Nikki Dunbar, SOL Conservatory Roof’s commercial manager, has now made two heroic trips out to Ukraine to help bring much needed aid to its people. Here, she tells the story of her latest visit to the war-torn country and how the strength and courage of this country is an inspiration to her.
Just 6 weeks after returning from my first trip to Poland and Ukraine, I was back on a flight out to Poland ready to leave the border behind, and head into Ukraine.
Arriving at Medyka and what once was the village of charity tents, I was shocked to see most of the tents had gone. Walking through at 2am, you once would have been weaving your way through a sea of people. Not now. Nobody.
Once you cross the border, you are no longer truly safe – in some respects, literally a game of Russian roulette. Air raid sirens ring out at all times of the day and night. I always knew in the back of my mind there was a chance of being in a place that was targeted, but I don’t think I was truly ever prepared to witness one. Even a few miles away, they’re terrifying.
Despite the risks, my incredible journey took me over 1,000 miles throughout North, West and Central Ukraine, delivering aid while meeting and working with so many inspirational people – here’s just a snapshot…
I spent a few days with an organisation just a few hundred miles away from Severodonetsk, where the most intense fighting is happening at the moment. Many of the people here have full time jobs and volunteer in the evenings or are refugees themselves from the East. They make up humanitarian aid packs, despite donations becoming less and less, small first aid kits are assembled for the army, containing life-saving trauma bandages along with other items. A group of ladies make camouflage nets and ghillie suites from remnants of their military uniforms – they have made 1,300 of these since February.
One young girl, no older than 16 or 17, helped her family escape from near-occupied territories. Her grandparents wouldn’t leave as they didn’t want to abandon their farm animals. She helped more women and children escape, including her own mother. Evading capture herself, her phone was tracked. “They know I am still in Ukraine,” she told me. “Our town is occupied, if I go back to help my grandparents, I’m sure I will be made to leave or I will die. I haven’t spoken to my grandparents in over a month, I don’t even know if they’re still alive.”
Another woman, who was one of the last few people to leave Mariupol, told me how they had no food, no water or medicine and, worst of all, they’re not allowed to bury their dead. Not only a complete disrespect for life, but also for death too.
“They have an outbreak of Cholera now,” she said. “I’m not surprised. The dead are piled up by the occupiers and look at the temperature!” It’s currently ranging from 27-35 degrees in Ukraine at the moment. “There are wild dogs around there too. They have no regard for who they are, they tear limbs off without a thought, off people’s loved ones.”
Even liberated towns, such as Bucha, Irpin, and Borodyanka, still have a long way to go to rebuild their lives. No different to the rest of the country, the feelings here are of hope. People still live here and have even returned, and they are trying to get back to some sort of normality. Gas and electricity has been reconnected, some small shops have reopened and a huge clean-up operation has taken place since the occupiers left. While it’s always said that it’s only military targets that get hit, just driving through these areas shows that it’s clearly not the case. They just want to cause as much devastation and terror as possible.
A woman tells me, “50 tanks arrived, turned cars on their sides so no one could leave. We tried to hide away from bombs. But it was no good. They came into our homes and took everything, the shop keeper down the road was shot as they took food, cigarettes and alcohol. The dead were left on the streets to remind us, that if we don’t do as they say that will be us. Children saw it all.”
I also visited a hospital in central Ukraine that has the capacity to care for around 750 people. At the moment, it’s almost full of casualties of this war. I met injured soldiers, some who are lucky to be alive, while others laugh and joke and can’t wait to get back to the front line. Civilians who are just happy to be alive, despite horrific injuries – children and babies with shrapnel wounds, 80% burns and broken bones. The chief doctor stopped on one of the wards and said: “We go no further, the injuries down here are critical.” On the other side of the door were two soldiers who were travelling with six others when their vehicle was hit by artillery – they were the only survivors. They remain in a critical condition with broken bones, deep wounds from shrapnel and burns, requiring significant skin grafts. It was a privilege to be able to present a range of medical supplies to the director of the hospital – all hugely appreciated and purchased thanks to the funds I’ve been able to raise.
The strength and courage of this country is an inspiration, but they feel like the world is starting to forget them. They’re not front-page news anymore. I understand not everyone is in a position to be able to donate, host a refugee, or volunteer, but everyone can stop them being forgotten and share their stories. It’s incredible how much this has fallen off the news, and how the news differs here to what I have seen and heard for myself.
On a lighter note, it’s been a privilege to spend time here, it’s a beautiful country. I was also incredibly lucky to be hosted by a Ukrainian family – Oksana, her husband and children were so welcoming and gave me an opportunity to experience true Ukrainian life and culture. Little did I know just how much – from walking the streets of Kyiv to being interviewed on live news to having dinner with the Chechen army, it’s been a crazy week and it’s safe to say I’ve fallen in love with Ukraine.
I’ve already booked to go back in August and continue to fundraise, to make as big an impact as I can on my next trip – anything you can donate is hugely appreciated, it changes lives and saves lives.