The full report of Mediterranea Saving Humans’ second mission to Lviv with the testimonies of people coming from war zones
Two weeks after the #SafePassage 1 mission, we decided to go back to Lviv, on the territory of Ukraine at war. We did so with the mission #SafePassage2 , which participated with a delegation of 6 vans and 25 activists from Milan, Brescia, Mogliano Veneto, Cesena, Naples and Sesto Fiorentino in the “Stop the war now” caravan, born from the initiative of several Italian pacifist associations, both Catholic and lay.
A total of over 70 vehicles loaded with around 35 tonnes of humanitarian aid met at dawn on 1 April in Gorizia, a border town that still bears the mark of the violence of war and of the borders that split the world between the hammer and the anvil of superpowers fighting each other, devastating bodies and lands.
After spending the night in Medyka, on the Polish-Ukrainian border, the caravan set off again in the direction of Lviv. Along the 30 kilometres separating the border crossing from the city, the increase in fortifications and checkpoints reflects a state of alert that has grown in recent weeks, as well as inside Lviv itself, where Ukrainian mourning flags have appeared at every doorway. In the days leading up to the mission, the war has arrived here too, not only through the more than 250,000 refugees who have arrived from the east of the country, but also through direct bombardments that have hit some strategic targets on the outskirts of the city. It is now clear to everyone that there are no “safe havens” and will not exist until the end of the Russian aggression.
Since the early hours of April 2, we have met with various local organisations to deliver medicines, medical and sanitary supplies, non perishable food, warm blankets and other humanitarian aid. In particular, our collaboration with the secular and religious civil society of Lviv is being strengthened with every mission, with the intention of improving the effectiveness and usefulness of everyone’s efforts. The first load was delivered to the Salesian Fathers of the Don Bosco Centre, who run one of the main reception centres for refugees and who are actively involved in the “relay” transmission of aid which arrives in Lviv to Kiev and the other areas most affected by the brutality of the war. They tell us of the urgency of not leaving alone the inhabitants and organisations still active in eastern Ukraine, who are in great need of support and have great difficulty in receiving it.
The second load went to the Cultural Centre/Volunteer Hub, one of the five largest centres for the collection of people and the distribution of basic goods. Like the first time, we were impressed by the number and the level of coordination of the many women and men who work tirelessly, engaged in loading and unloading, cooking and serving, pharmacy and medical assistance, distribution of clothes and blankets, legal assistance and orientation. They are all civilian volunteers, the director we interviewed proudly tells us. Together with a volunteer, he expresses the fear of abandonment: the aid arriving is gradually decreasing,’ he says, ‘but the need remains. The fear is that the war will become something so normal for Europeans that it will no longer make the news, beyond the sensationalist logic of the emergency to which our media are all too used. “We are alive here,” says a volunteer, “we continue to stay alive, that’s why it’s important that you don’t leave us alone, that’s why the presence in Ukraine of people from all over Europe and the world is so important”. Before saying goodbye, they insisted on offering us a hot tea to exchange a few more words and give us the updated list of the items the need: it is very important to have this list in a timely manner, because it is possible for the supply needs to change from one week to the next.
Afterwards, we regrouped at the Lviv Central Station, a hub for thousands and thousands of people arriving and trying to leave by the available trains and buses. At that very moment, convoys from Mariupol were entering the station, causing a stir among the volunteers of the first reception team: “People are arriving who are increasingly traumatised and in an increasingly precarious state of health”, explained a Red Cross volunteer we had already met during the first mission, “it is clear that the more time they are forced to spend in the bunkers, the more they develop kidney, lung and heart diseases. Humidity, cold and stress are often unbearable. Just a few metres away are the tents of World Kitchen, an NGO involved in emergency cooking, which churns out hot soup non-stop for the many people in the queue. Many refugees arrive here without any money, a condition that prevents them from even buying food, let alone a ticket to cross the border. #SafePassage also means a chance to escape the war regardless of your means.
On the second floor of the station, where there is normally an area dedicated to families with children, since February 24 the rooms have been dedicated only to refugees arriving by train. The volunteers offer a shelter, a safe space with specific medical and psychological support, a service created in collaboration with the Lviv regional government and coordinated by Halyna Bordun, head of the medical and psychological service for the Lviv administration. The management by public and credited medical institutions is organised in cooperation with the regional Psycho-neurological Hospital. These elements and support are not at all taken for granted in such a context. The support of the 120 volunteers, who take turns every day, also includes guiding people, giving them correct information on what to do and where to go once they leave the country. We know that for many people, running away also means exposing themselves to the risk of having to suffer various forms of gender-based violence, culminating in the abomination of disappearance and human trafficking, especially for sexual exploitation.
