It’s the middle of the night in Kharkiv and Irish aid worker Tom Fitzgerald is trying to get to sleep as he hears bombs going off all around him.
ike millions of others in Ukraine, the Kerryman spends many hours in bunkers when he is staying near one of the war’s flashpoint areas.
“It’s surreal being in a bunker at night and you can feel and hear the explosions,” he says. “You are just saying to yourself: ‘God I hope that doesn’t hit a house or an apartment building’.”
In the middle of this warzone, he tries to relax by listening to a playlist of his favourite U2 songs.
Fitzgerald is one of a number of Irish people from aid agencies who have arrived in the country since the escalation of the conflict six months ago on February 24.
While he watched thousands of refugees streaming out of Ukraine across the Polish border in March, Fitzgerald and his colleagues were travelling the other way towards possible danger.
In Ukraine, they don’t call February 24 the start of the war, because the conflict with Russia has been going on for eight years, since the occupation of Crimea.
Fitzgerald has a crucial job as logistics co-ordinator for the aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. MSF sends in medical teams who are experts at working in warzones and other humanitarian crises.
This type of work has taken Fitzgerald to Syria and Bangladesh. His role in Ukraine is to support the medical teams on the ground. He organises the nuts-and-bolts side of the operation: fixing up transport, communications and accommodation, and he makes sure there are adequate medical supplies.
He says he has been interested in organising supply chains since he worked in his family’s hardware shop in Dingle.
For 10 years he worked for Hewlett Packard, in Leixlip, Co Kildare. He has worked intermittently for MSF since 2017 and during the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic he was in Syria.
When the current phase of the Russia-Ukraine war started in February, he sent off an email to the organisation: “If you need any help give us a shout.”
“Four days later I was in Poland and driving towards the Ukrainian border. I told my mother I was heading to Poland,” he says.
“As we were crossing the border we could see the massive flow of people walking across [from Ukraine] — mostly women and children.”
Fitzgerald travelled in a small convoy to Lviv, where his priority was to find warehousing to store medical supplies. MSF’s main role is to support Ukrainian doctors, who are playing the lead role in treating patients.
As well as war casualties, doctors treat patients who may have fled their homes or are left behind in areas of heavy fighting with little medical support.
MSF is also running a medical train to take patients in serious but stable conditions to safety, as well as providing intensive care. The trains take patients from overburdened hospitals close to active warzones to hospitals with more capacity.
Fitzgerald has travelled extensively in the country and is now based in Kyiv.
In one of the projects in Kharkiv, he and the MSF team helped residents who took refuge in the underground metro system.
They were living there for weeks on end as the city came under sustained bombardment.
“These were people who were displaced from their homes,” he says.
“They had to leave their homes in a hurry, but we supplied them with mattresses, blankets and hygiene products.
“In Kharkiv at night the shelling is constant, and you also hear it during the day — sometimes off in the distance, and sometimes closer.”
Fitzgerald sometimes sees the terrifying after-effects when an apartment block is hit and the front walls are blown away so that you can look right into the living room.
“A lot of time MSF might be giving people basic medical treatment or medication that people might have been missing because there might not have been a doctor in the area,” he says.
“There have been a lot of mental health issues also. Some people had been stuck in their homes for months and were only just getting out.”
He was involved in giving people basic supplies including washing powder, toothbrushes, razors and hygiene kits. After six months of the conflict, there is a sense of weariness about the war and people are tired.
“I am full of admiration for all our people, because it’s been tough for them,” he says.
There is a sense of unreality about the war at time, he says. “I remember one day driving along on a lovely sunny day and there was the smell of cut grass at the side of the road.
“People are trying to get on with their lives but then the alarms go off. Things have reopened in Kyiv, but there are no traffic jams and it is not as busy as it was.
“You try to keep people’s spirits up and reassure people that it will be OK. But the war is always there in the background for people. It makes you value the days spent walking around Dingle or heading out of the harbour on a boat.”
The war has been an untypical challenge for Ross O’Sullivan and his fellow aid workers in the humanitarian organisation Concern.
Normally, Concern works in areas ravaged by war, famine or natural disasters in Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
O’Sullivan, the charity’s emergency response co-ordinator, says: “Many of my colleagues had never worked in Europe before, but I always had a strong feeling that it was only a matter of time before we would be working closer to home.”
Concern, which is Ireland’s largest aid agency, had no presence in Ukraine before. Very soon after the Russian invasion, O’Sullivan travelled to the region to assess where help would be needed and Concern formed an alliance with other European aid organisations.
“At first, we looked at how we could help fill the gaps in friendly countries bordering Ukraine, but I always had a strong feeling that we would have to go into the country,” he says.
In the middle of March, O’Sullivan and his team crossed the border and travelled to Lviv in western Ukraine.
