This was my Second Humanitarian Trip to Ukraine. My first had been to the Poland/ Ukraine border and Medijka where we witnessed thousands of refugees fleeing their country for the safety of the West. That was 2 months ago, a time when Russian Forces were advancing towards Kyiv and cities like Kharkiv were being occupied.
Now things were different, the Ukrainian Army had repelled the invading Russian Forces and driven them back to the South and East of the Country.
The West of the country had escaped indiscriminate shelling but key infrastructure was still being targeted by precision weapons, and air raid Sirens were many a day.
The country remains a Foreign Office no-go country where insurance won’t cover you and if it all goes wrong you are (technically) on your own. In truth the aid community is a strong network and we’d all do anything to help. But operating in that environment does come with risks and Edinburgh Direct Aid has only been using experienced volunteers in this environment.
As a ‘veteran’ of the Bosnian War nearly 30 years ago, I was one of those who had experienced combat and the complexities of working in a war zone. This time though I was getting good intelligence through a variety of good sources and therefore able to make a balanced assessment of the risks, I had contingencies in place and was able to take special precautions especially in relation to communications.
One of my control measures was travelling with another person and David Pond, a friend from another charity was helpfully planning to be in Ukraine at the same time. David, an ex naval officer, had had the same approach to risk and decision making drummed into him that I had in the Police so we were natural buddies for this trip.
Monday 9th May
After meeting in Poland the night before, we made our way to Przemysl on the Polish border. It was immediately clear from the station that things had changed. People were returning as well as leaving. David, who had spent the first few weeks of the refugee crisis assisting the refugees was surprised and told me some of his hellish experiences dealing with thousands of distressed women and children. You can read more of that here.
One big unknown for us – a real go/no go moment was Putin’s speech at the Victory Parade taking place in Moscow, just 750 miles to the North East of us. We tracked that through the day and were aware of the tension in the air.
The country was holding its breath and a lot of people had cleared out of Lviv in anticipation. What actually was said, or more importantly wasn’t said, was a relief to many, not least ourselves.
In truth, we were a little concerned traveling by train- railways appear to be one the major supply routes around the country and the infrastructure had already been struck both in Kremenchuk and in Lviv, our destination. The railways were a prime target especially given the amount of heavy military hardware coming into the country.
Before leaving Przemysl, we cleared out a chemist of thousands of painkillers and headed off to the station -with perhaps not the manliest of bags!
We found a train to Lviv leaving at 5pm and had hoped to be on that for the 60 mile trip to Lviv. The train – a sleeper was actually eventually bound for Odessa on the south coast and left an hour late when darkness fell.
It was ‘cosy’ with five of us sharing a four berth cabin. A journalist we met was interviewing people and we heard their sad stories;
- The young woman returning for her soldier brother’s funeral- “He died saving us”
- The fighting age male traveling to Dnipro to move his parents to the West of the country. He had left Ukraine before the war so knew this was a one way ticket as he wouldn’t be allowed to leave.
The journey itself was slow and our GPS seemed to be getting scrambled and confused. The carriage windows were all taped to protect from flying glass- a gentle reminder of where we were.
About an hour into the journey we stopped for a border check and border guards, soldiers and military intelligence questioned all the foreigners on board. Having a charity ID card smoothed the way for us but you could feel the tension.
The journey continued at a very slow pace and we were beginning to get concerned as Lviv is under curfew.
We finally arrived 5 ½ hours later ….. 45 mins after the curfew started.
After some ‘language charades’, with a friendly police officer we got a taxi to our accommodation (but even that was stopped at a roadblock en route).
Tuesday 10th May
After working out the air raid shelter arrangements and fire exits, we said hello to one of our other volunteers who was staying in another part of the city. Maggie, was assisting another NGO getting their delivery to Odessa prepared but was having terrible difficulty getting fuel. This was to be a defining problem for our trip as Ukraine’s petrol and diesel facilities had been knocked out by the Russians. Only a few petrol stations had fuel, it was entirely random which ones did. You needed a loyalty card to get any, the queues could be an hour long and you were limited to 20 litres every 3 hours. (I’m now signed up to 4 different Ukrainian fuel loyalty programmes!)
We headed into Lviv, a stunning city, to get our bearings and build some networks. If you are looking for the big charities, head for the most expensive hotels.
We bought Ukrainian SIM cards for our phones with a tonne of data. We needed it for two reasons- Google translate an app that translates speech and writing for you, Google Maps GPS and Signal an encrypted messaging app. The people we were working with preferred Signal above all else as there are real and justifiable concerns re electronic interception.