From the station, we marched for peace: with hundreds of people who had arrived with the #StopTheWarNow caravan, we walked to Lviv City Hall with white banners and messages of solidarity with the people affected by the conflict.
The ##StopTheWarNow peace caravan was the new tangible sign of a possible intervention of “interposition from below”: to stand for peace does not mean to stand by and watch, or worse to show “equidistance” between aggressors and aggressed, but to take our own bodies where they are needed; it means sending medicines and food, not weapons; helping people fleeing from war; promoting humanitarian corridors, financing and organising a dignified reception for refugees from all wars, not to commit resources to a mad race for rearmament.
Reinforcing the humanitarian corridor from below which we opened with the #SafePassage 1 mission, was the last and most important goal of Mediterranea Saving Humans’ second expedition to Ukraine.
Through the cooperation with the associations in Lviv and the other organisations of the Caravan we brought more than 300 people to Italy, 20 on Mediterranea’s vans.
In particular, three of the refugees came into contact with us thanks to the relationship established with some Ukrainian LGBTQIA+ associations, who explained to us the multiple forms of vulnerability and violence to which people from this community are exposed. We think of T women, who are considered ‘men’ who can be recruited at the border and who do not only risk ending up at the front, but also to be at the mercy of sexist violence in the barracks. They report cases of people being physically harassed by border controls, by soldiers who wanted to ‘verify’ their gender by hand, ignoring legal documents certifying their transition. They explain that many of them do not even try to run away , such is their fear of being identified when they leave their homes. More generally, LGBTQIA+ people are very familiar with the stratification of forms of violence on their bodies, to which war and a journey through militarised and bombed-out territories expose them even more than before.
We were very impressed by the very first testimonies of our new travelling companions, many in a delicate state of health. A. and O., who arrived in Lviv from Mariupol a few hours before leaving, have lost everything, and a phone call informed them that there was nothing left of their home. They are wearing very heavy jackets, but despite the heating in the van they cannot get the cold out of their bones after 18 days in an icy bunker. One woman suffers from heart disease, she is very nervous, afraid of not being able to travel, she knows she cannot stop. Only the presence of the doctor in our crew reassures her. K. arrives from Hostomel’, during the journey she feels like talking, she shows us the videos she recorded with her phone: her sister’s house reduced to rubble, the tins of food abandoned by Russian soldiers who used her flat as a base, the bodies burnt on the ground. With impressive coldness and lucidityshe tells us: the world needs to see what it means to live in a war. An unaccompanied minor has been temporarily entrusted to one of our volunteers by his parents, in the hope of giving him a chance at a dignified life. Arriving alone in Lviv, he is relieved to meet us and make friends with other young people in the caravan.
Among the people brought across the border is Volodymir, an Italian volunteer of Mediterranea of Ukrainian origin and with double nationality. Volodymir has been living in Italy for over 30 years, where he has a wife and two minor children in his care. A few days before the beginning of the war, he went to Ukraine to bury his father, who had just died. After the funeral, his double passport obliged him to stay in the country, as he was considered Ukrainian by the country’s government, which does not recognise dual citizenship and, therefore, he could potentially be enlisted as a 56-year-old male. Volodimir also risked arrest for trying to assert his right to leave the country and his desire not to take up arms: he risked being considered a deserter for all intents and purposes. The caravan of Mediterranea Saving Humans was blocked for 24 hours at the border – between Sunday 3 and Monday 4 April – trapped in an institutional stalemate that was only resolved thanks to the tenacity of our volunteers and the effective work of the Italian and Ukrainian diplomats, who allowed Volodymir to cross into Polish territory with us in the early afternoon of April 4. We are and will always be on the side of those who reject war, whether they are Italian, Ukrainian, Russian or from any nation.
Many of the people we offered a lift to had relatives ready to take them in, others did not. As Mediterranea Saving Humans we have found a worthy solution for all, relying on the solidarity networks from below that in several Italian cities are activating to guarantee accommodation, but also help with bureaucracy, psychological support, linguistic mediation and sociality, in the face of the disarming lack of institutional intervention.
#Safepassage 2 was a further step in the construction of a continuous intervention, along and beyond the borders of the European Union, in war territory. Mediterranea has already started planning the next mission.
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