Ukraine: Safe Passage #2

01 / Apr / 2022 04 / Apr / 2022

Mission Logbook

Two weeks after the Safe Passage 1 mission, we decided to return to Lviv, on the territory of Ukraine at war. We did so with the Safe Passage 2 mission, which took part 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, Catholic and lay Organisations.
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 the borders that split the world between the hammer and 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 reflect a state of alert that has grown in recent weeks, as well as inside Lviv itself, where even Ukrainian mourning flags have appeared at every door. In the days leading up to the mission, the war has also arrived here, 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 in the urban periphery. By now it is clear to everyone that there are no ‘Places of Safety' and will not exist until the end of Russian aggression.

Since the early hours of 2 April, we have been meeting with various local organisations to deliver medicines, medical and sanitary supplies, long-life foodstuffs, warm blankets and other humanitarian aid. In particular, collaboration with the secular and religious civil society of Lviv is being strengthened mission after mission, with the intention of improving the effectiveness and usefulness of everyone's efforts from time to time. A first load was delivered to the Salesian Fathers of the Don Bosco Centre, who run one of the main reception centres for refugees and 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 report on the urgency of not leaving alone the inhabitants and organisations still active in eastern Ukraine, who are in great need of support and great difficulty in receiving it.

The second load went to the Cultural Centre/Volunteer Hub, one of the five largest hubs for collecting people and distributing basic goods. Like the first time, we were impressed by the number and organisation 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 incoming aid is gradually decreasing,' he says, 'but the need remains. The fear is that the war will become, for Europeans, something so normal that it no longer makes the news, beyond the sensationalist logic of the emergency to which our media are all too used. "We are alive here," says one volunteer, "we continue to stay alive, that is why it is important that you do not leave us alone, that is why the presence in Ukraine of people from all over Europe and the world is so important". Before saying goodbye, they insist on offering us hot tea so we can exchange a few more words and hand over the updated list of aid they are looking for: it is very important to collect it on time, because it is possible that from one week to the next the supply situation changes rapidly.

Afterwards, we met up at the Lviv Central Station, the junction point for thousands and thousands of people arriving and trying to leave with the available trains and buses. At that very moment, convoys from Mariupol were entering the station, causing a stir among the first reception volunteers: '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 ailments. Humidity, cold and stress are often unbearable'. A few metres away, we encounter the tents of World Kitchen, an NGO engaged in emergency cooking. They non-stop churn out plates of hot soup for the many people in the queue. Many refugees arrive here without money, a condition that prevents them from even simply buying food, let alone a ticket to cross the border. Safe Passage also means a chance to escape war regardless of your wallet.

On the second floor of the station, where there is normally an area dedicated to families with children, since 24 February rooms have been dedicated only to female refugees arriving by train. The volunteers offer a shelter, a safe space with specific medical and psychological support, a service created in cooperation with the regional government of and coordinated by Halyna Bordun, head of the medical and psychological service of the Lviv administration. Management by public and private medical institutions is organised in cooperation with the regional Psycho-neurological Hospital. Elements and support that cannot be 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 have left the country. We know that for many people fleeing 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, including and especially for sexual exploitation.

From the station, we marched for peace: with hundreds of people who had arrived with the Stop the war now caravan, we walked to the Lviv city hall with white drapes and messages of solidarity with the people affected by the conflict.

The Stop the war now peace caravan was the new tangible sign of a possible intervention of 'interposition from below': being for peace does not mean standing by, or worse, showing 'equidistance' between attackers and the attacked, but taking one's own bodies to where they are needed; it means sending medicine and food, not weapons; helping people fleeing war; promoting humanitarian corridors, financing and organising a dignified reception for refugees from all wars, not committing resources to a mad arms race.

Strengthening the solidarity-based, bottom-up humanitarian corridor, which we opened with the Safe Passage 1 mission, was the last and most important goal of Mediterranea Saving Humans' second expedition to Ukraine.

Through collaboration with the Lviv Organisations and the other organisations joining the mission, we brought over 300 people to Italy, 20 of them on Mediterranea's trucks.

In particular, three of the refugees came into contact with us thanks to the relationship established with some Ukrainian LGBTQAI+ Organisations, 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 not only risk ending up at the front, but also at the mercy of sexist violence in the barracks. They tell us of cases of people physically harassed at border controls, by soldiers who wanted to 'verify' their gender by hand, ignoring the legal documents attesting to their transition. They explain that many of them no longer even try to run away, such is their fear of being identified on leaving the house. More generally, LGBTQAI+ people are very familiar with the stratification of forms of violence on their bodies, to which war and a journey through militarised and bombed territories expose them even more than before.

We were very impressed by the very first testimonies of our new fellow travellers, many in a delicate state of health. A. and O., who had arrived in Lviv from Mariupol, lost everything a few hours before leaving; a phone call informed them that there was nothing left of their home. They are wearing very heavy jackets, but despite the heating of 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 agitated, she is afraid of not being able to travel, she knows she cannot stop. Only the presence of our crew doctor reassures her. K. arrives from Hostomel', during the journey she feels like talking, she shows us videos she recorded personally with her phone: her sister's house reduced to rubble, tins of food abandoned by Russian soldiers who used her flat as a base, bodies burnt on the ground. She tells with an impressive coldness and lucidity: 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 convoy.

Among those taken across the border is Volodymir, an Italian volunteer of Mediterranea, of Ukrainian origin and with a double passport. Volodymir has lived in Italy for more than 30 years, where he has a wife and two minor children under his care. A few days before the start of the war, he travelled to Ukraine to bury his father, who had just died. After the funeral, his dual 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 was potentially conscripted 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 stuck 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 set foot on Polish territory with us in the early afternoon of 4 April. We are and always will be on the side of those who reject war, be they Italians, Ukrainians, Russians or whatever nation they may be.

Many of the people we offered a lift to had relatives ready to take them in, others did not. As Mediterranea Saving Humans, we found a dignified solution for all, relying on the solidarity networks that, from below, in various Italian cities are activating to guarantee accommodation, but also help with bureaucracy, psychological assistance, linguistic mediation and socialising, in the face of the disarming shortcomings of institutional intervention.

The mission was a further step in building an ongoing 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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