30 Jan 2023

Ukraine aid work: How dangerous is it?

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 30 January 2023

Nearly 18 million people in Ukraine are in need of humanitarian assistance. The Detail talks to one aid worker who's seen the devastation wreaked by Russia's invasion and the toll it's taken on Ukrainians.

A woman wearing a blue puffer jacket, with her back to the camera, stands in front of a brick apartment building in Ukraine, which is damaged after being hit in a missile strike.

Anne Bulley in front of Dina and Olga's apartment. Photo: Supplied/ReliefAid

When New Zealand aid worker Anne Bulley knocked on the door of two elderly women living in a bombed-out apartment block in Kyiv, she was struck by the bitter chill and the darkness. 

"It's absolutely soul destroying," she says. 

"You're just sitting there in the cold, in the dark. Cooking, they had a single camping gas stove in their kitchen."

Several months earlier, aid workers had delivered blankets, solar lamps, water containers and polythene for the glass-less windows.

Since then, nothing has changed. Olga and Dina still have no heating, no light, no running water, no glass windows. No one knows when they'll be restored.

This visit, Bulley took the women homemade gingernuts from New Zealand. In return, they gave her apples from a tree near their apartment.

"They're an absolute delight these two ladies," Bulley tells The Detail

"They'd had a terrible time, missiles had actually blown out the centre of their apartment, they were evacuated from the cellar when missiles were flying in all directions."

Olga and Dina have already featured in fund-raising publicity by ReliefAid, the New Zealand-run aid group that Bulley volunteers for. Someone had seen their story and made the biscuits to be delivered to them.

Three women sit in a semi-circle in a cold apartment in Ukraine. They are all wearing warm jackets. One is wearing a hat.

Anne Bulley (centre) with Dina (left) and Olga (right). Photo: Supplied/ReliefAid

"There's a lot of humanity behind the humanitarian works that we do," says Bulley.

There's also a lot of danger. She's talking about her experiences in Ukraine during a stint there at the end of last year, shortly before another Kiwi aid worker, Andrew Bagshaw, disappeared. 

Last week, Bagshaw's family said he was killed while delivering aid.

Bulley says the riskiest time for her was during an unexpected missile attack that rattled the house they were staying in. She and ReliefAid founder Mike Seawright had nowhere to go but the bathroom, where they spent several hours sitting on the floor waiting for the missiles to stop.

It was daunting, she says, but she felt certain the missiles wouldn't land on them. And despite the escalating risks, Bulley says she would go back if she could be of use.

After nearly a year of fighting, the Russian invasion has set off the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War Two. 

Nearly eight million people have fled their homeland while 6.5 million are displaced within Ukraine itself. 
United Nations figures show nearly 18 million people need urgent humanitarian assistance.  
The role of aid workers is crucial. For example, ReliefAid has helped more than 30,000 people in the last year alongside its aid partners, helped by $500,000 in donations from New Zealanders.

"It's a catch-22 isn't it?" says Bulley. "Because if you would never put an aid worker into a warzone that means you'd never take humanitarian aid in which actually means that so many more people would die."

Two children and three adults stand among what remains of a brick house hit by a missile strike in Ukraine. It is winter, so they are wearing big jackets and there is snow on the ground.

All that remains of one family's home. Photo: Supplied/ReliefAid

One of her lasting memories, she says, was a visit to a family in Chernihiv at the site of their bombed out home. All that was left was half a chimney and the family of four was now sharing a one-bedroom, 36-square metre apartment with three others.

"Their future is so unknown. They want to rebuild but when?"

If you want to find out more about Anne Bulley's experiences delivering aid in Ukraine, check out the full podcast episode.

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