My Ukraine Visit: 22 – 26 Feb 2023
One of the pleasures of being an MP has been meeting the many Ukrainian guests we have staying with us in Calder Valley since Putin’s war started over a year ago. Like many people, my admiration for them is huge. So, when Bob Seely MP (The Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Ukraine) asked me if I would join a cross party group of MPs to visit Ukraine on the anniversary of the Russian invasion to show solidarity and unity with the Ukrainian people, for me, it was a ‘no brainer’. I’m not sure Elaine or any of my children were pleased about me visiting a war zone but standing shoulder to shoulder with MPs from around the world with President Zelensky was incredibly important.
The security around a trip to a war zone, is fraught with logistical and security nightmares so it was no surprise when the itinerary changed several times before we left. Nevertheless, we did set off on Wednesday 22 Feb, with 9 x Conservative, 3 x Labour and 1 x SNP MPs on what was to become one of the most memorable trips I’ve ever been on.
‘Trains, Planes and Automobiles’ came to mind as we were split up for security. Plane from London to Warsaw. Another plane from Warsaw to Rzeszow. Minibus from Rzeszow to Przemysl on the border between Poland and Ukraine, then the overnight sleeper train into Ukraine and onto Kyiv.
It was in Poland where we first saw the banks of Patriot Missile launchers and just over the border in Ukraine when our train was stopped by officials to check everybody’s passports. In true throwback fashion to how many of us remembered the Soviet East in the 1980’s, the sudden realisation of the tensions this part of Europe is living with became real.
As dawn broke, the pristine, fresh winter air outside made the vast forests and agricultural land glisten in the hard frost and covering of snow. It was so beautiful; you could have been forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about.
On arrival in Kyiv, a quick check-in to our hotel (we were split up for security), shower and then our first air raid warning of the day. This comes via app on your ‘burner phone’, and covers the whole of the region. If the planes are feared to be heading for the capital, then you get the traditional air raid siren too. To be fair to the people of this beautiful city, they hold their heads up high and carry on with their daily lives. Nobody runs to the shelters, no panic, just sheer determination that Putin and his cronies won’t affect their lives any more than he must. The stark reality is a city covered in sandbags, pill boxes, road blocks, thousands of military personnel and plenty of armour as well. Outside our hotel is a huge square in which the Ukrainians have positioned several captured Russian tanks as a reminder and morale booster to the Ukrainian people.
Our first visit of the day was to the opening session of Rada – The Ukrainian parliament. We were joined by every Foreign Office Committee Chairman from around Europe as well as the Prime Minister of Spain, Pedro Sanchez. The opening session was very moving with the Ukrainian MPs singing their national anthem and then turning to us all with a standing ovation and applause.
We spoke at length to Ukrainian MPs throughout the day and had groups of their MPs brief us on a whole variety of needs and issues. Establishment of a tribunal for war crimes; military needs; repatriations of Ukrainian children taken by Russia; and reparation from Russia on the billions of pounds in damages, were high on their agenda.
The stark reality is that over the last year over 200,000 military on both sides have lost their lives. Over 150,000 homes have been destroyed; 3,200 schools destroyed; 1200 hospitals and healthcare facilities destroyed; 205 churches, mosques and temples destroyed; 120 railway stations destroyed and 14 heat and power facilities have also been destroyed.
The humanitarian cost is far higher with over 8.1 million Ukrainian citizens who are refugees outside of their own country and a further 6.1 million people displaced within Ukraine.
The most sickening and blatant disregard to human rights, is that over 16,500 known children have been taken forcibly, either from care homes or their families in areas that are occupied by the Russians, to Russia. Once there, the children are adopted to Russian families and all their documents (birth certificates, etc.) destroyed and re-issued as Russian. They are forced to speak Russian only and are indoctrinated into the Russian way of life. Utterly deplorable in the 21st Century.
The good news is that the Russians have been generally cleared from the north of Ukraine but the struggle here is fierce with between 5,000 and 7,000 pieces of ammunition used, just on the Ukrainian side, every single day. Is it any wonder they need the support of western nations in this mammoth ‘David and Goliath’ battle for their survival, right here in the heart of the European continent. Despite all this, spirits are very high with no talk of defeat, only victory. Their determination is like nothing I’ve experienced before. One thing that was very apparent throughout our trip was how they hold Britain in high esteem and wherever you go. They hold Boris in such high esteem for being the first foreign leader to ‘step up’. You get the feeling that Britons are treated like family and they will never forget our efforts to help them.
