person being rescued by stretcher in war torn Ukraine

BESIEGED PODCAST: “The sound of bombs, BOOM, BOOM, BOOM, was nonstop.” Ukrainian aid workers describe life on the frontline

Loughborough University graduate Madeline MacKenzie is in Ukraine working for a humanitarian aid agency, STAY SAFE UA – set up by five friends who refused to stand by and watch people suffer. Earlier this year, Madeline, Andriy, Taras, Yuriy, David and Libby (the rescue dog) visited Loughborough’s London campus to talk to Peter Warzynski – host of the University’s Besieged podcast – to give firsthand accounts of the war which ravages their home.

The besieged podcast

Part of the Besieged podcast series (scroll to the end to watch)

IN A WAR that has seen missile attacks on hospitals and tanks rolling through shattered cities, the destruction of the Kakhovka dam stands out as being one of the most devastating events to impact the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In June, more than 17,000 people had to be rescued when the 100ft-tall, two-mile-long dam was destroyed, flooding 230sq miles of the country’s Kherson region.

Villages became islands overnight. Farms were destroyed. Infrastructure no longer existed.

At the heart of the relief effort was STAY SAFE UA, small collection of Ukrainian aid workers who came together when the war started – guided by a collective instinct to help those in need.

Volunteers Taras Rokoshevskiy, Andriy Depko and Yuriy Kachmar lead the initiative despite not having any experience of humanitarian aid work before the war.

However, for the past 18 months they have co-ordinated countless essential rescue and relief missions on the frontline, often with enemy Russian forces occupying the same streets and towns where they operate.

After buying boats and equipment, the STAY SAFE UA team arrived in Kherson the day after an 832sq mi reservoir, containing 4.4 cu mi of water – an enormous amount, almost 2.5 times the volume of Loch Ness – flooded the region.

It is believed the dam was destroyed by Putin’s forces to halt a planned counter-offensive by Ukrainian forced – something that the Russians deny.

Flooding caused by the destruction of part of the Kakhovka dam

Flooding caused by the destruction of part of the Kakhovka dam – June 2023. Credit Stay Safe UA

“Everywhere was flooded,” said Andriy. “In some places only the tops of the roofs you could see.

“You didn't know where you were going with the boats, you couldn't see what's underneath you and it's very dangerous because you could destroy the boat, so we were using Google Maps (to identify the roads and navigate around obstacles).”

None of the team had piloted a boat before the operation, but now they were navigating their way past floating cars and fridges to rescue people and farm animals.

“If you recall the scenes from the movies when the disaster comes,” said Andriy. “This is like the movies. It's not real, it's like what you see as a kid watching TV.”

But, working with the military, firefighters and paramedics, the team managed to deliver supplies, such as food, water and fuel, to people stranded in Kherson city and on more than a dozen newly created islands.

Now, the water is gone. However, the clean-up and the restoration of essential utilities, such as water and electricity, will take years – but Andriy and the team are already committed to helping anyway they can.

Andriy, who ran a successful car sales company before the war, said organisations like his were sometimes more effective than larger humanitarian aid agencies.

He said: “Because our team is very small, but very efficient, we don't have this bureaucracy that huge organisations have.

“The decision (to help) went like this – quick chat and decision made.

“No papers to sign no stamps to nothing. We are just on the move and we go to help.”

The team’s reliability earned them a reputation of competence and during a military-led evacuation of Bakhmut – an important strategic city still under siege – earlier this year, they were given a disused nursery in Kostyantanyvka, in Donetsk, which they transformed into a shelter for up to 150 refugees.

The temporary shelter offers beds and three warm meals a day, as well as an electric charging station, powered by a generator, and internet access for connecting family.

There is also a clinic that can treat basic health issues or refer patients to more sophisticated medical facilities. And every week, the team distributes 550 emergency supply boxes to civilians living on the frontlines.

Aid worker hands parcel to Ukrainian woman

Andriy (Stay Safe UA) delivers supplies to people in Kup’yans’k city, in the Kharkiv region. Credit: Stay Safe UA

It is one of a number of initiatives launched by STAY SAFE UA that aims to support people affected by the war. They include a mobile health unit, a social pharmacy for delivering prescriptions and a mobile bakery – which is currently under construction.

Madeline, 24, who graduated in 2021 with a degree in Product Design, said: “One of the things that gets requested the most when the guys go and deliver humanitarian aid is fresh bread.

“We (deliver) a lot of dried goods, but when people don't have power, they can't bake bread. And because of the smoke that goes up through the chimney, the drones, the Russian drones... they're scared that they'll fine them.”

