Ukraine, April 24/22
“The war creates no absolute new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice…”
Was I ready to leave Ukraine when my time was up? I felt guilty for leaving my team behind, yet constantly living on the edge can be indeed wearing. Left Kyiv under particular conditions as the city had received an array of missiles the night before, likely in retaliation for the sinking of the flagship boat of the Russian navy. Waiting at the Kyiv train station under the constant flare of air sirens was disturbing, knowing that only days before, the train station in Donetsk had been blown up with multiple casualties. It's tough to see many people saying goodbye to their loved ones, likely heading as refugees: many fathers, mothers, and grandparents hugging. Most of them unsuccessfully attempted to hold off tears.
One night at my border post, someone woke me up in the middle of the night. We were asked to help a family with their car stranded near the border. Because of miscommunication, I understood it was only a few minutes' assistance. In the meantime, I had discovered someone had “borrowed” my winter jacket. We went to help out with me ignoring the main rule I had learned from my German army training on Humanitarian War Operations: “Always be prepared for the worst-case scenario.” That night, I was not prepared… The mission was to help a family stranded in a car that had run out of gas in subzero temperatures. We located the vehicle, an old rusted Lada with its doors together with construction wire and cardboard windows held with duct tape. There was no drama as the father handed us his two babies and two young children. He and his wife never made eye contact; my guess was it was too painful. We put gas on his car, and he drove away in the middle of the night. Thankfully the moon was bright as the car had no headlights. We started to walk back together towards the border. In the meantime, the minus ten degrees temperature was getting ahold of me. As we approached the border, I saw a man saying goodbye to his family, with the difference that this car was a shiny and luxurious Mercedes. The well-off man reminded me of the other man I had just helped, both looking tough, trying hard not to show off their pain… “You do not have a winter jacket,” rightfully pointed a medic when I arrived at the border post and as I was by then fighting hyperthermia. “Someone borrowed my jacket,” I responded. “Take mine,” he said with resolve in the act of kindness. “I am heading back to the UK, and I will not need it. You will”.
Chernihiv: The relief team had been supporting a community near the Russian border which perhaps during the occupation was one of the hardest-hit cities in the area. It struck me as a neglected community which appears to have not fully recovered from the Chornobyl nuclear disaster. As it happened in the cities of Bucha and Irpin, I witnessed countlessly obliterated or abandoned military vehicles. The bombing had been non-discriminatory as schools, hospitals, apartment buildings, and even a home for the elderly were hit. The pastor and his wife managing the humanitarian supplies, described the endless days of horror as relentlessly and at odd times low flying fighter jets would pass above their humble homes at supersonic speeds, even causing windows to break and almost randomly drop off their missiles. On a note of hope, the pastor added. “I have never seen so many people interested in God as I have seen now.” I guess tragedy can force humans to pause in our indifference towards eternity…
My trip back to west Europe. Our 8-hour train trip from Kyiv to Lviv turned much longer as the train had to make stops due to air sirens going off. At some point, I started to ignore the uncertain look of other passengers as the sirens went off, and they tightly held on to their children or their few belongings. When the train arrived in Lviv, I felt like hugging the other passengers, even if I had never met them before. In Lviv, I still have one more project. I was teaching how to build homemade water filters and emergency woodstoves. It was tough to say goodbye to the men I had spent time with who seemed particularly grateful for me teaching those needed skills. Teaching emergency survival skills and emergency preparedness has been an area of my interest. In Ukraine, I became thankful for having those skills as I was able to pass them along to people going through real survival emergency scenarios. The plan is that when I return to Ukraine in June, I intend to continue to provide training in survival and emergency preparedness as these improvised relief workers have to face, in each mission, many real-life surviving situations.
In Lviv, my last assignment was to escort into Germany a busload of refugees some rescued from the besieged city of Mariupol, plus some survivors of the bombing of the Donetsk’s train terminal. Just as the bus was preparing to leave and I was rushing through my last class on emergency preparedness, air sirens went off, to which we only paid close attention when we heard the loud explosions after a couple of the cruise missiles had hit nearby. Seven missiles had suddenly landed in the city, with one intended to destroy a bridge over the highway to Poland, but instead, a civilian target was reached destroying four homes. While rescue crews were still at work, our bus passed by. Seven innocent people had perished. Shivering when I grasped how close to our caravan route the missiles had landed. One of the passengers mentioned that her whole community in Mariupol had been levelled down by bombs precisely as we looked at those destroyed homes. While we were waiting for a safe passage, randomly and unexpectedly, a lady carrying a baby travelling on our bus approached me, as she put her hands on my shoulder said in perfect Spanish. “Gracias por venir a Ucrania a ayudarnos…” (Thank you for coming to Ukraine and help us).