UKRAINE — HUMANITARIAN AID & SAVING LIVES
By Vincent Lyn
THE FACES OF UKRAINE
Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Internationally considered an act of aggression, the invasion has triggered Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II, with more than 5 million Ukrainians leaving the country and a quarter of the 44 million population displaced.
The day the war broke out I was in Tartus, Syria on another humanitarian mission. Much to the surprise of many were shocked that Russia invaded Ukraine. I was not surprised at all. It had been in the planning for a year or more. A country does not amass the kind of military machine that Russia has in its arsenal and completely surround the borders of Ukraine (150,000 troops, tank divisions, weapon systems, armaments, etc.) just for the sake of intimidation and saber-rattling. What I was sad to see was the utterly pathetic lame response from the West or should I say the complete lack of international response. A proverbial cluster f…
As the Russian troops advanced and started their scorched earth policy it was only then apparent to the international community. Waking up to the horrific images and atrocities of crimes against humanity. It all woke us up to the holy terror being committed by Russian soldiers and Putin’s band of thugs.
I immediately picked up the phone and called my friend Janis Martins Skuja in Riga, Latvia. For the people of the Baltic States, they have experienced first hand the brutality of Russia. All three countries Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia gained their independence in 1991 and now are a part of the European Union and NATO. Janis told me that convoys were driving back not fast enough from Latvia everyday bringing humanitarian aid assistance to Ukraine. I asked Janis if I could offer any help and that I was willing to come to Latvia and bring aid into Ukraine if the logistics could be organized. So, after my trip to Syria and Lebanon I flew back to NYC and within a couple of weeks on April 4th I flew to Riga.
Initially, I met with Members of Parliament of Riga and the Riga City Council. No doubt the topic of discussion was the war in Ukraine and the overwhelming refugee crisis that is currently unfolding across Europe. Estimated at 5 million refugees with 400,000 alone just in Warsaw and 12+ million internally displaced throughout Ukraine. Numbers not seen since WW2 and at this juncture surpassing even that in the short time of 50 days.
Within a few days we prepped and the final logistics were set in stone. I met with Latvian NGO Tavi Draugi (Your Friends), and together with my Foundation, We Can Save Children signed a declaration. The Team of five of us would take two vehicles with humanitarian aid and make the 13-hour journey through Lithuania, Poland and eventually cross the border at Budomierz into Ukraine.
We left Riga at 4.30pm April 8th and made relatively good time crossing into Ukraine at 8.15am April 9th. As we sat at the border crossing waiting for documents and passport checks we started talking to a Ukrainian border guard. He started telling us a story that left us in shock and we could plainly see he was having trouble telling the story. Not 30 minutes earlier a large bus full of children both boys and girls between the ages of 8–15 years-old were being taken to a medical facility in Poland. Why you might ask? Every one of the girls some as young as 10 years-old were systematically raped and the boys had their teeth smashed in by the butts of the rifles all perpetrated by Russian soldiers. Though personally I don’t want to call them soldiers just a bunch of evil demonic thugs.
This was our first experience of the many stories we would hear first hand from Ukrainian citizens fleeing the onslaught of the Russian army. It didn’t hit me right away the heinous barbarity that another human being a so-called soldier could inflict on defenseless innocent children? Nobody could ever come up with a rhyme or reason for this senseless act of savagery. Not until I got back to my room in private did it hit me. I was on a video call with my fiance and I broke down crying like a child. She didn’t know why I was crying but I related the story to her and she felt the pain too. How can anyone with any humanity in their souls not feel the suffering of those innocent children? That they will have to live in their memory the senseless and cowardly act perpetrated on them that day. It will be etched in their memory forever. God bless them and I hope they get the necessary psycho-social care because it’s going to take months if not years to make them whole again.
