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UKRAINE – Hopes that the torrential rain will keep the Russian gun crews under cover are quickly dashed as incoming rounds boom in the thunder rolling over Kherson’s deserted streets. It’s business as usual for Moscow’s forces positioned immediately across the Dnieper.
A British NGO completes an aid drop anyway on the mighty Ukrainian river’s now liberated western bank. Nor do the Britons and their local staff, who drove vans from the port city of Odesa loaded with medicines, clothing and a generator, seem overly troubled by the danger.
“Operating in high-risk environments is something that we have signed up to accept as part of our work,” said Toby Illingworth, head of operations for the MAD Foundation (“Make a Difference”), which delivers donated supplies across the country and evacuates civilians. “But I am always concerned about the safety of the team.”
Today, they have a consignment of Direct Relief medicines and other donated supplies for the city’s Karabelesh clinical hospital. Medical director Anna Goseneva gladly receives the boxes for its gastrointestinal, proctological, stroke and burns units, which are saddled with shortages since the Russians abandoned Kherson in November and began shelling it daily.
“Supplies of medicines are being restored, contracts are being signed, but people are still afraid to deliver here,” said the doctor, who, with a now 60%-depleted staff, kept the hospital and its sub-clinics running throughout the nine-month occupation.
From Tourist Magnet to Humanitarian Hub
At this stage in the war, a crucial role in restoring normal life in Kherson and across the South falls to Odesa, located a 2.5-hour drive to the west. Founded in 1794 by Russian Empress Catherine the Great and known affectionately as “Odesa Mama,” this architectural gem on the Black Sea was not seized in the initial Russian offensive last year.
The fate of Ukraine’s fourth-largest city hung in the balance for several weeks as a naval landing seemed imminent. Russian “Ropukha” (toad) ships loaded with marines cruised offshore, deterred by rough seas and the failure of land forces to break through from Mykolaiv to the north-east – and the possibility that the Ukrainians had received Western anti-ship missiles.
The city largely emptied, and its streets were barricaded and controlled by military units, with occasional enemy missile strikes and shoot-outs with local collaborators passing information to the Russians.
“We were afraid that they would land; there were so many of them, like locusts,” said resident Denis, who used to go to the beach with his son and fill sandbags for the army to keep busy. He and others spoken to said they could finally exhale when the Russians were pushed back from Mykolaiv in mid-March and when the Ukrainians sank the Russian missile cruiser Moskva on April 14. These victories gave real hope that Russia’s vast military machines could be defeated.
Today, with the worst threat hopefully behind it, the former tourist magnet is a thriving humanitarian aid center for the entire southern region.
“Odesa’s geographic location near the EU borders lets it be a logistic hub for humanitarian work. Huge amounts of cargo are coming into Odesa first and are then distributed further to other cities,” said Oleksandr Cherepanov, a coordinator of the city’s Hospitable Hut Volunteer Center, which opened in March last year and is run by Direct Relief’s local partner Ukrainian Soul. “It also has financial capabilities, good defense, facilities, equipment, people.”
Effectively shielded against aerial attacks by its formidable air defenses, Odesa’s proximity to frontline areas created a huge IDP population – around 100,000 people, estimates Mykola Viknianskyi, a local businessman who established Ukrainian Soul last summer to help coordinate humanitarian efforts.
Employing their existing resources and skill set – needs assessment, procurement, logistics, accounting – he and a group of fellow entrepreneurs got so proficient in humanitarian operations that Viknianskyi was asked to become an adviser to Mayor Gennady Trukhanov. “Before the war, I was a businessman, but now I don’t know who we are and what we do – but we do our best to support the city,” he laughs.
Some of the results are visible directly across the street from the offices of his window fittings company. A banner over the entrance of a temporarily closed school declares, “You are not refugees; you are Odesa’s guests.” Hundreds of IDPs come here daily to receive donations of food, clothing, hygiene items, school supplies and children’s toys.
In the yard behind the building, medical and hygiene supplies are loaded into vans to be sent by the Nova Poshta postal service to other cities and regions or directly to hospitals and NGOs in Mykolaiv and Kherson with volunteer couriers.
“NGOs like ours can attract donors,” says Cherepanov. “But in 99% of cases, donations don’t imply direct financial contributions to NGOs.” Which means they must raise funds for logistics themselves. “It’s hard to find volunteers who would run transport for free because the war has been going on for almost 1.5 years and people got tired and financially drained. That’s why independent NGOs like MAD are so important and useful.”
Many other local and foreign NGOs, as well as UN agencies, the Red Cross and other international organizations also run supply operations from the city, either independently or pooling resources.
Food for Body, Food for Soul
But help doesn’t always arrive in boxes or on pallets. Another acute requirement near the frontline and in cities with many IDPs is psychological care. Odesa NGO Plechi o Plechi (“Shoulder to shoulder”) recently teamed up with Direct Relief’s partner Hromada Hub to bring emergency psychological support where the need is greatest.
Following five days of training by Hromada Hub’s emergency psychologist Melinda Endrefi, a group of local psychologists accompanied aid distributions, first in Odesa and then to Kherson. Here, 14 participants held individual sessions with almost 70 mothers and children, many of them struggling with the after-effects of Russian shelling.
“They shoot with artillery, tanks and mortars,” said Alla, a co-organizer of the event from Odesa. “There is no warning – people live in expectation of this, with the resultant psychological trauma. It’s important to address this as soon as possible, especially in the children.”
The interactions had a visible unlocking effect on many of the local visitors as they shared their experiences of recent months, but they also brought a change in perspective among the team members.
“This was a new approach – you have to immediately assess the need,” said Lyudmila, a psychotherapist from Odesa with eight years of work experience. “I used to do long-term work with clients, over 2-3 years, but now there is a tendency toward short-term work because of the demand.”
One of her conversations was with a mother who had managed to conceal that war was happening from her six-year-old daughter, explaining explosions as construction and other noise. Denial is a serious issue for many, says Lyudmila, who encouraged the mother to finally explain the reality to her child in an age-appropriate way.
The event lasted about 2.5 hours before it was cut short amid reports of renewed shelling. The team boarded the mini-buses and departed back to Odesa, satisfied with the positive effect on the visitors: “You can see the life shining in their eyes again,” said Alla.
“We made some history today,” said Hromada Hub’s trainer Endrefi. “This is the first time [in Ukraine] anyone came with such a group to such a destroyed place.”
The NGOs involved are already making plans to return to reach more families, including many elderly people who were left alone in Kherson after 80-90% of its pre-war population of 250,000 left the city.
Normal Life, For Some
The drive back to Odesa passes through ruined villages before the city looms down the highway. The contrast between Kherson’s oppressive feel and the animated seaside buzz here is palpable – and a source of irritation to some.
“Those people partying here don’t realize what’s happening less than 200 kilometers away,” said one of the local volunteers. “I’d like to take them by the scruff of the neck and drop them in Kherson for half an hour so they understand.”
But while frivolous luxury to some, Odesa’s reopened restaurants, clubs and beaches are also things that help to anchor normal life, avert a long-term exodus of the population, and encourage the city’s further development as a lifeline to communities further afield.
MAD Foundation is already moving to expand: “The plan is to develop a southern operation based out of Odesa over the next couple of months,” said Illingworth. “This will enable us to be closer to the locations we support, improving efficiency and substantially scaling up the amount of support we can provide.”
Direct Relief has shipped more than $900 million worth of medical aid to groups in Ukraine, including Hospitable Hut and Hromada Hub, since the conflict began on Feb. 24, 2022.