Helping Kharkiv- Why Ambulances?8 min read
Russia’s brutal, full-scale invasion of Ukraine has entered its sixth month. As much-needed sources of funding for vital humanitarian aid are beginning to dry up, Lossi 36 is setting up a donation drive for Kharkiv, one of Ukraine’s hardest-hit cities. We are raising funds for The Kharkiv and Przemysl Project (KHARPP), a two-pronged initiative providing vital support both for the devastated city of Kharkiv and for the enduring flow of Ukrainian refugees coming through Przemysl, Poland.
Help deliver essential supplies to Kharkiv by donating HERE.
Here, in a blog post republished from their Substack page, KHARPP’s co-director Alex Trustum Thomas describes the state of everyday life in Kharkiv, and how deliveries of ambulances loaded with essential supplies from the UK are making a difference.
People familiar with our work will know that we like delivering ambulances. Every time we do, we become slightly better at it, developing an efficient process that maximises the benefit for the people that we are trying to help.
We have just got back from our third trip to Kharkiv in the space of two and half weeks. The first trip was driving an ex-Welsh police van, whilst the second and third trips were spent delivering three more ambulances to Kharkiv. One ambulance was carrying a quarter of a million water purification tablets, bought from Oxfam thanks to our friends at Tro Da Health Consultancy. These have become essential in the most heavily-hit areas of eastern Ukraine, where there is no running water and people are resorting to increasingly desperate measures to source water that is safe to drink. This includes one account told to us by a local, of people using buckets to try to scoop the early morning dew from the fields.
When we opened a large box in the back of the ambulance that was overflowing with water purification tablets, the gasp in response was proof enough that we had made the right decision in acquiring so many of them and navigating the logistics of bringing them from the UK to Kharkiv. Acquiring lifesaving vehicles as well as supplies of basic survival items in the UK — all of which are in short supply in Ukraine — means that everything that comes to Ukraine inside the vehicle, as well as the vehicle itself, gets put to good use. It is, in effect, a zero-waste system that maximises the efficiency and impact of our donations to the worst-hit areas of eastern Ukraine.
We were asked after this most recent donation of another three ambulances whether more were still needed given that we have now handed over a total of nine. The answer to this is categorically yes. Upon personally handing over one of the ambulances on Tuesday to a Kharkiv-based volunteer paramedic who might drive the vehicle as close as two or three kilometres back from the line of active conflict, she told us how the last ambulance she received from us a few months back had served her very well and had been a substantial upgrade on the old Soviet Lada estate car she had been driving the wounded in before that.
However, the rigorous demands of the terrain — heavily damaged or destroyed roads, off-road where necessary — and generally challenging conditions had meant that the vehicle needed to be constantly repaired. This latest ambulance had come just in time, she said, and she predicted that this one would last another few months before also needing to be replaced if the conflict continues.
The brutal truth is that the Russian forces actively target ambulances and other humanitarian aid vehicles when they see them. A favourite tactic of theirs is what is colloquially known as a ‘double strike’ — they launch missiles at a target where there is a concentration of people, wait for the paramedics and emergency services to arrive, and then strike again at the same target. Word on the ground is that such vehicles, including those with red crosses marked on them, are actively targeted because the Russians do not want foreign volunteers helping the Ukrainians.
As we see with other terror tactics employed upon heavily populated civilian areas such as markets and shopping malls in city centres, Russia is deliberately and flagrantly committing war crimes that contravene the Geneva Convention on a mass scale. It is for this reason that some of the ambulances we have provided to Kharkiv have been spray painted with a camouflage effect, to give them greater protection from Russian savagery and to increase their lifespan. It goes without saying that we are already planning our next round of ambulance deliveries, knowing that they will already be needed by the time they arrive.
The overriding impression of Kharkiv after these three trips is of a city in a state of depression. Other than the constant sound of exploding artillery shells, the streets are eerily quiet, most shops and businesses are boarded up or damaged, and there are not many people on the streets or cars on the roads. Slabs of concrete every kilometre or so create a network of slalom tracks for cars to navigate during the day. At night these become military checkpoints during the hours of curfew (11 pm until 5 am).
Kharkiv’s proximity to the border means that the Russian army can fire artillery directly into the city day and night with impunity — the Ukrainian army does not have licence to fire into Russian territory for fear of provoking full-scale mobilization in Russia and also seemingly having promised Western countries that its weapons will not be used on Russian soil. This means that Russia has a free hand in Kharkiv, gradually reducing the city to ruins, house by house.
Fortunately, it is not succeeding in doing so very effectively, with much of the city intact and operational. Nonetheless, the previously thriving economy of Ukraine’s second-largest city is virtually at a standstill. The lack of work means that the city is being slowly strangled to death, with most people we met either being a volunteer or an aid recipient.
Many people who want a steady income are considering moving to Kyiv or further afield to find work, although the chances of them succeeding in this are slim anywhere in Ukraine. This creates a very strange kind of urban life and is a reminder that this is a city existing on the frontline of the conflict, despite the media reports of the liberation of Kharkiv two months ago. This is only true to the extent that the city is no longer under immediate threat of occupation. Russian forces are still only twenty-five kilometres away.
Spending the night in Kharkiv these days means being woken up at least once by the sound of exploding shells landing somewhere in the city and the ensuing air raid siren (yes, counterintuitively the air raid siren comes after the shelling since Kharkiv is so close to the Russian border that artillery shells reach the city before the siren can even be sounded). Likewise in the daytime, whilst doing the delivery rounds of hot lunches, ration packs, medicine, and personal hygiene essentials, artillery fire is the accompanying soundtrack, with the sound of explosions sometimes muffled in the distance (think thunder) and other times close enough to raise the hairs on your arms and make your heart miss a beat.
After five days and nights of living with this continuously, the toll on your nerves, sleep, and mental health is tangible. We returned to Lviv to get a good night’s sleep, but a storm that night made the experience uncannily similar to all the previous nights in Kharkiv, and the longed-for normal night’s sleep remained elusive. It is difficult to imagine the long-term effect that living with months of shelling will have on the people who have stayed in Kharkiv, but even closing a car door with too much vigour causes jangled nerves and a sharp rebuke. Whenever this conflict ends, it will be a long time before these psychological scars are healed.
None of what we do would be possible without our donors. We would like to thank Angela Scott and the Fieldrose Charitable Trust, Peter Morris and Howard Tenens Logistics Ltd, and Nicola Shulman and Mulgrave Properties, without whom the purchase of these three ambulances would not have been possible. Huge thanks as well to our magnificent drivers, Michael Pentney, Yousaf Khan, Max Carterton, and Andrei Khakhokhin. Sadly, few organizations big or small deliver their aid to the east. They are all too happy to dump it in on the border in Poland, or at best in western Ukraine, which is over a thousand kilometres from where it is most needed.
There are numerous reports of aid being sold on to shops in western Ukraine, and indeed our local shop in Lviv sells Polish Lidl-branded nuts, amongst other products of questionable origin. This is the inevitable by-product of oversupply in western Ukraine, where most of the aid gets stuck and does not make it through to people who have no access to functioning shops in the east of the country. This is beginning to fuel resentment along the lines of the old east-west divide — a worrying sign of future cracks in the national unity that emerged after Russia’s invasion.
You can reach KHARPP by email (firstname.lastname@example.org), Instagram or Facebook (@KHARPProject). Please consider donating to Lossi 36’s fundraiser for KHARPP on our JustGiving page.