A journey through war-torn Ukraine
Himali McInnes, a doctor from Auckland, shares her experience accompanying her aid worker husband on a recent trip to western Ukraine, where money donated by Kiwis is helping to house people whose homes have been destroyed. destroyed
We enter Ukraine through one of the land border crossings in Medyka, Poland. It’s a slightly surreal experience rolling your rickety suitcase down a holey path, past the white canvas tents set up by UNICEF and others, past the overflowing portable toilets, through the building of the soviet era immigration with its turnstiles and mustard floor, and on the street outside. On both sides of the border, trucks and other vehicles line up for days. The signs are in indecipherable Cyrillic script. We are helpless and mute until our cheerful driver Vitali finds us.
Traveling in a country in the throes of a humanitarian crisis means being attentive to every inflection of the voices around us. The thrill of atoms that could indicate the launch of a Russian missile thousands of miles away. The location of the nearest underground bunker with ventilation and water supplies. The use of a network of helping hands.
The staff of the NGO equips us each with a decontamination pack. Iodine tablets to counter radioactive iodine (produced after the nuclear explosion, absorbed by our thyroids, responsible for cancers), levonorgestrel tablets to prevent pregnancy in the event of sexual assault, a gas mask for use unique with insectoid eyes and a blunt snout, a big bottle of water to clean our skin from toxic chemicals or biological agents, saline rinses for our eyes.
I haven’t told my parents exactly where I am.
Ukraine is an ancient land linked to the memory of Cossacks, poets and Slavic kings, a varied history of invasion and counterattack. There is no consistent narrative that validates this current invasion. The killing of civilians and the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure are undeniably war crimes.
Olena, director of an arts institute in Ternopil that helps house 170 displaced Ukrainians with the help of the NGO, says: “I was 22 when Ukraine gained independence in 1991. Until then, I felt watched all the time. remember my parents talking quietly in the kitchen. Since independence, I have enjoyed being able to vote and say what I think.
The landscape is enormous, and apart from the crumpling of the Carpathians to the west and the Crimean mountain range to the south, it is largely flat steppes. The soil is old, smooth-skinned, worn by erosion, unlike Aotearoa with its curves and dimples and oily-fleshed mountains. Ukrainian roads are straight like gray needles. Vitali is a courteous and careful driver. There are Ladas, a relic of a Soviet past; but there are also Peugeots, Audis, BMWs. A high-speed convoy with an unmarked truck passes in front of us, carrying weapons to the front line. There are gleaming golden-domed Eastern Orthodox churches. We pass field after field nodding with blackened sunflower heads. Sunflower oil is a major export. I ask why the seeds were not harvested; those buds look damp and rotten to me. Most of the processing plants are to the east, our guide tells us, and either damaged by missile strikes or closed. Millions of wasted hryvnia.
It’s autumn, this season of mists and gentle fruitfulness, after one of the hottest summers in Europe in memory. Trees the color of burnt butter, candied orange, blood red line the highway. There is fog, fresh and mysterious. The soil is grossly fertile: Ukrainian black earth, or chernozem, is loamy and rich in humus. The branches groan with apples and pears. The vines glide along the fences, the fruit purplish-sweet and vinous. Earlier this year there were apricots and plums. The Ukrainian flag, with its clear bands of yellow and blue which designate fields of wheat under the vast sky of Eastern Europe, testifies to this fertility.
Twenty-three internally displaced people, from a rest home in the Donetsk region, now live in an abandoned school in a small village outside Khmelnytsky. We enter and a sour smell invades us – floor cleaner, boiled cabbage, milk. A man hobbles past on the stumps of his knees. White-haired men and women greet us from their beds or stare into space. The rooms, flooded with sunlight, benefit from new joinery installed by the NGO. The rooms are hot at the moment. But winter is coming; this village will be snow-covered, the roads impassable. The caretaker is in desperate need of firewood. We speak with Baba Halia. She was born in 1940 – the same year as my father. Dressed in a crumpled red T-shirt, with cropped white hair and a weathered tint to her cheeks, she pulls out her “treasures” – photo after photo of her family. The theme of X-files plays on a nearby TV. Baba Halia tells us that Russian soldiers burned her son alive, drowned her daughter-in-law, raped her 14-year-old granddaughter. Tetiana, who is helping to translate, cannot speak for several minutes.
