SHARM EL SHEIKH, Egypt — The five-star resort on the shores of the Red Sea offers 20 unlimited restaurants and bars, a water park, a luxury spa, nightly entertainment, snorkeling, sunset yoga and aqua Zumba.
In the towering lobby, a woman in a red Chopin ball gown plays on a shiny grand piano. Hordes of children march along manicured paths, brandishing plastic swords and chanting in Russian: “I’m a pirate!”
Many of the guests are Russian. Some are Ukrainian. Most would go home days ago. But instead they are stuck together.
“It’s hard for me to talk to Russians now,” said Yevgeni Shevchenko, 30, who arrived in Egypt three weeks ago with his wife and toddler from the Ukrainian capital Kiev on what should have been a carefree beach vacation. Four days later, he awoke to the news that his country had been invaded.
Referring to the Russians at the resort, he said: “They also have problems, such as their credit cards not working and the ruble falling. But you cannot compare them to our problems. With Ukrainian problems.”
So it was in sunny Sharm el Sheikh in the weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last month, when thousands of tourists from both sides were stranded, unable to get home and unable to avoid each other at breakfast buffet.
The days were filled with tension, aggression and fear, with the occasional moment of compassion.
Some Ukrainian tourists, interviewed at three resorts in Sharm, said they had tried, and largely failed, to convince the Russians that their country had done nothing deserving of an invasion. A Ukrainian man said he saw a Russian in a T-shirt with the national flag in the lobby of their hotel staring down at a Ukrainian tourist until she burst into tears.
Workers said resorts had offered free meals and other benefits to persuade Ukrainians and Russians to eat in separate restaurants.
Mr Shevchenko was at the children’s playground when a friendly Russian tourist tried to strike up a conversation and confided that his credit card stopped working after Visa, along with Mastercard, left Russia.
mr. Shevchenko, who works in system administration, tried to contain his anger.
“I understand,” he recalled saying, before walking away.
When the invasion began, officials at the Ukrainian embassy said about 11,000 Ukrainians were staying in Sharm and 9,000 more in another Egyptian Red Sea resort, Hurghada. Those numbers have since dwindled as Egypt coordinated evacuation flights to Europe. The number of Russians detained in Egypt, although undisclosed, probably ran into the tens of thousands.
In normal times, Egypt’s beaches offer Russians and Ukrainians an all-inclusive winter break just a few hours’ flight from Yekaterinburg, Russia, or Kharkov, Ukraine. Package tour operators would send several million to Sharm and Hurghada every year.
But the war in Ukraine was just the last of many blows to the industry, including the 2011 Egyptian revolution; the 2015 terrorist bombing of a Russian passenger plane after it departed from Sharm, leading to a six-year ban on direct flights; and the coronavirus pandemic.
Egypt never stopped serving Russians and Ukrainians, who once made up a third of the country’s visitors and began flocking to Sharm again late last year. At resorts all over Sharm, guests can find menus, signs and activities in Russian, which is also spoken by many Ukrainians. In the rooms, the TVs mainly have Russian and Ukrainian channels.
Until two weeks ago, the two nationalities, united by language, culture and history, went on holiday in harmony. Then the Ukrainian channels started showing Russian troops destroying Ukrainian cities and firing at fleeing civilians, and the Russian channels started claiming that there was no war at all.
When Sergey Vysochina, 58, and Alina Vysochina, 43, were unable to return to Kamianske, Ukraine after their honeymoon in Sharm, they tried to channel their guilt and fear into doing their part in their country’s information war.
They approached Russian tourists, they said, trying to explain what was going on. In an effort to penetrate the Russian mentality, they occasionally switched the channel on their room TV from Euronews to Russia-24, although they were enraged by what they saw.
But the Russians they met reacted like Pavel, 35, who pushed a pushchair through the sand at a resort last week as the music pulsed relentlessly from the beach bar.
“In general, I support the side of the Russian government,” said Pavel, a salesman near Lake Baikal in Siberia, who refused to give his last name because he was suspicious of American journalists. “We have to protect ourselves.”
