Letter from Ukraine

I have been an occasional volunteer with Edinburgh Direct Aid for many years, including helping with support for victims of conflicts in Bosnia and Syria, and natural disasters in Pakistan – so I joined EDA’s team in Ukraine in May 2022, writes John Home Robertson.

Lead volunteer Maggie Tookey had made contact with local groups operating in the conflict zones near Odesa and Kharkiv, as well as supporting “internally displaced people” in central Ukraine. The next project was to contact survivors from the Russian incursion into the north of the vast country and deliver aid to them.

Most of my fellow passengers on the train journey to the western city of Lviv were women and children returning from the safety of Poland to try to rejoin husbands and fathers. Olena and her two young children were on their way home to the southern city of Odesa – she wept as she explained that her husband was in the army fighting to stop the Russian advance at Mikolaev.

The atmosphere at Lviv is deceiving – it feels like a vibrant European city keeping calm and carrying on. Journalists and aid workers have replaced the tourists in city centre bars, but busy citizens are getting on with life and shops are well stocked. There is a display of photographs of war casualties in the main square, adorned with flowers and there are a lot of people in uniform, including armed patrols and fortified checkpoints. Warning sirens are a reminder that the Russians control the sky. Visual features include powerful street art and patriotic posters (many featuring the sinking of the Russian warship “Moskva”). Smart, stylish people are getting on with life in their litter-free city regardless of the brutal invasion by their powerful neighbour, but they are aware of the threat from infiltrating saboteurs as well as the onslaught on not-so-distant battlefronts.

F–k Off Russian ship

Ukraine is a big country with enormous swathes of fine farmland – a nation of farmers and gardeners and a breadbasket that feeds much of North Africa and the Middle East. But much of last year’s crops of wheat and oilseeds cannot be exported because of the Russian sea blockade, and the ongoing war means that about 30% of that land has not been sown this year. That is obviously very bad for the Ukrainian economy, but it is catastrophic for people in poor countries who need that food.

Getting there

Our first challenge was to procure diesel for our two vans for a 600km trip to the north. Fuel is very scarce, so we had to make a long detour across the Polish border to fill tanks. In Zhytomyr, west of Kyiv, the EDA team cooperated with a local group to make up bulky loads of family packages of food essentials for delivery to communities that had been devastated by the Russian invasion in February.

The rural community of Davidky is close to the notorious Chernobyl power station, – villagers there had endured the consequences of the nuclear disaster in 1986. This February the massive Russian invasion force crossed the nearby border from Belarus, and when Ukrainian defenders shot down one of their helicopters, Putin’s forces took revenge by destroying most of the houses in the village. Strange tactics for an army claiming to be liberating Ukraine from a Nazi regime. They trashed the Davidky village hall too, regardless of the obvious significance of the nearby war memorial commemorating the sacrifices of local Ukrainian Red Army soldiers in the second World War. Local folk were very pleased to see us – a gathering of women at that village hall were happy to accept supplies from friendly foreigners.

Food distribution in Davidky

The next day took us past the wreckage of Russian armoured vehicles in the devastated Kyiv suburb of Bucha to the village of Litvinivsky, where the invasion force had established a command post for its attempted siege of the capital city in February. The Russians had forced people out of their homes in bitter winter conditions. Half of the village population managed to flee, but those who stayed were badly traumatised. Again, people welcomed our visit, and they were eager to describe the bad conduct of Russian troops before they were driven out by the Ukrainian counter-attack. Litvinivsky is now strongly manned by the local Ukrainian territorial defence force.

Back in Zhytomyr, we worked with local volunteers to help people who had been forced to escape from fighting on other fronts. The background sound of warning sirens became familiar – the whole of Ukraine is within the range of Russian missile attacks. Would those attacks be happening if Ukraine had retained its ex-Soviet nuclear arsenal? Ukraine may be the only nuclear weapons state that has unilaterally disarmed – it signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1994 and got rid of its nuclear deterrent. Surely the world can and should do more to protect such a responsible country against its rogue neighbour?

The cost of war

Ukraine’s European future

People in Ukraine seem to be extraordinarily resilient as they stand alone against the massive power of the Russian Federation. Ukraine’s armed forces are clearly well organised and strongly motivated to defend their country, but they urgently need weapons and air power to respond to Russia’s ghastly indiscriminate long-range artillery and rocket attacks on cities, as already seen in Syria and now in the east of Ukraine. The commitment of Ukrainian citizens is phenomenal, getting on with life; supporting each other; and prepared to fight if necessary – one of our older contacts has posted a social media feature to demonstrate how to throw Molotov cocktails.

Casual chat with Ukrainians is interesting. Not-so-distant experience of Soviet Communism included universal employment, but also empty shops and KGB repression. The name “Ukraine” means borderland – the interface between historic empires in Europe and the Russia of the Czars as well as the Soviets. Modern Ukraine looks conspicuously European, and its aspirational open society certainly feels European. But everybody acknowledges that there is a problem with corruption, and even their popular President Zelensky gets accused of cronyism. Unlike Russians, Ukrainians are free to express their opinions.

That openness and that European aspiration have led to Putin’s extraordinary fratricidal onslaught. Ukrainians are fighting very courageously for the European dream that was tragically rejected by a narrow majority in Britain’s Brexit referendum. Ukraine is resisting a brutal military invasion by a vicious superpower, to defend the democratic principles that the EU and NATO are supposed to stand for. I pray that Ukraine will prevail, and that Ukrainians will be rewarded with a fast track into the European Union. It would be nice if Britain could then follow them back into the European fold.

Meanwhile, please donate to Edinburgh’s own excellent and entirely voluntary aid charity for its work to support victims of the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine (www.edinburghdirectaid.org)

Images courtesy of the author

John Home Robertson was Labour MP for Berwick and East Lothian and East Lothian from 1978 to 2001 and MSP for East Lothian from 1999 until 2007.