Another building nearby – formerly a tuberculosis sanatorium – houses 96 displaced people with intellectual disabilities. The group was transported here in March to escape the bombardment of Kharkiv. The oldest is 70 years old. Another extremely vulnerable group. The red linoleum is cracked underfoot. Antique metal bed frames are wobbly and need replacing. The toilets are a corrupt mess of rust and broken stone. On the other hand, the toilets and showers that the NGO has renovated shine with new boilers, pipes and tiles. Local villagers look after the building day and night, and they have stored enough wood and charcoal for the winter.
When we visit the Soviet-era building that Olena runs in Ternopil, we find similar problems – cracked cisterns, old stoves, leaky pipes. Across Ukraine, there is a similar theme to aid efforts, namely helping uninhabited or dilapidated buildings become safe for the sudden influx of people. So far, the NGO has helped renovate bathrooms and the sewage system, and provided new boilers, washing machines, countless mattresses. Olena says, “Fear is contagious. Like Covid. Every person reacts differently to war. Helping others helps me cope.” One hundred and seventy people, including 56 children, live here. There is room for another 120 people. Vika, a shy 13-year-old girl holding a little bunny knitted by her mother in her arms, shares a room with her grandmother Ludmyla. They have been here since April 28. Vika’s blue eyes fill with tears as Ludmyla tells us that Vika’s parents stayed in Kharkiv because her mother is a nurse. The teenager dreams of becoming a veterinarian, and the only time she smiles is when we show her a picture of our Huntaway cross.
We return to Poland to catch up with the work of the NGO which helps refugees. We board the train at Ternopil alongside fleeing Ukrainians. The train is completely full. Suitcases clutter the aisles. The children are crying. I imagine it was even more chaotic in March and April. Ukrainian soldiers verify our identities; they are surprised to meet New Zealanders. A car is filled with Hasidic Jews in traditional dress; this subgroup of Conservative Judaism originated in Ukraine in the 18th century. There is a bubbly release of tension as the train crosses the border after nearly six hours. The queue is long and drags on into the night as the Polish customs officers check our papers quickly.
The following days we visit a disused Tesco supermarket in Przemyśl which has been converted into temporary accommodation for refugees. Five thousand refugees camped here at the height of the influx; there are currently 137, but more could be pouring in as winter bites. The space is cavernous, with the echoing feel of a warehouse. A few children run around the play area kicking a ball. Several aid agencies work from this site, providing advice, food, clothing, travel assistance, money. At the nearby train station, Tearfund’s NGO partner helped set up a room as a safe transit space for mothers and babies. There are 50 beds here.
I see displaced Roma families in front of the station. A plethora of small children chirp and fight. They were told they couldn’t come in. My brown skin and my dark hair saw me stopped by customs officers more than my two traveling companions. It’s a sad reminder that the whiteness of your skin can lead to better results in many circumstances.
The UN refugee agency and the International Organization for Migration estimate that 7.5 million Ukrainian refugees have fled the country. In Ukraine, there were 6.9 million people who were internally displaced at one time; this number is constantly changing. This is the biggest human displacement crisis in the world today. Many refugees return home for short stays when it is relatively safe, before leaving again. This crossing is constant. It’s unusual; in other parts of the world, once a refugee returns to their place of origin, they can no longer apply for refugee status. It is difficult for humanitarian organizations to plan ahead for winter. Will people try to hold on, will gas supply and city heating be cut off, how many more civilian infrastructure objects will be targeted?
For now, Tearfund’s partner and other aid organizations are preparing for the worst.