A Return to Ukraine


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.

Victory Day Parade, Moscow (BBC)

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.

Taped windows

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.

Saturday15th May

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.

Missile strike in Lviv 3rd May 2022 (Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times)

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.

To Poland and beyond…

David Hamilton started with EDA nearly 30 years ago as a driver in Bosnia. He is on the management committee of the charity and a serving police officer

Here he blogs about his experience on his EDA recce into Poland.

The purpose of this trip was to do gather information and do a recce to see what was going on in Przmsyl , Poland, (the largest of the Border Crossings from Ukraine to Europe and make recommendations to the Management Committee).

Accompanying me on the trip was Rachel Watson, a journalist with the Daily Mail and Scottish Sun, but who also had a real interest in helping and who took some leave to join me.

On Sunday 13th March 2022 Rachel and I left Edinburgh for Krakow. The 2.5 hr flight was followed by a 3 hr car journey to our accommodation. We chose a quiet holiday lodge 40 miles west of Przemysl so as not to take up accommodation that might be needed by refugees. The other lodges were occupied by journalists.

On Monday 14th March, we left our accommodation and travelled to the refugee reception centre in Przmsyl. The car park of this disused shopping centre was full of Charites and NGOs  from across Europe. There were buses and many many refugees. We got there early and the  Drivers Reception Centre was still full of beds- all cramped together.
Rachel and I registered as drivers and “learnt” the system.

Przmysl Humanitarian Aid Centre

Refugees were taken to the centre from the border by bus and then asked where they wanted to go. There were different shop units in the shopping centre that corresponded to countries. Ashamedly the UK was not one of them. Your country reception would then match you to a bus or a volunteer driver.  The volunteer drivers had to be registered and you couldn’t leave the centre with a refugee unless you were accredited. This basic safeguarding process was to prevent the increasing number of people traffickers from exploiting the system.

One chap we met from The UK had driven 1800 miles and had taken families to the Baltic states, Gdańsk and was offering to take people to England as he returned home. Unfortunately he couldn’t guarantee entry.

The atmosphere in the shopping centre was the same as I had felt in Tuzla, Bosnia 30 years earlier.  Calm, somber, dignified and purposeful- but sadness too. In the car park children played with toy cars while mothers registered for free SIM cards. Perhaps predictably there were piles of donated goods around the site. Some had been rummaged through -but most will be landfilled.

We then drove  to Medyka, right on the border. There we saw that  buses had replaced the earlier work Maggie had been doing shuttling people the few miles into Przmsyl. Surprisingly there were quite a few vehicles travelling into Ukraine.

The site was well managed and police, military and fire were present in numbers, marshalling the crowds on to buses.The paved walkway to the border was not dissimilar to a market with stalls on either side of an avenue. Again we witnessed piles of donated clothes etc just sitting out in the open unwanted.

There was a constant buzz at Medyka, a constant stream of refugees, visibly relieved to be ‘safe’ . Again very few tears, in fact you frequently forgot that there was a war, people just walking with their bags. Their entire lives in them.

Almost all the refugees were women with children. Very few single women and of course no men. It was also notable that there were very few old people. I fear there must be many who will not/ cannot leave. We also saw many dogs, and there was even an animal charity with on-site vet.

The most notable group we met were a charity called “Siobhans Trust”, a charity that has been active in feeding programmes in Dundee, run by the wonderful David Fox-Pitt MBE.

Siobhans Trust have the same ethos and values as EDA, which is why frankly I felt so at home. Driven purely by their mission to help, they are 100% volunteers. They sleep in their vehicles/ in tents and are operating 24/7. They provide soup, porridge, tortillas, chocolate, tea and coffee. Oh how Ukrainians love their ‘chai’!

But their real coup was the the two pizza ovens they had and team of volunteer pizza chefs that churned out dozens  of pizzas a day. The absolute delight in the faces of children as they were offered Pizza yards after crossing the border really was magical.

Pizza Delight

We found the Ukrainians at times reluctant to take things, and one woman even tried to pay for her cup of coffee. We also found a dog being swaddled by its owner- apparently with a broken hip. We were able to get her Vetinary assistance from the animal rescue charity.

Animal Charity distributing Pet food, Leads and providing vet care
8 week old pup being Puppy-sat by the vets while Mum takes a break

And then there was  Vassa aged 13 and ‘Jobba’ his rat like creature (I have no idea what he is)  aged 6. We were able to give Vassa, his  brother and mother a seat and some fresh pizza. Meanwhile Jobba got an apple! Rodentarian Aid alive and well.

Vassa and Jobba
Jobba gets some Rodentarian Aid

The opertion is continuous, day and night. Soup, rolls and my speciality- scrambled egg and red pepper frittatas. A constant supply of welcoming food for refugees. One American journalist called those at the stall “The Ambassadors of the World”.

Siobhan’s Trust Tent

In the evening when the sun goes down the temperatures plummet and we knew that the queues on the Ukraine side were big. David Fox-Pitt had managed to get across earlier in the day with some food and we decided to run constant humanitarian aid “convoys” of shopping trolleys containing vats of soup.