My short stay here by no means makes me an expert, nor does it give me the right to know or begin to understand what it is like to have your homeland under such threat, or your family put at so much risk. But one thing is for sure and that is the sheer courage, drive and bloody determination of the Ukrainian people deserve our full and complete respect and support. In my view we should give them all we can to facilitate victory over the tyrant, Putin, and where we can’t help, we should be facilitating other nations to do so.
This war is on our doorstep, which means it is 100% our issue and it is also our business to deal with it. To close the door would be a huge mistake which will come back and haunt us for generations to come. Putin won’t just stop here if he’s successful in Ukraine.
Putin needs to be stopped. Putin must be stopped. If he’s not, the continent of Europe will never again see the peace we have enjoyed for the last 70 years.
Today we visited the outskirts of Kyiv in the north which is as far as the Russians managed to progress before the Ukrainians, after several weeks, managed to push them back to the Russian border.
For anyone who has never visited a war zone, the scale of devastation and destruction to infrastructure and civilian housing is mind blowing and far worse than I ever imagined it to be.
Housing blocks, homes, schools, hospitals, health facilities and whole communities just totally destroyed.
In one area (Irpin, a small town about the size of Elland), the Ukrainian forces have stacked over 100 cars and vehicles which were burnt out and riddled with bullets. What we didn’t realise until told was that many of these vehicles were filled with families at the time.
I always imagined a war where it was soldier on soldier. But this was not the case here. The Russian systematically massacred every grandparent, mother, and child, all trying to flee the Russian advancement. Each murdered in their cars by a brutal, evil army, intent on destroying everyone and anything in their path. Not an ounce of a soldier’s code, not an ounce of humanity. Just plain and simply barbaric slaughter at its worst.
We saw how Putin’s henchmen of war systematically destroyed homes and blocks of flats, hospitals and schools. Not one strategic target at all. Just all targeted at civilians to instil fear into the general population.
We travelled back to Kyiv in total shock and silence. Each of us trying to digest and process the horrors we had seen.
On our arrival back in Kyiv, we went over to the Mykhailivsky Golden Domed Monastery where the Wall of Remembrance has been established for all of those fallen for Ukraine. A sombre and sobering tribute to all those who have fallen in the last year. Here we all placed lit candles at the base of the wall and took some time for reflection. You can’t imagine the sacrifice these brave people have given for their country.
For the rest of the day, we joined the special conference organised to mark the one-year anniversary since the Russians launched their attack on the country. The Russians did invade 9 years ago, but only the area known as Crimea which they have occupied ever since. Again, we met and networked with Ukrainian MPs, Non-Government Organisations and charities who are all working tirelessly to try and alleviate the daily trauma of the general population here.
We were also visited by President Zelensky who received a hero’s welcome and after his press statement, took questions for over 3 hours! It is clear to see the high morale and determination of the Ukrainian people comes directly from the top. This man is what all leaders should aspire to be and he gave many of us a glimpse into what it must have been like to have Churchill at our helm during WW2. The huge amount of respect for him was oozing from everyone.
After dinner most of us sloped off to bed, exhausted both emotionally and physically from the day’s events. The only saving grace about having so many foreign politicians in the centre of Kyiv today was that the Russians stayed quiet, and we had no air raid warnings today, but only today.
Some of the MPs present had driven across the continent from Leeds with vans full of aid to deliver in the north of Ukraine, up near the Belarusian border. They were joined throughout the trip by other MPs who couldn’t make the full trip, to drive certain legs of the journey.
They had teamed up with an excellent local (UK) charity called the MAD Foundation (Make A Difference) which was set up in 1999 by a great guy from the North East of England called John Lawler. One of the arms of the charity deals with aid supplies to Ukraine: “Operation Safe Drop”. It was under this guise that the MPs travelled across Europe and delivered the aid to a warehouse in Lviv.
Today, some of us were delivering that aid to near the front line, at a place just north of Chernihiv. This city just south of the Belarus and south west of the Russian borders, was under siege for over a month with the city being surrounded but held by the Ukrainian equivalent of our Territorial Army. Over 50 civilians a day were killed as the Russians bombarded and pummelled the city relentlessly. The Russians eventually gave up as their aim of taking the capital Kyiv some 90 miles south faltered and failed.