As we walked down the Main Street of Lviv, passed the big hotels I was astonished to here bagpipes. They were being played by a Ukrainian from Kyiv wearing a glengarry. After some more language charades and laughter I started leaping around in a manner that loosely resembles a Scottish Highland dance which attracted a bit of a crowd and a lot of photographs.
One of those in the crowd spoke English and we got chatting. Andy, was a Lviv volunteer who worked with a charity helping Internally Displaced People (IDPs). We exchanged numbers- first connection made. The bagpipes were however to bring another contact- Alison. I overheard Alison speaking to the piper and clocked a Scottish accent. Another connection made in 10 minutes.
My colleague David Pond had arranged to meet a charity re medical supplies and we met up with them in the afternoon. It was a very impressive charity and had a supply chain that spread across the country. We visited their offices met and witnessed dozens of documents of appreciation and gratitude – all testimony to their success. We both have folllow-ups to see how we can facilitate getting essential medical aid to this charity and into their supply chains.
We also did some due diligence on our potential partners which they passed with flying colours and arranged to do a recce to an IDP shelter 2 hour south of Lviv. We also added another member to our growing network- Justin, a Canadian who was acting independently in Ukraine and now living in Lviv.
Wednesday 11th May
We got a taxi to one of the few car hire companies in the city. The rest are at the airport, which had previously been bombed and not a great place to be hanging around!
A brand new Kia Sportage was supplied and I signed my life away on damage waivers. We were rather hoping for a bashed up wreck!
The car only came with 60% of a fuel tank and had to be returned that way. We headed South to the town of Skole in the mountains and just hoped we’d find a filling station. Thankfully we did but were again rationed to 20 litres. This was clearly going to be a problem.
Out of the city, the evidence of war defences was much more obvious, tanktraps, sandbags, soldiers guarding bridges.
On arrival at Skole we found our shelter a disused country mansion- a stunning property from the outside but one which would cost millions to renovate. It leaked, was damp and cold even on a warm day.
A German charity had installed some power and an electric boiler and another supplied a fridge. 55 people lived in this building, usually in dormitories. The walls were bare and damp, the floor wrecked and in places supported by temporary braces. There were lots of kids and we noticed that there was a big pile of cuddly toys, a table tennis table with four old bats but no balls, and outside a young lad played with a cheap plastic ball.
It was a bleak, somewhat depressing place.
One woman we spoke too had an extraordinary story. She was from the Donbas and had fled with her family- her son and his two daughters. She went on to explain that her daughter-in-law was a ‘traitor’ who had left her family to support the Russians. (She was happy for us to report this.) I asked if she wanted to take refuge in another country but she didn’t, she hoped to return…….. but to what? There was real despair in her eyes.
Back in Lviv, we were planning actions for deliveries and agreed to do a drop at a shelter in Lviv and then another in Northern Ukraine.
Thursday 12th May
Our first stop was a supermarket to meet up with Ira, an English speaking volunteer Maggie had been working with. She had a list of items that the shelter was needing. This shelter, a student hall of residence, had 50 people staying in it. We bought toiletries, cleaning products, food, fresh and tinned but were alarmed to find that credit cards weren’t working. While there was an ATM in the store, you were limited to cash withdrawals of 5000uah per day (about £115). In fairness this goes a long way as goods are cheap, but not far enough to feed a shelter yet alone our other commitment at an orphanage later in the day. Thankfully a lone credit card machine appeared from somewhere and we were able to pay for our monster shop.
With a loaded car, we headed to the shelter and restocked their supplies. We met a few families, most of whom again had come from the east of Ukraine. They had been there a number of weeks but there was that familiar look of uncertainty in their eyes.
On the way back to the shopping centre we chanced upon a fuel station, registered for yet another “loyalty” programme and managed to get some precious fuel.
Another round of Supermarket sweep and we headed to the checkout only to discover that the sole card machine had also broken so it was cash only. We stripped our accounts of money and managed to get enough from multiple bank accounts to buy a load for the orphanage. Between petrol and money it’s not good for your blood pressure!
Heading North we felt a real change in atmosphere, much more in terms of defences, trenches and minefields.
Belarus had the day before activated its Southern units and intelligence reports were warning of a false flag operation. This is the Steppes- huge tank friendly planes and straight roads.
We were stopped at a major military roadblock and when they realised we weren’t Ukranian asked if we were Russian. There is a real concern regarding infiltration by Russian agents. Passports checked and we were away but people were on edge.