After a while, the Vysochins gave up.
“They cannot accept our position,” said Ms Vysochina, a bus company driver who met her husband, a bus driver, at work. “We tried to explain it, but it would cause a conflict between us, and we don’t want any conflict or trouble.”
There are Russians who don’t believe the Kremlin-backed propaganda they see on state television.
Mike, 30, who works for a Moscow-based pharmaceutical company, said a group of Ukrainian tourists approached him at the ping-pong tables at his resort and pulled out their phones to show him photos of the massacre.
‘I said nothing. I had no words to explain it,” he said. “I just hugged them.”
When he and his wife, Anastasia, 30, saw the news of the war in Sharm, they discussed leaving Russia but decided they couldn’t leave their family. Protesting, as many Ukrainian tourists said they asked the Russians, seemed too risky amid Russia’s increasing crackdown on dissent. They refused to give their last name for fear of repercussions.
“But,” said Anastasia, “we hope that everything will change.”
It felt wrong, discordant, to talk about war next to a calm, rippled sea. The sky should not have been so blue, nor the sun so bright, as pain and destruction filled the tourists’ phones.
Liza Bilozub, 28, a stylist from Kiev, arrived in Sharm on February 22. On day 2, her toddler son became ill. On day 3, the invasion began.
She said she and her husband were vomiting from the shock.
“It was perfect! Everything was perfect. Then I threw up every day,” she said. “My heart breaks every minute because our minds, thoughts and feelings are in Kiev.”
Drifting through the days, the Ukrainians found there was only so much time they could spend on the news, or scrolling through social media in disgust, or crying.
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They went for a walk. They swam. Involuntarily they headed for their future.
Some debated what’s best and safest to go after Sharm: What if Russia invades further Europe? Others discussed what they would do when they returned to Europe: volunteer to fight? Get a job and send money to the front?
“I still feel guilty being here,” said Vadym Harat, an electrical engineer from Kiev who found out that Russia had invaded his country when he landed in Sharm for what should have been his 50th birthday. “To sit here like this, it’s unbelievable.”
The Egyptian government has ordered two- and three-star hotels on the Red Sea to extend the stay of Ukrainian guests for free, while more expensive resorts have been forced to offer special rates or transfers to cheaper accommodation. That was a relief for tourists, but a blow to hotels already hard hit by the pandemic, who were promised compensation by the government of just $10 per Ukrainian guest per night.
“When you talk to Egyptians, they are sadder than the Ukrainians themselves,” said Ashraf Sherif, sales manager at Red Sea Hotels, a chain in Sharm and Hurghada. “Because this city only has tourism.”
Russian tourists in Sharm said they depended on their tour operators to pay for their stay and arrange transport home after direct flights to Russia had been suspended and their credit cards had stopped working. Some said their agency told them they were on their own.
Some travelers from both countries were looking for a longer stay in Egypt, a getaway that’s sunnier and cheaper than many other options.
Andriy Panagushyn, a Ukrainian former diplomat living in Sharm, said he and other Ukrainian residents had been inundated with requests from compatriots seeking long-term rent.
Many tourists tried to make the most of their forced vacations. The bars and clubs were packed: Russians danced on one side, Ukrainians on the other.
“Our livers suffer from a lot of alcohol,” said Ruslan Yarikov, 43, an accountant from the Russian city of Norilsk, Siberia, whose stay at a five-star resort was extended for free. “We don’t feel the war here. We are in vacation mode.”
But for some it was impossible to pretend.
A few days after Russia invaded, a Ukrainian woman sat at the bar of the Ghazala Hotel, drowning her sorrows. The only other customer there, except for Mr. Sherif, who narrated the scene, was a Russian teenager who was hopping across the dance floor.
The Ukrainian asked the Russian: “Are you having a good time?”
When she heard her Ukrainian accent, the teenager stiffened. He looked at her. Slowly, said Mr. Sherif, he greeted her.
Moments later, the woman saluted back.