“It’s a very beautiful city, an ancient centre of learning, and it was fully functioning at the time while war was raging in the east,” he says.
Concern then focused on two regions in the west of the country that needed support: Ternopil and Khmelnytskyi.
Displaced people, often with suitcases on wheels, were streaming into the region. They came from areas such as Kyiv, Donbas and other hot zones.
“There were millions of internally displaced people on the move in Ukraine,” O’Sullivan says.
“When people were getting on evacuation trains, sometimes they had no idea where the train was going until they were on it. They were discharged in Ternopil and Khmelnytskyi and the authorities had to address their problem.”
Throughout these regions, the thousands of displaced people were put up in community centres, sports halls, schools and colleges. This is where Concern stepped in.
“We were providing food and non-food support,” O’Sullivan says. “We were providing bedding and mattresses for these centres and in some cases we were providing washing machines. In some of these places there were 50 families, but they were not designed to house anybody. So there were problems with toilets, showers and washing clothes.”
Initially, they imported food and other supplies because they weren’t sure of the internal markets. “We sourced support from Holland and goods were put on a truck and driven straight there,” he says. “We then realised that we wouldn’t have to bring in food, because it could be sourced locally — and we wanted to help the local economy.”
O’Sullivan says one of the big challenges in Ukraine is the uncertainty around the conflict: “You are never quite sure if it’s going to come your way and whether it’s going to escalate.” There has been bombing in all of the areas where Concern is working.
“There are very sophisticated early warning systems, and we have apps on our phones. When the sirens go off, they go off on our phones,” he says.
The app tracks a user’s location and indicates that missiles are coming their way.
“When you get the early warning, you go to the bunker. One of the legacies of the Soviet system and the Cold War is that every apartment block, school and other public buildings has a bunker.”
Local people have varied in their responses to the warnings at different times. At times they ignore them when things are quiet, but then there may be a spate of bombings and they go to the bunker.
“We would take it very seriously, because it is important that we do not become complacent at any point, because we are in a country that is at war with a neighbouring country,” he says.
“We are a risk-averse organisation. If you can understand risk, you can manage it.”
Strategies to avert the danger may include curfews, avoiding certain areas and not using accommodation close to known military targets.
O’Sullivan, who lives in Leitrim and is married with two children, has travelled through Ukraine during different phases of the conflict, but now co-ordinates the response from Ireland.
In early June, he travelled east to the Zaporizhzhya region, which is on the frontline and close to the Donbas area. He travels by rental car with local guides.
Since June, Concern has switched its focus to the central area of the country, close to Dnipro river, because many displaced people are travelling there.
“They are much older people — grandfathers and grandmothers who did not want to leave their homes, but were forced out,” he says. “By and large they are poor and many of them have never travelled outside their region, let alone their country.
“I met a 97-year-old lady in a military tunic from the Second World War. She was Ukrainian, but she had fought for Russia against the Germans, and she had the military decorations on her blouse.”
The woman told O’Sullivan that she wished she was young enough to fight for Ukraine.
At the start of this phase of the war, many felt it would be over in days or weeks, but he says he has always believed it would drag on for much longer.
“We felt initially that it would run through this year, and we are certainly now making plans for another year on top of that.”
‘Sometimes it feels a bit surreal… I forget I escaped’
Racheal Diyaolu, a medical student from Carlow, has had to readjust to life in Ireland after her dramatic escape from Ukraine in March.
The 19-year-old had not even finished her first semester as a medical student at Sumy University in February when Russia invaded Ukraine. She was in the northeastern city when it came under heavy bombardment by the Russians, and thousands followed her plight on social media.
She told Review that the bombing could happen at any time of the day.
“We couldn’t sleep because we were mostly on edge,” she said.
After over a fortnight trapped in the city, she was rescued along with two Nigerian friends by two Scottish gardeners, who drove them out of the city. An initial rescue attempt by the Scotsmen had to be abandoned after their truck was shot at by Russian troops.
But Joe McCarthy and Gary Taylor eventually succeeded in picking up Racheal and her friends and driving the students to the border of Romania.
“Sometimes it feels a bit surreal and you forget that it happened, because life just goes on. Sometimes I forget that I escaped and that I went on a long hard journey,” she says. “When I came back in March everyone was going about doing their business. My brother and sister were in school, and my parents were working.
“I tried to occupy my time. I got a job and I was exercising here and there to keep myself busy. I now work in the Tullow Gate bar and restaurant in Carlow.”
Diyaolu says she is now finding it hard to resume her studies as a medical student, and she is unsure if she will be accepted on a course.
“I don’t know what’s happening with my studies and I don’t know how it’s going to progress,” she says. “It’s a bit up in the air.”