Whilst you could find someone who could speak a little English in most places, nobody spoke English in this area. We were also trying to find a convent that’s address was patchy and that nobody seemed to know about! We weren’t even sure if we were in the right town!
After an hour of searching we finally found it and its leader Sister Gabriella. Most of the children were out for a walk with the nuns so we didn’t see many but those that were there were delighted with the colouring books, chalks and pens we brought to supplement the food and cleaning supplies the nuns had asked for.
We did find an young man who was working as a labourer at the convent. He was from Karkhiv and hoped that in a few weeks that it would be safe enough for him to return and help clear up and rebuild his city. Another contact for future operations.
We were keen to get back down the road quickly as there was an uneasy atmosphere in the area and getting through the military checkpoints at night would be harder. We had also been warned re a kidnap threat in this part of the country.
Once through though the checkpoints we made fair progress but fuel was once again getting low. We found a service station that had petrol but I had to download yet another app to register and prepay for the fuel. This meant screenshotting every step and toggling between google translate and the app. You cant even guess what Cyrillic words are!
After an hour we were in danger of missing the curfew and we left dejected only to find another service station around the corner- with a different app and a different registration process that this time worked. An emotional rollercoaster. We just made the curfew on our return but had concerns on what we could do the following day as we still didn’t have enough fuel to get back to Skole in the south.
Friday 13th May
An early start and a search for fuel stations and miraculously we hit the jackpot first time. This would allow us to travel back to Skole and bring a bit of happiness to the shelter we had recce’d 2 days earlier. We arranged to take them bedding to replace the worn sheets and duvet covers and a selection of sports equipment for the kids.
Frisbees, hula-hoops, skateboards, scooters, new table tennis kits, badminton sets, footballs and a dartboard. Smiles all round from some very grateful children.
The Director of the shelter got 20 bed packs. Smiles all round form a very grateful Director!
When we returned to Lviv, we returned with 60% fuel left- I’ve no idea how but it had worked out perfectly (and on Friday 13th too!)
Our last task was to drop off the thousands of painkillers we had brought in across the border. Again our recipients were so grateful and appreciative- these are now being distributed across the country.
Our way out of Lviv was intended to be by train but they are pretty hit and miss. They also seem to take forever and we learnt that our train wouldn’t reach Poland until 10 at night. That would make catching our flights home almost impossible.
Plan B was to bus it which when you can’t read let alone speak a language is an absolute nightmare of logistics planning!
Step forward another charity that was doing refugee transports and we were offered 2 spare seats on an evacuation bus to Medyka in Poland.
An hour later we were moving, a further hour later we were at the Ukrainian side of the border. We disembarked and walked over the border which was a surreal experience as so much had changed since I was last there 2 months ago.
While there were still refugees leaving, the queues were the other way as people returned to Ukraine. Vehicle traffic was queued about 7 miles.
A taxi back to the station for a train to Krakow and the flight home the next day.
We were in the Ukraine for six days, we traveled hundreds of miles, spent thousands of pounds on hundreds of people. We forged new networks, sourced new supply lines and have plenty of tasks to follow up on from home. So an indisputable success.
Lviv felt safe but in these environments complacency can be lethal. While trams run, cafes open and there is an veneer of a vibrant western european city. Scratch the surface you notice the shelters, the protected monuments, Shelters for IDPs and martial law restrictions.
Only a few days before we arrived, residents in a park watched a cruise missile destroy a railway power plant.
If we could have , we would have pushed further East but the big barrier is infrastructure. A lack of fuel and vehicles, challenges with money and civic restrictions like curfews make it challenging.
There is also a general shortage of Protective equipment that we should have if operating in more Eastern regions.
Those situations will hopefully improve soon and we will be able to punch out eastwards
(It’s also crazy that one of the the biggest barriers to getting material into Ukraine is post Brexit UK customs! We have supply lines that will get goods from Poland to Ukraine but not UK to Poland!)
Our work will now continue with other experienced volunteers taking a turn to support those in need who have nothing other than the suitcase they arrived with. We will also develop the relationships with partners we met from home as one massive difference between the wars of Bosnia and Ukraine is communication. In Bosnia we sent faxes to offices. In Ukraine we send encrypted messaging to pockets -and that’s a game changer.
What doesn’t change is the need for funds so please if you can afford it support our work here and if you’ve given already I hope this report will encourage you to give again!
Thank you for all your support.