Aid workers in Ukraine struggle to provide supplies despite lives lost to Russian bombing

On a cold day in March, four people left the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to deliver life-saving medicines, heating devices and food to defeated residents of Chernihiv in the north-east.

Only one survived.

During a short stop along the way, the convoy was hit by Russian bombing. Two of the four people died instantly. A third was struck by fragments and died half an hour later. The survivor was a man who had strayed from the vans to relieve himself.

Among the dead: 21-year-old Aanastasiia Tagirova, who had wanted to go to Chernihiv to be reunited with her boyfriend, and her cat.

The unfortunate trip, on March 30, was organized by 100% Life, a large non-profit group serving Ukrainians living with HIV. It was not the group’s first mission to Chernihiv, nor the last.

Undaunted, the organization’s staff and volunteers continued to make forays into Chernihiv, learning to be agile and discreet in the eyes of the Russians. So far, they have delivered enough medicine to treat the 1,800 people in Chernihiv known to live with HIV, even though an unknown number may have fled the city or been killed.

Public health groups like these are going to great lengths to help their compatriots and to preserve Ukraine’s hard-earned progress against HIV, tuberculosis and other scourges. While they have always been committed to saving lives, the goal has come to mean something completely different from invasion.

“Fighting and fighting for life is our principle,” said Dmytro Sherembei, who directs 100% Life, through a translator in a recent interview. “We must always be ready to fight for life under any circumstances and conditions.”

Experts have warned that wars almost always lead to public health crisis. Pathogens find easy targets among large clusters close together in basements and refugee camps, children who skip routine vaccinations, and patients who lose access to drugs.

Treatment interruptions for HIV and tuberculosis can generate drug-resistant versions of the pathogens. Ukraine and its neighbors already represent the global epicenter of drug-resistant tuberculosis.

On March 25, volunteers from 100% Life loaded two vans with half a ton of medicines, including liquid formulations of HIV treatments for children, clothing and food. The only bridge to Chernihiv had been destroyed by bombing, so they drove the vans to the banks of the Dnipro River, transferred the cargo to a boat and unloaded it on the other side. They returned with 34 people fleeing Chernihiv.

On their second trip, on March 30, the volunteers again loaded two minivans with food and medicine, and this time with heaters to freeze the residents. They were met by three vans from an Evangelical church hoping to evacuate some of their members from Chernihiv.

The bombing incinerated four of the vans and partially destroyed the fifth. Mr. Sherembei said that three people from the church group had been taken to the hospital, but he did not know their fate.

“The Russians were bombing us, they were bombing us, knowing full well that it was a humanitarian convoy,” he said.

The organization lost two volunteers: Bohdan Stefanyshyn, 40, and Oleksii Antonov, 28. Yurii Luniov, the 41-year-old volunteer who had strayed into the bushes, was spared.

Mr. Sherembei seemed particularly distressed as he talked about Mrs. Tagirova. No pleas from him or his friends and family had dissuaded her from joining the trip, he said.

Even after the tragedy, quitting missions was not an option, not when there were people, including many children, who needed medicine, he said. So the volunteers have thought of ways to make themselves less conspicuous and have made three trips so far.

Imagining that a van would attract less attention than a convoy and that the Russians are unlikely to use valuable missiles on a single target, they swapped the two small vans for a large dull-colored one. They no longer travel with the church group. They packed solar panels, candles for people who live outside from basements and food. The aid worker was only able to bring back about 10 people.

By the time of the March 30 trip, the Ukrainian army had fashioned a makeshift pontoon bridge across the river that the van could cross. Not having to unload and load cargo has reduced the time it takes to cross the river from four hours to just 10 minutes.

On the Chernihiv side, the five 100% Life workers who decided to stay in Chernihiv, as well as staff from an infectious disease unit in one of the few hospitals still standing, were ready to collect and distribute supplies.

Communication with these helpers presented its challenges. Many of them were holed up in basements except for short periods, and their cell phones were only operational for an unpredictable hour a day.

Once the plan was finalized, the news had to be spread among patients by word of mouth. (Over the past few days, re-established power plants have somewhat loosened these conditions, Mr. Sherembei said.)

While Chernihiv residents with HIV have enough treatment for now, medicines are in short supply. The US president’s AIDS emergency plan scoured the world to secure reserve stocks of HIV treatments for Ukraine. These drugs are delivered through Poland and Romania, according to Unaids.

But moving the drugs through war-torn parts of the country was more complicated. “We are only now starting to receive those deliveries that were sent a month ago to make up for that shortage,” said Sherembei.

Many 100% Life staff members consider themselves soldiers. The day after our interview, Mr. Sherembei left to fight on the front line. He said he didn’t feel he could make any other choice.

“The enemy is trying to create panic within the population,” he said. “Of course, there is always a risk that people will die, that our people will die during the delivery of goods. But we have to help somehow. “

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