ukraine in the song contest was ultimately overwhelming, the contest remained open until the final votes were counted. War or not, but fans from Spain, Great Britain and other countries who came to the Pala Olimpico stadium from all over Europe cheered for the victory of their country.

However, Ukrainian music lover Irina Lasiy said she felt her country’s global support in the war and “not just in music.”

Russia was excluded this year after its invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. Organizers said the move was intended to keep politics out of a competition that promotes diversity and friendship among peoples.

In Ukraine, in the devastated northeastern city of Kharkiv, the participation of the Kalush Orchestra in the competition is seen as providing the nation with yet another platform for international support.

“The whole country is rising, everyone in the world is supporting us. It’s very nice,” said Yulia Vashchenko, a 29-year-old teacher.

“I believe that wherever there is Ukraine now and there is an opportunity to talk about the war, we need to talk,” said Alexandra Konovalova, a 23-year-old makeup artist from Kharkiv. “Any competitions are important now, because thanks to them, more people will learn about what is happening now.”

Ukrainians in Italy have also used Eurovision as the backdrop for this week’s flash mob to call for Mariupol’s help. About 30 Ukrainians gathered at a bar in Milan to watch the broadcast, many wearing bright Psyuk Panama hats in support of the band.

“We are so glad that he called for help to save people in Mariupol,” lawyer Zoya Stankovskaya said during the broadcast. “And we’re pretty sure they’ll win.”

The winner takes home a glass microphone trophy and potential career advancement, although the Kalush Orchestra’s first concern is peace.

The event was organized in Italy after the victory of the local rock band Maneskin last year in Rotterdam. The victory brought the Roman group international fame, opening for the Rolling Stones and appearing on Saturday Night Live and on the covers of numerous magazines in her typically genderless outfit.

Twenty groups were selected in the two semi-finals this week and competed alongside the big five from Italy, the UK, France, Germany and Spain, who have permanent spots thanks to the competition’s financial support.

Ukrainian commentator Timur Miroshnichenko, who voices the Ukrainian broadcast of the Eurovision Song Contest, participated from a basement in an unknown location, and not from his usual TV studio.

“On the fifth or fourth day of the war, our TV tower in Kyiv was shot down,” he said. To continue broadcasting, “we had to go underground somewhere in Ukraine.”

According to him, the Eurovision show in Ukraine was important, both online and on TV.

“This year, I think it is more symbolic than ever,” Miroshnichenko said.

Ukraine was able to take part in the music competition “thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the resilience of our people,” he said.

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Barry reported from Milan. Vasilisa Stepanenko contributed from Kharkov, Ukraine.

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