Medyka, Poland, March 2022 Aid workers on the Polish-Ukrainian border sort through donations arriving from across Europe
“I send dresses or I send medicine.” Exasperated, Nadya shrugs as we sit in a coffeeshop near the heart of Kraków, Poland. It is one of several sites where the humanitarian response to war is being organised.
Nadya is Ukrainian. She has family in Poltava, in the centre of the country. “They don’t want to come” she says, but the mobile signal is good there and they are able to keep in touch. Her grandma’s birthday is next month and she hopes to visit.
Nadya directs the Foundation of Mass Performances, a cultural charity catering for the Ukrainian diaspora living in Poland. The coffeeshop is crammed with branch-like bookshelves with Cyrillic spines of all sizes. Flyers for an upcoming pro-Ukraine rally that weekend and QR codes pepper the bar and a pin board in the corner.
Like others since the Russian invasion on 24th February, her organisation has been transformed into one of the many vital cogs underpinning the superhuman Polish humanitarian effort. Pooling resources with the Poland-Ukraine Institute and The Zustricz Foundation, they send food, clothes, medical supplies and military equipment to Lviv, Kyiv, Mariupol and other cities in need of supply across the border.
Nadya fears for Ukrainian culture. “[It is] most important that we bring in books from Ukraine”, she says, “especially [for] children”. Soon she may not be able to distribute her country’s literature because Russian bombardments are damaging publishing houses in and around Kyiv and Kharkiv.
“Today, there was a fire in one of these publishers”, she tells me.
“We have trucks full of summer dresses for women from Spain”
“All paper was destroyed”.
But right now, Nadya has a bigger problem. Large quantities of unhelpful albeit well-intentioned donations are arriving in her warehouses and clogging up important supply chains. At the border crossing near Medyka, fashionable flotsam lies strewn between aid tents serving hot food and advice. Dozens of volunteers spend days sifting through these bags to sort the useless from the useful. A red TK Max bag leaking leopard print gleamed from one of the piles.
“We have trucks full of summer dresses for women from Spain”, Nadya says, “now [Ukrainians] don’t need dresses, they need jeans, for example, they need something warm.”
Nadya asks that people stop and think before sending things. They should also make sure to pay taxes up-front on shipping from outside the EU so that organisations are not left scrambling to pay customs bills. Or they should send goods directly to Ukraine.
“They send such a lot of things […,] a truck arrived one day full of old car tyres, and I asked, ‘For what?’”
“We’ve got fifty boxes of limited edition popcorn covered in something lemony”
Nowa Huta Cultural Centre, Kraków, March 2022 Local volunteers shift donations from Switzerland to a lorry headed for Ukraine
As we talk, her phone rings. Another shipment on the other side of town. This one is from Switzerland.
A thirty-minute taxi ride later takes me outside the city. A pink “Give Peace A Chance” corporate billboard flashes past. I arrive at a large car park by a community culture centre. Two enormous lorries are parked, rear-ends squared off against the other, their contents sprawled onto the asphalt. A dozen yellow-vested volunteers clamber between half-open cardboard boxes stuffed with clothes, tinned food, hygiene products and medical supplies. I spotted stacks of paracetamol and bandages.
A man wearing a grey hoodie and sporting a faintly ginger beard appears in one of the cargo holds, giant gloved hands beckoning. His name was Robin. He was a German living in Kraków and had been helping humanitarian efforts here nearly every day since the start of the war.
“I got two days break when there were no trucks coming here”, he says, “the private people are doing a lot here…it’s not the government or anything.”
The lorry on the right had come from Zurich and the one on the left was going to Ukraine. Robin wasn’t sure where. I asked why they were unloading everything.
“We had to separate”, he says, pointing, “in this truck we have […] primarily food, warm clothes, hygiene [products]... We are separating to get the clothes that aren’t needed […] so the truck really only has the essentials [so] it can get quickly to the border.”
The process took seven hours to complete and one which Robin says is common. Extrapolate this picture nationally and you can begin to understand why volunteers and organisations are frustrated. The pile behind him was from Swiss citizens but Robin told a story of some donations they received just last week. Twenty-seven vans drove for forty hours all the way from Portugal to drop off miscellaneous food and clothes before returning home with dozens of Ukrainian refugees for resettlement.
He walks me behind the lorry on the left to a regiment of pristine white boxes stood, rank and file, in neat stacks of six.
“Obviously from Switzerland”, he says, smiling. “We’ve got fifty boxes of limited edition popcorn covered in something lemony”.
He isn’t sure they will be able to go to Ukraine. I ask him if, like the summer clothes and shoes being filtered out front, this is another example of misdirected generosity.
Robin shrugged. “I think it will be good”, he says mischievously, “five hundred calories per box—not bad.”
“Every time I get scared when I see my friend driving to Kyiv”
Kraków, March 2022 Bulletproof vests recently transported from Prague and ready for the border crossing into Ukraine
To be clear, Polish humanitarian efforts are in need of further western aid. The problem lies in the kind of aid being sent and where it is being sent from. As the conflict continues to rage across the border, local stocks are running dry.
“Poland is empty”, says Andrij Cracovia, a 32-year-old Ukrainian living in Kraków. “There’s nothing left to buy in Poland, to send over, because all the equipment that’s most needed at the moment is already gone.”
Andrij moved to Poland when he was sixteen but most of his friends live in Ukraine and he runs a business out of Lviv. Since the Russian invasion, he has managed a network of contacts across Eastern Europe and Ukraine to coordinate supplies. He shows me pictures of bulletproof vests from Prague and thermal vision goggles from Warsaw which he recently delivered to the border. From there, friends load the goods into vans and drive them to a cooperatively rented warehouse before they are distributed to cities across Ukraine. They keep tabs on each other using location services.
“Every time I get scared when I see my friend driving to Kyiv,” he says, suddenly tired, “but the moment I found myself in that supply chain…it got much easier psychologically.”
Poland is already home to nearly 2.5 million Ukrainians. Kraków, a city of less than a million and the biggest city closest to the border, has absorbed over 100,000 refugees in less than three weeks. The mayor, Jacek Majchrowski, has warned “Kraków is slowly losing the opportunity to accommodate new waves of refugees.” In terms of a sustainable, long-term response to the influx, a spokesperson for the city said it depended on how the situation developed and on the central, rather than local government.
With the shelling next door showing no signs of stalling and with more Ukrainians fleeing their homes as new parts of the country face the fury of indiscriminate Russian artillery, the pressure of logistical bottlenecks across Poland and, in particular, its unpaid yet passionate network of volunteers, will continue to intensify.
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