Kingsbridge business owners Tim Jones (Start Point Finance) and Tony Doidge (A N D Plumbing) underwent the nerve-wracking experience of travelling to Ukraine in July to take supplies for those that continue to suffer the consequences of Russia’s invasion.
Their trip was part of Pickups 4 Peace’s campaign, which is a charity run by volunteers from the UK farming community, supplying convoys of four-by-four vehicles to Ukraine.
Tim and Tony are now in the process of fundraising for their next trip, and I had the privilege of interviewing them on their experience visiting the war-torn country.
Tim and Tony set off in high spirits on July 13th, but it wasn’t long before the realities of the situation in Ukraine had a sobering effect: “You drive through the channel tunnel with your mates, its all great, we met in Poland in this hotel…. and it suddenly went from being a bit of a laugh to really serious,” said Tim.
Crossing the border took two and a half hours. They were met with “streams of brand-new soldiers, hundreds of people coming in, hundreds of people going out”.
It was here they witnessed the supplies being taken in to Ukraine.
“One vehicle was full of shovels for the trenches.” said Tony. “That is when you start realising how bad it is. Its great taking all these clothes and stuff, but when you start seeing implements for them to dig a hole to stay in…”
They were taken in a police convoy into Lviv, a city just over the border of Ukraine.
“Even as you’re driving in there are soldiers everywhere. I’ve never been in a place where theres so many military personnel. Its a functioning city… like Plymouth with loads of soldiers.”
Lviv, which Tim compared to Vienna for its charm, is a city that has been forced to conceal its beauty: “There are sandbags over windows, all their churches, all the stained glass windows are boarded.”
A missile strike had devastated a block of flats that was close to a military target, just a week before they arrived.
“It killed something like 14 people… it was reported to the UN, who still don’t think there’s sufficient evidence of civilians being killed.”
People were still in the process of collecting their belongings from the building as Tony and Tim observed the damage.
“The building had an office block facing it which had peeled.” said Tim. “The rockets hit this building at 2 o’clock in the morning and it just peeled.”
Pictures had been hung up of the dead. One of them was a 32-year-old woman who was supposed to be getting married the following week.
The group were then taken to a graveyard, which had previously been a city park.
Their friend James Valentine from Coast Construction, who introduced the pair to Pickups 4 Peace, joined them on their journey. He had undertaken a trip three months prior.
“(He) couldn’t believe how many more graves there were.”
Tim added: “You go to a graveyard in the UK and its quiet, you know. But (in Ukraine) there’s people, there’s kids running round, there’s dogs. They have benches by the graves that are all mangled up with the picture of the person who’s in the grave, with flowers, Ukrainian flags, and they’re sat there, tending to them.”
“For the newer ones, there’s people in hysterics…. They are grieving, they are distraught by themselves.”
The graveyard they were visiting was only one out of many in the city, and the number of graves was astounding.
He added: “Its just too many.”
The Ukrainians were in the process of removing WW1 skeletons from the top of the field to make room for the deceased.
“They weren’t aware the skeletons were there until they were digging the ground and found mass graves from a previous war.”
Tony added: “You’re looking at pictures of people our age down to our children’s ages. There is no discrepancy.”
But what was really astounding to the pair was the jarring contrast of life and death, as people continue to persevere despite their suffering.
One moment they were seeing people with amputated legs and arms and talking to soldiers struggling with PTSD, and the next there was music, celebration, children splashing about in fountains.
“You walk around the corner, the church doors open…. and there’s a wedding, a young families wedding. It was beautiful.”
“In the background, in the square, you can hear music playing, which is their defiance against Putin, to say ‘you’re not stopping us. We’re enjoying themselves.”
“They are so determined. One of the soldiers said, ‘Putin is fighting for the past. We are fighting for the future’.”
Upon arrival to their hotel, the pair were given directions to their rooms.
“We went into this hotel, a really nice hotel,” said Tim. There were met by a “lovely receptionist who, in really good english, said ‘here are your keys down to the bottom floor. You turn right for the spa… you turn left for the bomb shelter.”
The fusion of archaic and modern-day warfare was also difficult to fathom.
Tony said: “This is a first world war, not a second world war. They are just fighting trench to trench to trench.... (And yet), they have apps that show where the missiles are coming. They rely on their phones before the sirens to anticipate them.
“They have body cameras showing film of them killing Russians. Its not just like you see on twitter, those horrific videos, its actually them doing it.”
Tim and Tony took Devon badges to hand out to people.
“Its a little bit of Devon, ” said Tim. “(And now) there are lots of Ukrainians wearing Devon badges.”
Tim and Tony want to join another convoy with Pickups 4 Peace, which has just delivered their 200th vehicle this month, but they need to raise money for a vehicle in order to do so.
“The challenge is you’ve got to raise enough money for a vehicle that is roadworthy enough to get there and then when its there be robust enough to work.”
The goal of their Just Giving page is £9,500, and they welcome any donation to their cause, whether its “five or five hundred pounds”. They also welcome any volunteers to join them on the journey. They cover all their own travel expenses.
“Until you go there, you just get fed what you see on the news, (which) is becoming yesterdays news… The need is still there and its not about to end. Its not weeks away from ending.”
Tony added: “They are hoping that the war will end next summer, so they’re already preparing for the winter. And when you’re talking of minus ten in trench warfare...”
“(But) they are just so up for it.” said Tim. “They are defiant. They believe they’re going to win. They 100% believe they’re going to win. (And) They’re so thankful. Waiters, waitresses, whatever. Its just ‘thank you’, ‘thank you very much.’
“We were at the breakfast table on the final day. This little girl, she’s eleven or twelve, came up to us and in perfect English said ‘I heard you’ve bought some aid over for our soldiers and I just want to thank you for the support you’re giving us’... and you just think its nothing.”
Tim and Tony hope their efforts will inspire local people to show their support for Ukraine, and remind them that our help is still needed.
“Its a little drop in the bucket, but if everybody puts a little drop in the bucket it just creates something to give.”
If you’d like to donate, visit: https://www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/tonyandtimtakinganambulancetoukraine?utm_term=92Gk6Bwma
You can also purchase a Pickups 4 Peace cap or T-shirt to help their cause, which are £20.