‘Air raid sirens go off in Ukraine and no one panicked’
A month ago, I received a message from the Ukrainian Miners Union in Pavlograd, Western Donbas . The head of the union was asking for help for his members, many of whom were now fighting on the front line against the Russian army. They needed pick up vehicles to transport ammunition, medical supplies, night vision scopes and other materials.
The message was simple… Can we help them? Within a week the National Union of Mineworkers based in Barnsley, had donated GBP20,000 to enable them to purchase a vehicle and the much needed night scopes for front line forces.
Within another week support from GMB, NUM and Aslef, the train drivers Union had donated funds to enable the purchase of another pick-up truck. On top of this we received donations of vital war trauma medical equipment worth many thousands of pounds. The challenge was how we would get the truck and equipment to them.
We arranged to drive the 1500 miles to Lviv where the Union and Battalion representatives would meet us and take them to Donbas. A fortnight later the vehicle was loaded up and Wayne Thomas, the Area Secretary of the NUM South Wales enthusiastically agreed to drive with me to Lviv. Two and a half days later we arrived in Ukraine.
It was a long hard drive; through the channel tunnel, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany and then Poland. The first day we made it as far as Leipzig, exhausted but halfway there. Read more: Ukrainian families who fled the war speak about their harrowing journeys to resettle in Wales
The following day after a further 750 miles we arrived at the Polish checkpoint, having driven past a four mile queue of freight lorries waiting to get through. Carrying humanitarian aid we drove straight to the front only to be told to go to the back of queue! After some remonstration and discussion and considerable Welsh and Ukrainian charm we persuaded the guard that we should go straight through.
Having manipulated our way through we arrived at the Ukrainian checkpoint. They were equally suspicious until they saw the letters from the Union and the Battalion Commander. Suddenly the atmosphere changed.
Nothing was too much trouble. Whilst the documentation was being sorted I chatted with some of the border officials, a conversation so typical with Ukrainians of my generation, those secret family histories that underpin Ukrainian determination not to be occupied by Russia again. I explained that my family in Ukraine had been deported to Siberia after the war; in response, one official explained how his family had the same experience, another that his grandmother was sent to a labour camp for 22 years; another how his father was sentenced to 25 years in the notorious Vorkuta gulag.
It is, to some extent, these histories and memories that now bind Ukraine into a nation determined to fight for its freedom and democracy. Many people are not aware that Ukraine lost eight million people during the second world war. In the 1930s, hundreds of thousands were deported to Siberia or summarily executed during Stalin’s terror whilst some four to five million were starved to death during the artificial famine and sadly history is repeating itself.
Ukrainians are aware that Putin is trying to erase that history along with the Ukrainian language and culture. Ignore the false propaganda about ethnic Russians and Nato, Ukrainians are fighting Russian imperialism.
Some of the items delivered (Image: Mick Antoniw)
We arrived in Lviv at 1pm after the 11pm curfew. Ukraine is under Marshall Law.
We passed through two road blocks. Speaking Ukrainian was definitely an advantage. After passport and vehicle checks we were allowed through.
Later that morning we handed over the vehicle and materials which have now arrived in Donbas. The battalion officer said they would display the signed Welsh flag we gave them on the front line. We promised to deliver more material.
The miners’ union official, OLEH, explained how his members were working to provide coal for electricity whilst others were now defending Ukraine. They had lost some comrades but would fight until complete victory. I have no doubt they will win but it will be at a terrible cost.
Pavlograd has been hit by rockets destroying schools and hospitals. They know what would happen if they were defeated; torture, rape, looting, liquidation, concentration camps, deportation. These brave Donbas miners and workers, fighting against Russian fascism are mainly first language Russian speakers but as they say, they are proud Ukrainians.
The one memory I cannot get out of my head is of the air raid warning sirens followed by public address safety instructions. Lviv has been hit by cruise missiles on a number of occasions yet the reaction of the population is just one of normality. No-one ran or changed direction; there was no panic.
One man just held up his arm with a V for Victory sign and everyone else carried on with what they were doing; but they all know it is very different in the east where Ukrainian forces have begun a counter offensive. They know Ukraine is the front line of a battle for democracy and freedom in Europe and that they are fighting a new Nazism. As long as they are given the heavy weapons they need they have the unity, determination and ability to defeat Putin.
I am so proud of the international solidarity of British trade unions with their fellow Ukrainian workers. Slava Ukraini! Glory to Ukraine and Glory to her heroes.
Ukraine will win.