I am writing from Mykolaiv in Ukraine after a long journey from the Venezuelan border, which included several quick stops in Costa Rica, the US, Canada, Morocco, the Netherlands, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and Moldovia. After a three-week journey, I finally made it to the front lines in Ukraine.
Along my journey, I was pleased to connect with my two kids, who are successfully settling into their careers. Andrea is a website designer, and Jonathan is helping to lead a very effective outreach ministry in Canada.
In Turkey, I stayed in a hostel occupied mainly by young Russian men who had recently escaped military conscription, a poignant encounter with young and capable men leaving behind their careers and homes.
The bus trip from Istanbul to Odessa
The twenty-hour bus ride turned into a four-day journey, with two drivers and three passengers becoming like a family camping out on a bus. In Moldovia, we had to camp out as the explosion of two missiles had blocked the road. We were distressed after looking at the close range of the high flames and thick smoke from a burning oil refinery. Once in Ukraine, I choose to travel to the city of Mykolaiv. I had been in this city delivering emergency supplies before when the military offensive towards the town of Kerson had begun. I chose this city because I support a Ukrainian refugee family in Germany, and they offered me the use of their apartment. I also could help a local humanitarian agency. When I arrived, I received the sad news that four humanitarian workers delivering assistance to Kherson had disappeared, likely taken captive and that two missiles had severely damaged my offered apartment. One missile had destroyed an apartment building next to mine, and the other had fallen in the adjacent parking lot by the compound. If the rocket had come down during the daytime when children and the elderly hung around, many would have died. All of the windows in my apartment were shattered, and I had to live with safety shoes, gloves and goggles for almost one week. It took one week for the emergency crews to fix my apartment windows since the dwellings of the elderly and disabled had priority. With no windows, it was the coldest week of my life; my survival training became handy. All of this was aggravated by a plague of rodents who had landed in my apartment to feast on stored food. To make my life more interesting, during my first week, we were hit almost every night by several missiles in unsuccessful attempts to bring down power and transportation facilities. After one month and many cruise missile attempts, Russians finally cut us off for several days from power, water, heating, and communication services. Thankfully, all have been restored, and I am now better prepared to survive without those amenities we often take for granted. This city is close to the Black Sea, and most missiles come from the Russian sea fleet. Usually, when the warning air sirens go off, the rockets have already landed.
Church in Mykolaiv
During my first Sunday in the city, I was determined to find a Christian church where I could worship. Without the internet, I walked along one of the main avenues where I had previously seen two churches which appeared to be Greek Orthodox. I did not mind the denomination; I wanted a place to worship. The first church I found had its doors locked with heavy locks, so I guessed that church was a no-go.
Then I went to the next church. It was abandoned. The locked doors had fallen off, so I decided to venture in. It looked like a beautiful church long ago but was ruined now. Like many Christian churches in North America except here in Ukraine, those ruins were visible… I was alone in such a large building, so I thought I could start my own cult there. However, I quickly gave up the idea since, in Ukraine, it would be hard for me to proselytize, plus it would not be easy to import Kool-Aid… I decided to continue my quest for a place to worship.
After a long walk, I saw a Baptist church building, and I was ready to give up my search. I excitedly walked into the compound, but to my dismay, the church was packed with an overflow of people unable to get in. As I was preparing to return home, an usher noticed me and called me. I guess he felt compelled to let me in because I was wearing military fatigues. It was embarrassing as he opened the way through other people already waiting. The church was packed with over one thousand attendees, and there was not a single seat for me, but the usher assertively brought me into the front right center of the church where the choir sits, asking two choir members to move and make room for me—what interesting morning. Only one hour before, I had given up the idea of starting my cult, and now, on my first visit to this vibrant church, I get promoted to the choir!
This is a lecture I include in one of my rescue and survival classes. I describe Situational Awareness as “The ability to appropriately evaluate your surroundings to overcome risks and maximize available resources.” A few weeks ago, I had an experience that made me aware that sometimes what we say is not necessarily what we do. I guess this is a persistent trend within our human nature.
I ran to the local store to buy milk and eggs one mid-afternoon. It was a quick errand, so I grabbed a light jacket. As I was returning, military and police vehicles blocked our entrance as they were conducting some procedure. I sat at a bus stop as my ten-minute errand turned into an over three-hour wait. By the evening, I started to feel miserable and cold; I did not have my phone, wallet or passport. I was stuck on the street! Temperatures had drastically dropped, and stores had been closed. I was frustrated with myself for my lack of “situational awareness” as I kept lingering: “I live in a warzone. I should have come out more prepared.” While I had a solo censuring party, a rather good-looking lady approached me and asked in almost good English if I was Canadian; she added that she had seen my precarious condition and assertively asked if I wanted to come to her home so that I could warm up. I quickly responded. “Yes! Please”. She said she would return soon to pick me up. I thought of the odds of a man being approached at night at a bus stop by a handsome-looking lady and invited to her home. While waiting, I entertained myself by thinking about all the different reactions I would receive from friends when they read this. As she returned, the roadblock was lifted. I quickly thanked her for her kind offer and promptly returned home. I learned my lesson: Situational Awareness - I live in a war zone!