The need up here is great with residents still living in bombed out buildings with no electricity or running water. Meanwhile Mother Nature is also a huge risk as today. Although very bright and sunny with wind chill factor and the ground still covered in snow, it was a braising -8 degrees during the day.
Operation Safe Drop works closely with partners on the ground, so that items of real need and use are delivered. Today we were delivering a generator, warm winter clothing and medical supplies.
The trip north took around 2 hours through the many roadblocks on the main highway. What was chilling was the huge signs along the road warning of land mines. Many planted by the Ukrainians to prevent Russian convoys returning over the fields, but many too from the Russians who had set traps for the Ukrainians in their retreat.
When we arrived at our destination to drop the much-needed supplies, the devastation was clear. Again, the blatant disregard for what they destroyed and the people they killed was a mystery. No strategic military targets nor infrastructure, but all civilian damage. Schools, hospitals, and housing. The scale of the destruction was sickening. We visited a high school and a primary school across the road. They, along with the local supermarket and hospital, had been bombed by Russian MIG jets. Not during the night but sickeningly during the day to cause the highest death toll they could. Senseless acts of cowardice designed purely to instil fear at the heart of the general population.
We took pictures so we could digest the impact after we had left. After a hearty lunch of dumplings and Borshch with the incredibly brave volunteers on the ground, we headed back along the highway to Kyiv.
The air raid sirens were in full flow when we arrived back, but that didn’t deter us from saying our farewells to our newfound friends and colleagues from the Ukrainian Rada. Their emotion at our farewell was a genuine appreciation of our visit and the friendships we had forged.
For us, the long 24-hour journey back to the UK was about to begin. It was only after the train had been heading west for a couple of hours back towards Poland did we have several stiff drinks. Our early morning arrival in Poland to snow was a reminder of the endurance of many people in this part of the world, let alone those who had to endure the barbaric onslaught from the Russians, then endure winter with no heating or electricity in some of the places we had visited.
We landed safely back in London on Sunday evening, emotionally drained.
Whether we like it or not, Putin’s war has affected us across the whole of Europe and not just those on the front line in Ukraine. Higher energy prices, inflation and displaced people are just some of the costs we are bearing because of this war. It really is our problem too.
As an MP, of course we can lobby our government to do more and even lobby other governments too, but the reality is the frustration of doing something which makes a real different to help those on the front line and bearing the brunt of Putin’s butchers. We can’t all help by bearing arms, but we can help by trying to alleviate some of the suffering of those who have.
I mentioned The MAD Organisation earlier and, specifically, Operation Safe Drop. They are a reputable UK charity who work closely with partners on the front line. They also don’t take things that are not needed, just vital supplies to alleviate the daily suffering of those who have born the brunt of Putin.
Generators for electricity; medical supplies; incontinent pads for the elderly (totally unavailable over there); warm clothing and anything else the front line partners identify as a need. Real targeting, of real need, on the very front line.
Having spoken to John Lawler the founder, he tells me UK business and citizens are incredibly generous at buying things like generators and supplying the items that are needed. What isn’t ‘sexy’ and where they struggle, is funding for the physical delivery of aid and running costs of the charity.
It costs £2,500 in fuel, ferry, and rest stops to send volunteers driving 4 x van convoys. They do this twice a week (yes, that’s how often the aid goes!) from the UK to Lviv in Ukraine. It is then distributed to all the areas of need, to local frontline partners who have requested the help. It takes a total of 4 days to drive over.
So, as I’ve tried to take the emotion out of what we witnessed in Ukraine, I believe this charity warrants our support and enables us to help out in a very practical way. A way which helps towards victory, by boosting the morale of those suffering and aiding Ukraine’s victory over Putin.
I would like to help the charity by raising funds towards their running costs. That is, covering the cost of sending 10 x convoys of 4 x vans full of vital supplies from the UK, right to the front line in Ukraine if we can raise around £25,000.
So if you have been touched by my blog today, please give generously to https://www.justgiving.com/campaign/OperationSafeDrop and if you drop me a quick email on firstname.lastname@example.org when you have, we can keep a running total
Can I thank you in advance of your generous donations and if anyone wants further information on anything I’ve written today, please drop me an email.