It is a war zone. As I was told this morning there were five air raid alerts during the night. Sixteen Iranian-supplied Russian drones flew over Lviv. Eleven were shot down “but several exploded near here”. The previous morning I learned that drones “killed five people in this neighbourhood last night”. I am booked on the bus to Krakov but I do not want to leave. I really would like to stay and help.
This has been perhaps the most defining period in my life. I survived the Ethiopian famine and civil war despite some near misses. The times that I came closest to death in my job as a reporter were during the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. I had no regrets about leaving either of those ‘war zones’.
Today I want nothing more than to stay in Ukraine. I have an overwhelming desire to help. My hosts asked me last night if I would go to the front line in the East and I said yes but only if I were to be doing something useful to help.
I shall be leaving with a deep emptiness in my heart for the people of Ukraine. I will never forget the joy on children’s faces as they were shown into the room at a care home to be handed sweets and biscuits. The adults visibly shared my emotion as kids who lost their homes – and in some cases family members – to the violence of war realised what was happening. Disbelief turned to overwhelming joy and the tall stranger became the focus of their attention and dare I say hero worship. I made it clear that it was the donors that needed to be thanked.
The sweets and other goodies were donated by the generous donations of the people of Deal in Kent for whom I was acting as their unofficial agent. It was made possible by Donna Walker and her supporters in the Deal Kent Ukraine Appeal. The sweets were part of the funds raised by the White Cliffs Symphony Wind Orchestra led by Graham Harvey who gave a concert in support of Donna’s appeal.
I became involved after meeting former Royal Marine bandsman Graham in Jane’s Cafe near my home in Kent. My reporter’s instincts led me to ask whether I could go on the delivery to see for myself what Donna’s work was achieving. The answer came back “yes” and then metaphorical fireworks started.
“You are mad”. “You are crazy”. “You are a fool” came the vociferous and passionate responses from the likeable people I have come to know in Kent.They hardened my determination and I told them I have been called all those things all my life.
Right up to the last minute I was being urged to change my mind but I left with my Ukrainian driver in a four wheel drive vehicle destined for a Ukrainian army unit and loaded with Donna’s latest contributions on Wednesday. We drove day and night – the journey itself being funded by Gary Cartwright, publisher of EU Today – with just one stop for a quick nap after crossing into Poland. We had been accompanied by the drone of our tyres through northern France, Belgium and across Germany stopping only to fill the petrol tank.
We had expected to cross from Poland into Ukraine on Friday morning and then at a filling station where I demanded to be allowed to have a coffee we received bad news. The paperwork for the car to cross the border had not been lodged because the army unit was on a mission. Delay followed delay as we tried to find another vehicle to transport the sweets and biscuits together with food and wheelchairs for the wounded.
Lacking sleep and food despair grew and then my driver Olexsandr announced that a lady called Olena (English spelling) would meet us at the Polish side of the border and take the car through, load the donations into her own pick-up truck and leave the four wheel drive for the army to collect. We got to the border around 7pm to meet her and Olexsandr said goodbye. Around 01.30 we cleared customs and we’re on our way to the village where Olena and her husband Andy reside just outside Lviv. They kindly put me up on their sofa where I fell asleep around 3.30 am.
We were up again at 7am to get the load to the aid centre in Lviv. We were greeted by the nicest bunch of people one could possibly meet. Coffee flowed as we unloaded and then Olena and I explained that we wanted to illustrate to Kent donors how the goodies would be received.
Phone calls were made and we headed off to the refugee centre housing mainly children but also families from front line areas who have list their homes. In charge was a charming and highly competent lady called Christina who asked me to convey her team’s appreciation to Donna, her helpers and the donors.
By now Olena and the aid crew had identified my passion for coffee and I was marched across town to the historic Atlas cafe. When they realised I had travelled from the U.K. with treats for children the staff adopted me as a pal and so it was only polite to have a second cup.
Then Olena told me there was a request for me to go to a rehabilitation centre to see a 19 year old British born and raised young man of Ukrainian descent who was serving in the army at Bhakmut and lost both legs from just below the knees.
It was a long drive and I was apprehensive but found him to be a charming Welsh born character. He acknowledged the concerns Olena’s friend Tanya had about him but announced that he would be staying in the army once he was mobile on artificial legs and would be operating drones and suchlike. I was able to give a positive report to Tanya and found I now have another new friend in Ukraine.
Olena and Andy offered to put me up for as long as I liked. They are halfway through building their own house but have stopped because they may yet have to flee their country. As I told their national TV interviewer and repeated to them: “Ukraine is fighting for its own survival but also for Western Europe and the free world”. No one I met would criticise the EU, they appreciate the help they are giving but I could detect no criticism of my comment that the countries of Europe should be more united about helping Ukraine.
My message to them and to Ukrainians generally is that age will not weary me, and if I can find ways to help I will be back!
Donna Walker (nee McNicholas) is a remarkable person. The day after Putin invaded Ukraine she heard that there was a shortage of female personal items and so she and her business colleague James Defriend drove a load to Ukraine.
Donna founded the Deal Kent Ukraine appeal and to date have sent more than 52 loads of aid. The McNicholas family have run their pet shop business for 72 years and after a career in sales Donna is now the general manager.
Educated at Camberley College Donna went on to get a BA Hons in sociology at Staffordshire University. “Me and James are both impetuous and we just got stuck in. We send stuff to help. the worst to date was when we learned that they were out of body bags and having to use bin bags. We contacted undertakers and then Brentford Council gave us their entire stock”.
Her appeal has sent vans and lorries to Ukraine for over a year now. The appeal has attracted donations to the value of more than £700,000. They have sent 20,000 packs of nappies, 200,000 boxes of medical products. They now cover the whole country. As her father Patrick McNicholas said: “When other support groups struggle we take over”. In April 2022 a report put the appeal’s Ukrainian contributions at £30,000 a week.
The appeal have been given free access to a lorry park and warehouse in Sandwich. Donna told me: “I don’t know why but everything has fallen together. We have a place where lorries can load and unload, a local florist takes car of floral tributes for burials Our small bands go one way. Some vehicles are then turned into badly needed ambulances, others used for general transport”.
Impressively Donna stresses that should anything happen to her she has made arrangements for the appeal to continue.
Graham Harvey is a strong supporter of the Donna Walker Deal Kent Ukraine Appeal. A former Royal Marine Band Corps Master he now leads the Deal based White Cliffs Symphonic Wind Orchestra.
The band had already raised £50,000 for national and local charities. The concert at St Mary’s Church raised £750 for the Ukraine appeal and a decision was made to spend half on treats for children, and the rest on a generator for a school.
Graham told me: “When I learned that Donna’s appeal was sending two lorries a week to Ukraine I was amazed. This area is doing something that shows they are caring.”