Our first stop would be Sokilnyky, Lviv Oblast, Ukraine, a small town on the outskirts of Lviv the largest city in Western Ukraine and the sixth-largest city in Ukraine overall, with a population of 717,510. Lviv is one of the main cultural centers of Ukraine.
It was to meet with local government and police officials and importantly to put the humanitarian aid in the right hands. There was an immense sense of esprit de corps and we were welcomed with open arms. An intense feeling of solidarity. We were shown around the loading facility and what was once a ski shop owned by a local family. When the war started they like so many business owners stopped their main business and started helping with the war effort. They began making tactical vests for the Ukrainian soldiers and not really having any idea how to. So like so many present technologies we have come to rely on Google. With that said they employed some seamstresses and the industrial sewing machines that are on site are making 100 vests per day. The special steel inserts that are required to stop a 7.62mm round of the Kalishnikov AK47 is being bought from a source in Sweden. They showed me the mock vests and though somewhat primitive to what I’m used to seeing in the U.S. It might not be high-tech but nonetheless it works and you use what you have. This was just one business mind you and everyone I spoke with is doing their part to help the vastly outgunned Ukrainian army. Everyone I spoke with said, “ We don’t need clothes or food or water, we need advanced weapons and ammunition.”
We had two choices, one was to continue further east towards the capital city of Kyiv, a seven hour drive or try and allocate evacuating citizens and get the refugees out to safety. I was very adamant with Janis and explicitly said, “I’m not going to leave Ukraine without rescuing some citizens and bringing them to safety either in Poland or Latvia. Everyone was in agreement, it was a no brainer. Janis started researching through a WhatsApp group finding refugees and pinpointing exact location pick up points and where they needed to go. Also for the ones that needed housing Janis needed to secure that as well.
5.30am our first stop was the train station in Lviv waiting for Nina, a 72-year-old woman from Kharkiv, the second largest city in northeastern Ukraine, that had suffered heavy bombardment. Such a sweet petite and fragile little lady with a heart-warming smile. The fingers of her right hand had been severed. Nina needed to go all the way to Riga as her son was already there waiting for her. We were also supposed to pick up a family of four but their plans changed at the last minute and so we decided to immediately go to the main border.
Julia 32 from Kryvyi Rih is the largest city in central Ukraine with approximately one million inhabitants. Her son had fallen ill and broke his nose February 25th and after her town was bombed on March 10th her mother took her son and they both evacuated to the Netherlands. As Julia is in the police force ordinarily she wouldn’t have been able to go and take care of her son but because he got injured police headquarters gave her permission and allowed her to visit her son. Julia had been traveling for 12 hours to get to the main border crossing into Poland hoping to get a ride with someone who would drop her off in Warsaw at the main train station so she could make her way into the Netherlands to see her son. Julia will return to Ukraine in one week. Her brother is a security guard but has signed up to serve in the armed forces. Like every able male citizen from 18–60 in good health are expected to serve and defend the motherland.
As we rolled up closer to the main border the sheer magnitude of the refugee crisis became immediately apparent to all of us. For miles and miles an endless line of 18 wheeler trucks going across to return with supplies. Cars for as far as the eye can see and droves of Ukrainian citizens 80% of which are women and children walking with luggage in tow. Old men being pushed in wheelchairs, children pulling their hand luggage, mothers clutching their babies. I’ve seen the displacement of people in the tens of thousands in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, South Sudan, Northern Uganda but nothing can prepare you for this magnitude. Not since WW2 has the world seen the mass exodus of millions mostly women and children escaping the war to other parts of Europe. The colossal and overwhelming displacement of people fleeing is mind-boggling. And unlike WW2 that lasted 6 years this has happened in 50 days. The multitudes of people, cars, trucks stretch to eternity. And yet there’s no pushing, shoving, screaming and yelling, everyone patiently waiting their turn to crossover to safety. I’ve seen a lot in my time but never ever witnessed anything like this. It’s too much to express in words. It changes you.