Tunnel Vision in Emergencies
I include in my survival and rescue lectures a lesson on tunnel vision which I describe as “the reaction we all have that while responding to an emergency to focus on solving one single problem such as saving a life, in the meantime, neglecting to assess other risk factors around properly.” This condition also develops in all of us when we get into an argument. We focus so intently on our understanding that we lose the capacity to understand others’ interpretations.
Last week the ambulance team was returning from the front lines. There was a level of exhilaration since we had been able to help so many people, including a man badly hurt by the explosion of a landmine. Still, despite this, we were tired, cold and miserable and eager to return home. Along the way, soldiers advised us that we had to take a road detour on 10 kilometres of dirt road. Because of the rain, the road had become almost impassable, but we slowly made progress. However, around halfway, our ambulance and a van ahead of us slipped into a ditch, and we became stranded in the middle of nowhere. As we tried to get the van out first, a group of soldiers came to help. They were with the Ukrainian special forces, all looking dirty, tough and hardened by the war. As they started to help, one of them, using a rather expletive language, began to scream at us to move away. He had come across a wire connected to a landmine. The device was only one meter from our ambulance. Tunnel vision: when we landed in the ditch, we were so eager to get out of there that we neglected to check other risks, and as a result, we were close to being blown up by a landmine.
I have been involved in many humanitarian operations in different countries. However, my relief mission in the City of Kherson was the most rewarding experience I have ever experienced. (See pics below). While in Mykolaiv, I heard rumours of Russians withdrawing from Kherson, so I started preparing several boxes of medical supplies. The city was liberated just over two weeks ago. One morning in Mykolaiv, a few days before the liberation, I began to hear a persistent barrage of heavy artillery fire from a distance. At one moment, I looked down at the park, and I was surprised to see that despite such relentless gunfire, kids were still playing in the playground, several seniors were calmly chatting, a couple of teenagers were listening to music, and two ladies were cleaning the park! It shows how easily human beings can become accustomed to calamity.
Driving my relief supplies into the city of Kherson was like going through a post-apocalyptic movie set. Dozens and dozens of cars, homes and businesses were obliterated along the 90 km highway along a couple of bridges, making the short journey a long one as we had to drive through muddy sideroads. As soon as we made it to Kherson, the party began! Eighty to one hundred Ukrainian soldiers happily relaxed at the main checkpoint. I got out of my vehicle and walked into the army compound with soldiers and civilians celebrating. As soon as they saw my Canadian flag patch on my army fatigues, they all began hugging me and thanking me for my presence. I cry easily, so I cried many times. Amazingly, some soldiers recognized me from Bucha, Chernihiv, Kyiv, Odesa or Kharkiv. A soldier asked: “I remember you; you slept beside me at the train station in Kyiv. Do you remember me?”. How could I remember him? I have slept beside dozens of soldiers at train stations all over Ukraine. Arriving at the central city park of Kherson was even more exhilarating. We met with thousands of residents mingling with soldiers who were celebrating, and this celebration continued every day during my stay in Kherson. I pulled out my Canadian flag, which my church in Toronto and Montreal had signed, and everyone seemed to want their picture behind it. At one moment, I had a line of people all wanting me to either sign their flags, give me flowers, give a thank you note or give a hug. “It looks like you are a celebrity,” a French journalist covering the event jokingly said. At one point, a few Ukrainian soldiers who appeared to be high-ranking officers approached me and presented me with some sort of military award. People who saw the little ceremony started clapping. All this happened in the Ukrainian language, so I had no idea what they said or what I had been awarded for; all I could understand was that the two officers were from the Crimean resistance battalion. However, my keepsake only lasted several minutes as I felt compelled to give it to a little kid who asked for it. I was content to give my award away since I have the confidence that one day, I will be awarded somewhere else… Mathew 5.12
PS. Last week when Russian missiles finally succeeded in cutting us off from electricity, water and communication. During a cold night, I got up to write a note. I grabbed a small notepad I had brought from Costa Rica. Little did I know that inside the pad, my late wife Pam had handwritten a note about me! Encouraging to read it twenty-three years after it was written. I included a pic of the note below.
The rescue ambulance crew I am connected with is planning to return to the front lines soon. My intended role will be as SAR Ops and, when possible, teach Tactic First Aid and Rescue. I most likely will spend Christmas at the front lines. Please do consider supporting this mission trip. Below are three options to support this mission trip.
Western Union: Nery Duarte Alonzo. Ukraine