David Fox leads Convoy 2 with David and Rachel Driving Trolley 3

It was odd going across the border, a Ukrainian stamp on my passport wasn’t on the agenda but in this type of situation you go with the need and there were 100s of women and children queuing in the freezing night.

It was a long push to the border and the border guards waved us through relatively quickly. In Ukraine it seemed almost business as usual at the border-painfully slow! You’d never know there was a war until we passed the foreign legion recruitment tent.

The Ukrainians were delighted to see us, even those who didn’t want soup. It certainly raised a few chuckles when they heard some daft Scots shouting “soupa” in appalling accents. A kilted David Fox even put on a Scottish dance lesson for some kids.

We must have served hundreds of people and got the chance to share a joke with some. There’s always a place for humour in these situations- even when you don’t speak each other’s language.

Whilst in Ukraine we met another NGO who were giving out tea to the crowds. Ukrainians love their chai (not sure if I mentioned that!). They may not be able to stay much longer and are looking for someone else to take over. I left my card.

Once we had dished out all our food we returned through the border, but the queues were going so slowly.  One woman we met had been waiting 7 hours to cross. We can’t see any need for this, as the Poles were only operating 2 booths and it was painful slow.

Returning to Poland with our trolleys we felt both happy that we’d found and fed people, who didn’t know how long and cold a night lay ahead.

Ukranians love their “Chai”!

After a few more pizza deliveries Rachel and I made our way back to Pzrmysl where I had arranged to catch up with a friend David Pond ( https://livepond.blog spot.com) who was working at the station. David is a retired Naval Commander who helped coordinate Relief  logistics in the Balkans in the 90s. He has been running mother and baby units at various reception centres in Poland. Trains come in regularly and another 3000 refugees disembark, he’d been exhausted over the last week but getting asleep away from the station had helped. It was a bit quieter than normal so we were able to exchange thoughts, experiences and ideas on the back of which I will be contacting our Minister for Ukrainian Refugees Neil Gray MSP. David’s “quiet” night was however to get turned upside down and he was later to be looking after  21 babies and their exhausted mothers when another influx came.

David Pond and David Hamilton, grab a quick chat

We drove back to our lodge late and talked through what we’d seen and felt. I find that kind of decompression with people who have shared such an unusual experience so important. Although Rachel and I are professional communicators it can be difficult to put this kind of experience into words. Emotionally and physically shattered but still more to do.

And then what?

You forget how big a country Poland is- until you drive across it! Krakow was a 3 hour drive and we got their mid morning to see how the cities were “absorbing” the refugees.

In Krakow, the municipality was clearly coordinating efforts and the shopping centre was doubling up as a hub.

Charites were there offering food and more clothes – but there is only so much people can carry. An office arranging “temporary accommodation” was operating but it was busy and people slept on the floor waiting.

Krakow ShoppingCentre

The support from the Polish people has been incredible. It wasn’t appropriate to interrupt this work to understand their matching/safeguarding approach but posters in the station and chats showed that people are very alive to the dangers of traffickers.

Warning re Human Traffikers
Google Translated

This is an unusual migration as there are no camps, at least not yet. It’s a logistics and transport operation where refugees arrive and are moved on to destinations of their choice. It’s a constant flow. There is a feeling amongst many that this is short term and that they will be going back soon. I hope that’s true, but fear it’s not.

The logistics operation is improving but it changes all the time. There is no apparent strategy and in that vacuum small NGOs are filling the void building networks and giving amazing compassion and support.

As for the big guys .. DEC, UNHCR etc nowhere to be seen. Whether that’s down to the lack of strategic leadership or the lack of camps and those traditional activities I’m not clear.

That’s not to say they should be there, but you are certainly getting more bang for your buck with charities such as EDA and Siobhans Trust.

The needs is of course cash. Cash to sustain operations, and cash to assist with what comes next. What’s not needed is clothes, piles of which lie in car parks for people to rummage through. Food is easily and cheaply bought.

Discarded Clothes

Another commodity that is in short supply is volunteers. The Siobhans Trust guys are working 24/7- many refugees come through at night- while many other NGOs go back to their hotels. It is tiring work, dozens of pizzas need rolled, topped and cooked, industrial quantities of vegetables peeled and chopped, soup made, porridge stirrred and of course all served. And repeat.

Pizza making

They need volunteers who are prepared to pay and make their own way there, live in a tent for a week, sleep for a few hours at a time and work shifts. This is the Edinburgh Direct Aid model we used in the Balkans.

In my time away I’ve made many really useful contacts with whom we can partner, I have logistical and office support if needed, media contacts and ideas…Plenty to talk about at our next Management Committee Meeting next week.

My last appeal form Poland

My last report from Poland

On our way home we shared a flight with Oskana Slokvenko and her 10 year old daughter Sofia. They had spent 2 weeks trying to get to Scotland, leaving Sofia’s dad Oleg to fight. It was an emotional reunion that completed the journey for us. Having followed refugees from a freezing night in Ukraine, through the border, to the cities and then onto safety in Scotland. Who’d have though the hardest, longest part of that journey was getting a Visa to enter this country?

Oskana and Sofia arrive in Edinburgh

Since writing, I have been in touch with both Scottish Government Ministers and contacts on the ground to see how we in Scotland can better support refugees coming in. Our powers may be limited, but our determination isn’t.