One year in Ukraine

Update on the ground

Dispatches from Christine Knudsen, Senior Vice President of Programs, Heart to Heart International

Travel in Ukraine, 19 February

We landed in Kusice, Slovakia, after almost 24 hours of travel, welcomed at the airport by our partners at the Gorta Group. We immediately loaded ourselves into the car and headed for the Ukrainian border to be sure to cross before sunset. We arrived quickly and–to our surprise–we got through customs in less than an hour, crossing into Ukraine at the border town of Uzhgorod and watching the sun set through light rain. It’s been a wet winter, and snow melt was glowing across the fields as we drove further to Mukachevo for the night. 

What struck me driving in to Ukraine at this point was just the sense of life as normal, yet we had a security briefing on using an app for air raid warnings, and what to do when the sirens go off. Our Ukrainian colleague traveling from Kyiv pointed to how this life is now normal, knowing that your meeting or your sleep can be disturbed by the sirens, but that most people just continue on their day and hope for the best. After a year of this rhythm, they have found their own way to cope. I was surprised and humbled when he told us we were brave for traveling into Ukraine these days, when all I could think was how brave he was to keep on, and how lucky we were to be working with him.

Monday, 20 February

We met with our partners STEP-IN, who traveled from Dnipro, to review how all of the portable stand-alone clinics — one of the cornerstones of our longer-term support to Ukraine — are working. We have been placing the clinics where hospitals and clinics have been destroyed and where people displaced by the war are seeking shelter and overwhelming the existing healthcare.

We also learned just how hard it is to do this work from start to finish in Ukraine. Our partners have had a hard time finding drivers willing to transport the clinics so close to the active fighting, but with a strong network HHI has installed clinics across the country. Thirteen of the clinics are operational, and we visited the last two, which are just waiting now for transport. It has been hard to find drivers willing to deliver these where they are needed, near the front lines, but finally they should be moving next week.

We talked with the staff at the warehouse, which the owner has made available to us as his own contribution to the humanitarian efforts, and learned of their concerns at being conscripted.

Tuesday, 21 February

Today we crossed more than 1/3 of the entire country, traveling from the west towards Kyiv to meet with partners and then visit the first HHI clinics in Ukraine, which have been operating since June. As we set off, across the Carpathian mountains, we felt the shift in the cold and wind, very different from the sheltered west of the country. And then driving for hours across the plains, I saw rich soil, rolling landscapes, and thought how much it looked like Kansas, with the big sky and fields stretched as far as the eye could see, showing signs of early planting and drying corn stalks. As we came closer to Kyiv we saw more and more destruction, however, and the year of conflict became much more real. Warehouses, homes, businesses, cars and trucks laid destroyed and crumbling in the rain which accompanied us most of the route. Arriving in Kyiv felt surreal, a capital city going about its business at rush hour, people going home to their families, doing their shopping, knowing that war is just a few hundred miles away and air raid sirens may sound at any time, as they often do several times a day.

The strength of the people we have met, the resilience and generosity that we have seen at every turn, is inspiring as we come into the second year of the war this week.

Wednesday, 22 February

Today, the team visited two clinics in the Chirnihiv region, seeing what a difference these containers and the equipment make to both the doctors and nurses, as well as the patients. These were the first container clinics HHI has ever sent overseas, followed by 13 more in Ukraine alone. Having a clean clinical space, regular supplies, and secure storage have been important and the clinics are being well managed, with both nurses and a doctor present on rotation during the week. We saw people standing in line to be seen in both locations, demonstrating how much these services are needed. It was especially touching to see that there was a small playground set up next to the clinic, and a real sense of investment from the community to make this a central part of the village.

The team heard gunfire exchange nearby and had to cut the visit short. The situation on the ground can change quickly and at any moment, yet people carry on with their lives and manage their best for the family and their communities.

Thursday, 23 February

We met with the Deputy Minister of Health today, a true honor and privilege. She welcomed us warmly, and spoke of the continuing needs in the country for medicine and medical supplies. HHI has provided $30 million of medical aid directly to the Ministry of Health over the past year, $60 million to clinics in partnership throughout the country, with another $18 million being shipped to Ukraine from Kansas City this week. The need for bandages and supplies, essential medicines, and mobility devices such as wheelchairs and walkers is obvious, and we plan to provide even more support this year.

It feels strange to be leaving Kyiv on the eve of the one year mark of this war. The city is scarred by the conflict and explosions, yet the people are determined and committed, and the life of the city continues despite air raid sirens, power cuts, and fuel shortages. Kyiv will live in my memory for a long time, as will all the people of Ukraine that I have met.