“Isn’t it dangerous?” people ask me when I tell them that a friend and I have just driven a truckful of generators to the villages of the Kherson region, recently liberated from the Russians. We went there just before Christmas as part of Mission Ukraine UK because so many villages had no power at all. Our plan was to create mini hubs to give them a generator and, if possible, connectivity via a booster.
When I say I was driving from the UK to Ukraine with a friend, the truth is that the first time I met Gary was in Hackney when we fired up the old Mitsubishi four-wheel drive truck loaded with generators and headed for Dover. Gary was a veteran not only of multiple humanitarian trips but was also an ex-soldier with a poorly concealed heart of gold.
We bonded immediately once he discovered several of my family had been in the same regiment. A committed smoker, he unilaterally decided to drive non-stop through the Low Countries, Germany and Poland with the windows open: we shivered as it was -12 in Poland.
Our journey meant that once we crossed into Ukraine – an 8-hour bureaucratic nightmare – and he went home, I’d been awake for 40 hours. Once inside Ukraine I worked with a couple of local volunteers, mostly the redoubtable Yegor. He showed me with some pride the road barricade he constructed himself outside Mykolaiv in the first days of the war as a defensive position against the invading Russians.
It’s true that there were some dangers – there were air alerts everywhere, even in western cities like Lviv near the Polish border and useful apps for your phone that will warn you to take shelter because a Russian missile attack is imminent. It’s also true, I couldn’t get any health or travel insurance. But at home in the UK I could just as easily be struck by a London bus.
Once across the Polish-Ukrainian border, there was no doubt that Ukraine was a country at war. There were uniforms everywhere, the blue and yellow flag omnipresent, frequent military checkpoints and near the border endless queues of trucks waiting to cross. Between Mykolaiv and Kherson it was common to see the carcasses of wrecked vehicles or tanks, damaged or destroyed buildings, unexploded ordnance and crumpled pylons and sagging power lines. Mykolaiv, where I was based, had been under continuous Russian bombardment for eight months. Between five and 45 rockets every day.
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And during my stay in Mykolaiv, there were rolling power cuts daily, meaning hours in darkness and for the last two days no water at all. I became the Queen of the Wet Wipe. It gave me a small understanding of what people are enduring. In winter, temperatures can plunge to -20. I was there to bring power to villages newly liberated from Russian occupation or until recently on the frontline. Many are almost destroyed by missiles and have no electricity, no heat, no connectivity and often no water. Some villages are abandoned for lack of water and at one, to fetch it, they walk three miles there and back.
You may think that connection to the outside world is not important, but imagine that you don’t know what is happening outside your village at all and that you have been unable to contact family and friends, your loved ones who have been scattered to the west or abroad. You may not know if your parents or your children are still alive or where they are.
Using information from local contacts, we drove out daily from Mykolaiv with generators, torches and boosters to villages identified as being without power. It’s lucky we had a four-wheel drive vehicle as many bridges were blown up and we were forced to take the scenic route cross country, negotiating miles of deep tank tracks and using an offline navigation app.
Once we had made contact with the village leader we established a basic hub, setting up the generator in the remaining building still capable of providing shelter for the community. It could be anything from the village hall, medical centre or school. If there was the smallest whisper of signal we would also set up a booster so that people could contact their families.
“We won’t allow the Russians to take Christmas away from us too,” the villagers said. I arrived at a village near Kherson, only liberated for a month. They had cleaned up their village hall, cut a tree, found some battered decorations and were going to celebrate Christmas together. A mother had brought her toddler daughter to see the bright baubles. We set up our generator right outside. It was hard sometimes getting the job done and not letting personal emotions intrude. I tried to remember how important it was to listen to people, to be a witness to what they had endured and what they’re going through now. There were so many moments that touched my heart. Every day I met extraordinary, courageous, unselfish heroes who were surviving the best they could in terrible times.
Would the outstanding moment be the old man singing his heart out about his love for Ukraine and unable to finish the verse because he was overcome by sobs? Or being hugged by Oksana in tears because we’d brought a booster that would enable her to contact her family? Or the dentist wreathed in smiles because thanks to our generator she had power and could treat her patients for the first time since April?
Putin has achieved something he never intended, unifying Ukraine. It is a country utterly convinced of its national identity and a nation determined to preserve its freedom and independence whatever the cost. Yet the people of Ukraine are not living life: they are surviving.
The author is a volunteer for Mission Ukraine UK.
Generators for Ukraine in the UK raised £10,000 to buy generators through a Just Giving page and partnered with Mission Ukraine UK to deliver them to the villages that needed them. Run by volunteers and funded by donations, more missions are being planned.