© Mark Kitchell
Mark Kitchell currently accompanies the NGO LUKraine on a two-week humanitarian trip to Ukraine, sharing observations from his journey on RTL Today.
This is the final day of the mission I am on to help provide medical and evacuation services to newly liberated and near-front areas of Ukraine, primarily in the Donetsk Oblast. We have been based in Dnipro, with day trips to areas closer to the fighting.
I was expecting to be overwhelmed by the war; in fact, I am more impressed by the everyday bravery of Ukrainians, and yes, the way in which they continue to live life as 'normally' as possible. However, their definition of normality is quite different from ours in Luxembourg.
"War is normal for us,” says Oleksandra, a 20-something waitress at our hotel. Her English is quite good, but she is still a bit shy. “I came back from a vacation in Budapest, you know we also need time away from this madness. But I came home early, as I just could not relate to the people there. When a plane flies over, no one looks up and there are no air alarms. My life is no longer like that of you Europeans. We have been at war with Russia since 2014, but only since 2022 did I understand what the people of Donbas are experiencing.”
Oleksandra gets up, serves another customer, comes back, and sits down next to me: “You are an American man, right? Please explain that we deserve freedom too.” This comment is both endearing and chilling. My privilege is on display as never before.
Today is Thursday, August 17th. I last wrote on Sunday as we approached the Polish-Ukrainian border. Crossing the border was mostly uneventful but also brought back some memories for me. My family moved to Europe in 1977, and we traveled all over Europe. Crossing borders by car was part of the experience of traveling in Europe, something we all left behind with the EU. To see it again was a bit shocking.
Two hours later, we arrived in Lviv, for a quick sleep and a turnaround for another 1,000km day to our final destination: Dnipro, where LUkraine recently opened their first office outside of Luxembourg. This distance is long for any driver, but for a driver to the eastern part of Ukraine, it was exhausting. But at least the gas station hot dogs reminded me of home.
How did the Russians greet our arrival in Dnipro? By missile attacks, of course.
I had just gotten to sleep at 2am when Mark Hamill’s voice pierced the air: 'Attention, air raid alert, proceed to the nearest shelter. Don't be careless; your overconfidence is your weakness.' I opened the window (not advised!) and heard a rumble and then a loud bang as the anti-air rockets took off. Not wanting to displease Luke Skywalker, who was talking to me from my AirAlert app on my phone, I headed down to the parking lot/bomb shelter. I did not notice my emotions until I tried to speak to Nicholas Zharov, the President of LUkraine, as we met in the shelter. My mouth was moving, but words did not come out. Was it fear or exhaustion? Certainly a combination of both.
Twenty minutes later, Skywalker released us to a few more hours of sleep: 'The alert is over, may the force be with you.' We experienced the same alert both nights, but I slept through most of them. Today, I visited the place where one of the rockets landed, a sports facility in the southeast of town. The rocket penetrated the empty building, causing some damage. The Russians missed their usual targets, as the schools and playgrounds nearby seemed unaffected.
It did not take long to get used to these air alerts; there were probably 20 or more over the 3 days we spent around Dnipro, and only twice did I go to the shelter. In fact, last night I was the only person there. Either deep sleepers or they realized it was another false alarm. Yet what would such an alarm do over Paris, Berlin, or Luxembourg? It would put us into a panic, I am sure.
We spent the next 3 days conducting our LUkraine Humanitarian Mission. To be upfront, at this point I went from a driver, an active participant in the mission, to mostly an observer. On Tuesday, August 15th, we officially started the Ukraine part of the mission at LUkraine’s new offices in Dnipro (their first office outside of Luxembourg), where even I got to make a short, off-the-cuff speech. I spoke from my heart, like I have a few times since the full-scale invasion. I truly believe that Ukraine is fighting for my freedom as a European, and that, sadly, we in the West have become quite weak. I explained that I do wonder if we, the citizens and expats of Luxembourg, could ever stand up like the Ukrainians are. Honestly, I doubt it. But maybe I am too hard on us (Westerners) as it was only a generation or two ago we stood up to Nazism.
Later that day, we met with members of the city council of Dnipro and drove towards the front line to the town of Apostolove, which is about 30 km from the part of the Dnipro river where the other bank is controlled by Russia. This would be the closest I came to the invaders. Apostolove, like all communities in this area, has been adversely impacted by the Russian destruction of the Kakhovka Dam. LUkraine is working with our partner Sky of UA to dig wells in the region. At 25,000 euros for each well, this reminds us all why LUkraine fundraising is so important! Did I mention how hot it is in Ukraine? Today was 33 degrees Celsius!
© Mark Kitchell
A quick note about LUkraine. I first met this organization at a protest on February 26th, 2023. This was the first major protest in Luxembourg following the full-scale invasion. I made an early connection with their Secretary, Olena Klopota, who has gone on to become one of my closest friends in Luxembourg. She advised me on some protests I organized at Gazprom Luxembourg, and we worked together to find ways my employer, Amazon, could support Ukrainian refugees.
LUkraine was founded in 2014 following the Maiden protests in Kyiv. Its core mission is to raise awareness about Ukraine throughout Europe, provide humanitarian assistance in Ukraine, and support Ukrainians both in Luxembourg and in Ukraine. This particular mission is just one of many this organization has delivered. Others include the Mryia School in Luxembourg (to help Ukrainian children stay close to their culture and language), the previous delivery of 46 rescue vehicles within Ukraine is Calling project, and many tons of medical supplies and humanitarian aid.
If you want to support Ukrainians, join them on the Ukrainian Independence Day picnic in Luxembourg, which will take place this Saturday, August 26th, in Hesper Park (details at www.ukranians.lu).
I will finish this letter with some words from Nicholas Zharov, who has lived in Luxembourg since his youth: “Ukraine is all about people, I met people working for the victory who are amazing, who have the bright light in them that lights all the people around them. It was very important to see this with our my own eyes, so I can reproduce this in myself, and to share this with those around me. This light will help us to beat the Russian darkness.” Wise words from my friend Nick.