We crossed the border into Poland and took Julia to the main train station in Warsaw and she continued her trip into the Netherlands. We had already accessed a family from the database that had been traveling for three days from Kherson. Kherson was the first major Ukrainian city captured by Russian forces during the Southern Ukraine offensive. As of 11th April, Kherson is the only capital city of one of Ukraine’s provinces to have fallen so far during the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Victoria 41 who’s birthday it was, a mother of two boys, Arseny 11 years-old and Timur, a baby of seven months old was waiting for us. Victoria’s husband, a police official is required to stay as is every able bodied male and defend the country. We were able to get a baby basket at the greeting center set up to help Ukrainian citizens.
We now had a full van and we were on our way back to Riga, Latvia. It was going to be a 24-hour haul and time to speak with Nina and Victoria and Arseny who spoke a little English. The trauma they had all suffered is unimaginable so it is important to take baby steps and if they wanted to divulge any information then we would listen. No doubt I had questions as I was making a report for the United Nations. Victoria had been ordered by the Russian troops to hand wash their uniforms or they would kill her children. With the constant bombings all around them there was no choice but to leave and her husband made sure they left. A smart move because no sooner did she leave with her sons the Russian thugs started randomly executing citizens.
One such man I spoke with from Liviv, Evgeny Stotensko who evacuated from Kiev showed me videos and photos of his town that was decimated, eerily reminding me having witnessed the apocalyptic devastation in Aleppo and Homs. He told me his neighbors had seen Russian troops order a family out of their home, a husband and wife holding a child and summarily executing all of them, no questions asked. There were countless stories of what are warranted as crimes against humanity.
Victoria described the Russian soldiers as rude, impolite, rag tag, disheveled, unkempt, many were hungry and looked more like homeless people, not a group of so-called elite soldiers. Victoria asked the soldiers why are you here? They answered her, “not even sure why they were there and what they were doing.” It’s absolutely bizarre.
It was about 5am when we finally reached Tukums, a little town on the outskirts of Riga and dropped off Nina. Her son was eagerly waiting for her. She gave me a big hug and kiss on the cheek thanking us all to get her safely to her son. It was a bittersweet moment. Our final stop before getting back home was to drop off the family at the “Šlokenbekas muiža” formerly a manor built in 1484 and renovated into an economy style hotel. Victoria’s sister Elina had also arrived from Ukraine much earlier that day. Janis told me he heard Arseny the 11 year-old boy ask his mother. “Why are they doing this, why are they helping us, why are they so nice to us”? Need I say more? We had received a SMS from Victoria’s sister sent to the Head Coordinator who organizes the logistics of where the refugees are sent. It said, “Good morning it’s Elina, yesterday we moved to the hotel at 4am. Janis and his Team were amazing. From the deepest part of my heart I want to thank you and your Team for what you did for all of us. My sister Victoria started crying when she took a shower and put the children to bed. A huge thank you.”
How could anyone in their right mind walk away from these beautiful people in the midst of such tragedy and devastation? Not me, not us. They are alive, we all made it back safely. For us we can take time to decompress, rest, recover, repair, regenerate. For the family they are just beginning, the start of a new life in a different country without her husband and their father. It will be tough no doubt, but I pray in time this too shall pass and they eventually will all heal and be able to smile and laugh once again.
We are all changed, it has changed us all and as the war rages on the future is uncertain. But we must hold tight in solidarity for the citizens of Ukraine and hold a bright light so they can all find their way back home to their beautiful and eventually peaceful homeland.
In closing, I asked countless Ukrainian citizens and the people we rescued one question: If you could ask the Western powers anything what would it be?
They all said basically the same thing, to please send the arms and weapons we need to protect our country. And there you have it, they will fight the good fight they are not asking for people to do their fighting for them, but they need the weapons and ammunition to win! God Bless Them.
CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children
International Human Rights Commission
Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization
Economic & Social Council at United Nations
Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency
Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts