LAST WEDNESDAY I WAS IN UKRAINE
Mette Grith Sørensen, February 5th 2023
I’m neither particularly brave, particularly foolhardy, nor overwhelmingly stupid, so of course I was nowhere near where the actual war take place.
I was neither in the war-torn country as a journalist, politician, soldier or tourist. I was there as one of six representatives of the European organization I have worked for since 1992 – The Douzelage. Our Romanian partner town, Siret, is half a kilometer from the border to Ukraine, and when the war broke out, Siret was “flooded” by refugees almost overnight. Women with children who filled the streets and alleys, carrying nothing but what they walked and stood in.
For the small town of 9,000 inhabitants, this meant logistical problems, a lack of goods and a great deal of pressure on everyone, not least at the town hall, to “get the job done”. Beds were set up in schools, in kindergartens, and in the hotel where we stayed this time (The Frontier Hotel) there were beds in corridors, in restaurants – yes, everywhere.
Today, many have moved on to other countries in Europe, some have returned home – and the rest have been given rooms and apartments, so that it is now impossible to find a vacant rental in the city.
We in Douzelage collected back then money for Siret and let the city itself use it as they saw fit. But this time we are talking about helping inside Ukraine itself.
The Romanian Red Cross was going in anyway with an emergency truck, so we were allowed to ride along, and their leader, Mikha, made sure to put together some kind of program for us.
You can cross the border, but it takes time. For us it took less than an hour because we were together with the Red Cross and because the officers on the Romanian side knew our host, who is the head of the city’s psychiatric hospital.
On both sides trucks queued up to drive into Ukraine with goods – or out again with empty trucks. The queue on the Ukrainian side was 15 kilometers long. We tried to count them – there were approximately 700 trucks just waiting to get out.
The part of Ukraine we drove into has for many decades been considered the most affluent in the country. And now, on top of that, the area is also considered the safest. This means that Ukrainians have fled en masse from the war zones to be “refugees in their own country” in the safer part. The town we drove to – approximately 150 kilometers from the border – normally has 90,000 inhabitants. That number has now tripled.
It is estimated that approximately 1/3 of the refugees, who have fled to the town, no longer have a home to return to.
In any city it would cause problems to house so many extra people, problems with transport, problems with getting enough goods – and it does here too. All public buses are confiscated to the war zone where they are used to transport soldiers, equipment and so on. There are some private buses left, which are under a lot of pressure, because they have to take care of getting school children to and from school. There are no buses out to the villages anymore.
We arrived at the same time as two trucks from Fightforfreedom, which American Mennonites are behind. They came with blankets, large sweaters, hygiene items, cleaning agents/washing powder and food items. They stopped at the town hall, where around 500 people were waiting in the snow. Women of all ages and old men. At one point I came to walk behind an old man who was trudging along with a large cotton blanket under his arm and a nylon net with goods in his hand. I got tears in my eyes.
Jana, the woman from the town hall who is responsible for distributing goods to those who need it, also had tears in her eyes, when she had to explain to us, what it means that Europe provides aid. Or, as her boss said: “We thought we had a big brother – we didn’t. Instead, it turned out that we had a lot of European sisters”. Yes, the rhetoric is bloated, but it is hard to be cynical when you clearly feel how they lack even the most basic things and how even there – 1000 kilometers from the front – they feel its yoke.
They lack everything. Everything.
Incidentally, I would just like to say that the emergency aid – in addition to the Red Cross and other established aid organizations – is largely carried out by various faith communities: Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Protestant, the aforementioned Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses and more.
The government has long since stopped salary payments to public servants. That money must be spent on the war. Those we met had sold their cars, summer houses and more to make ends meet. And they still turned up and worked – without pay.
We were shown to an overcrowded office on the first floor of the run-down town hall. Downstairs there were stocks of nappies, sanitary napkins, washing-up liquid, medicine and blankets. In the office, however, it was clothing (camouflage-coloured) for soldiers that filled up. The fabric is sent to the city, and it is here that women sew uniforms for the countrys soldiers – and make bulletproof vests. We were there at about 11 a.m. and at 1 p.m. a convoy was due to leave for Donbass, partly with clothes and bulletproof vests and partly with food for a town that is half bombed and where the remaining inhabitants are old people who refuse to move. They live without electricity and running water.
Our host, the town’s mayor, and what we two Danes agreed was equivalent to a regional council chairman (he is the top man for a region with ten major cities), had to leave with the convoy. For – in contrast to the Danish regional chairmen! – the chairman of the region is also the commander-in-chief of the region’s troops. He invited us to lunch, and yes, we were a little duped that he wanted to spend the last two hours in his “safe” hometown with us before he had to go to the front.
There we sat. Two Dutch, a Slovenian, two Danes, two Romanians and a handful of Ukrainians around a huge table and eating well in a restaurant that hadn’t taken down the Christmas decorations yet. It was almost surreal. We got soup, perch and pork. And then there was plenty of vodka. Good vodka. According to our Romanian friend, Ukrainians traditionally say toast 11 times during a meal, but our regional council chairman managed only five before he had to leave. Fortunately. Because he pointed out to me – I was the only one of the women, who drank vodka – that Ukrainian women know that vodka tastes good, so they don’t just drink half a glass at a time like I did…
First toast (standing) was for a free Ukraine. The second toast was for friendships (“small towns have big hearts”). Third toast for love – the opportunity to love and be loved. Fourth toast to those who can no longer be with us. And fifth toast to all women – mothers, wives, daughters, sisters.
On the way home, the Romanian Red Cross drove past a warehouse with goods for us to see. It has been set up so that refugees who want to take part in daily life and lend a hand when, for example, teaching children, socializing with the elderly and so on, are awarded points. Then they can come to the warehouse and “buy in” for their points. The goods came primarily from Italy, Austria, the Netherlands and Norway. For example, you could get pasta, chocolate, soap, shampoo, canned fish, canned tomatoes and onions. Things the rest of us take for granted.
In another store I bought a bottle of Ukrainian vodka. Special Freedom Edition. On the front there is a picture of a soldier with a machine gun and a fighter plane in the background.
We were home to the safety of The Frontier Hotel around 7pm. And were able to travel home to further safety a few days later.
What the Ukrainians asked for? They want a bus from us. Or a small car.
We’ve done it before – that is, collected money for a bus (to Siret) – so I guess we can do it again. At least we’re trying now. Each of the association’s 28 cities must contribute around 1000 euros, then we can buy a used bus in Germany, get the papers sorted out in Romania and drive it across the border. How we will find the money in Holstebro, I don’t quite know yet. But we will probably succeed.
Does it change anything? I do not know. I just know, that I feel we have to do something. And that I will feel better the day we can send a bus to the Ukrainian city. I hope that “many small streams” can make a river – and make a small difference.
I was in church here in Holstebro today. Suddenly tears ran down my cheeks. I have nothing to be upset about otherwise. I am so incredibly privileged. It is the experience in Ukraine that has settled much deeper than I had thought and expected. The meeting with some people who fight for their country – even if they don’t carry weapons and are in the middle of the war zone.
I really needed someone to tell. Hence this report.
Thanks for reading along…