The team is equipping a container (pictured below) with a kitchen, including an oven, so that staff can bake and distribute bread to local people and refugees.

A steel container

The container which the STAY SAFE UA team will turn into a mobile bakery. Credit: Stay Safe UA

However, while work to restore basic services to Kharkiv – the region in which the agency is based – forge ahead, the team is still performing a vital role evacuating displaced and injured Ukrainians.

One of the most challenging operations they faced was in Kup'yans'k, a city about 100 miles north of Donestk, in the Kharkiv region, where they worked for a week, day and night, helping enormous numbers of people flee the war-torn streets and neighbourhoods.

In total, 4,000 people from Russian occupied areas of the city were evacuated over a temporary pontoon bridge crossing the Oskil river.

“We didn't stop for anything - not for food - there wasn't time because when we entered the city it wasn't liberated fully and all the evacuations were going on under heavy shelling,” said Andriy.

“Bombs were going around everywhere, the sound of bombs, ‘BOOM, BOOM, BOOM’, was nonstop.”

Among the casualties were a lot of elderly and disabled people, a lot of whom who relied solely on volunteers like Andriy, Taras and Yuriy to carry them to waiting ambulances which would triage them and take them to hospital if needed.

Team member Yuriy would drive the more able-bodied refugees to their own shelter in Kostyantanyvka. This continued, non-stop, for a week.

There are also plans to train firefighters and volunteers to use rescue dogs to locate victims trapped in collapsed buildings.

This is where Libby (pictured below) comes in – a search and rescue dog trained in the US, who works for FEMA.

Libby the rescue dog stands in rubble in Ukraine

Her handler, David Tagliani – another American – said the idea is to set up ‘pods’ throughout Ukraine which can respond to emergencies such as collapsed buildings, when needed.

But Libby is more than lifesaver. She also takes on a secondary job, said David.

“One role that dogs play - nothing to do with the work environment - is that she can be a support animal.

“I have photos of refugees, kids, old people just petting her, having the opportunity to forget the trauma they've been through.

"But she also does searches.

“When we were in Kuplinsk she was doing a search there. The idea thought, the programme that I pitched to the Government, is to train Ukrainian dogs and firefighters to do the same kind of urban search and rescue.”

In May, the team from STAY SAFE UA visited London to take part in Besieged: A podcast about Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, hosted by Peter Warzynski.

During the hour-long chat, held at the University’s campus at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, the team described the challenges they face day-to-day.

The guests talked about all the projects they have going on, and were keen to thank people in the UK, who have supported them with donations and financial contributions.

Andriy said: “In Ukraine, everyone knows and feels that the UK is helping us. This support is amazing and without you (UK) we could not be where we are.”

Madeline, who was born in Oakland, California and moved to the UK when she was 9, has been working in the humanitarian aid sector since she was 17, in countries such as Syria, Greece and Sierra Leone.

“I had seen firsthand the deeply negative impact that groups like Wagner – a private hire army from Russia – were having on communities across the world,” she said. “Particularly rural, poorer communities and how incorrect much of the Western reporting was on the situation.

“When I saw the invasion of Ukraine, I recognised that they were trying to do something similar there and wanted to find a way to help.”

girl stands in warehouse

When the project in Sierra Leone ended, Madeline (pictured above) got in contact with the STAY SAFE UA team via David, who she had worked with before.

“The rest is history,” she said.

Madeline manages the program development and pitches operational planning and project management.

This involves everything from dealing with customs paperwork to delivering a 40kW generator to an orphanage.

She said: “I love how varied my job is and have learnt things I would never have imagined I would need to learn.

“Everyday life in Lviv can be very ‘normal’. People try as best they can to live a regular life, you have to in these situations.

“However, there is a constant undercurrent of pain and a reminder of the war. There are soldiers walking around in uniforms, more and more amputees, the occasional missile attack on Lviv, and, at night, military equipment being transported from Poland to Eastern Ukraine.

“When you live with this every day it becomes your new reality.

“It stands out for me when I go back to the UK or speak to friends and family, where life is so different.

“Here, life is so busy and you're surrounded by it all the time, you don't have time to think about the reality of war or the huge suffering of millions of people.”

* Advice and support for staff and students impacted by the war in Ukraine, or any other conflict, can be found here

* The University does not support unauthorised travel to Ukraine. Anybody considering visiting Ukraine for any reason should first consult the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website for travel advice.

Notes for editors

Press release reference number: 23/193

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