Maria and Bohdan are volunteer drivers for a local student organization in Ukraine.
All photos: Roman Yeremenko/CARE

Ukraine: “It is terrifying when rockets fly your way”

By Sarah Easter, Emergency Communications Officer, CARE Germany and CARE Austria

“The most important thing is not to panic,” says Maria, a volunteer driver for a local student organization in Ukraine.

She studied history and now works as a project manager at a Non-governmental Organization (NGO) that is working in social entrepreneurship. Together, with 14 other drivers, the students deliver items—clean drinking water, medicine, hygiene products, and other essentials—from Poland to areas in Ukraine that are heavily hit by fighting.

“We plan so that we never have an empty car,” explains Bohdan, a law student in Lviv.

On their way to the areas with active fighting they bring much needed items, on their way back they evacuate families, pets, and transport important documents that people have left behind when they had to flee in a hurry.

As a woman, Maria is allowed to cross the border to Poland, where she collects humanitarian aid items and brings them to Lviv. There, Bohdan receives these items and brings them to people who are completely cut off from supplies.

A close up of Maria and Bohdan taken through the window in a silver car.

The war escalated six months ago, on February 24.  On February 27, the first drivers were already behind the wheel, driving to Kyiv to evacuate two families. They now drive to towns in Kharkiv, Kherson, Donetsk, Dnipropetrosvsk, Mykolaiv and Odesa—areas that are heavily affected and very dangerous.

“We learn from each trip. First, we didn’t even bring a spare tire. We didn’t have any experience with this, now we are better prepared,” explains Bohdan.

“We have very thorough and in-depth lists and plans now. We want to save as much time and be as precise as possible,” explains Maria.

All it takes is one wrong step and the drivers face life-threatening risks. The students had a car completely destroyed on a trip from Lviv to Kyiv. To avoid a detour, they took a more dangerous route and the drivers barely survived.

“An hour matters. I arrived in Mykolaiv at 8:00 a.m. and left half an hour later. At 9:30 a bomb went off at the exact same location I was at,” Bohdan remembers.

Their plans also include detailed instructions for the deliveries, telling drivers which box goes where and to whom and who to call at what time. That way people are ready, and the delivery goes as fast as possible.

In the 200 trips they have made in the last six months, the group has only had two incidents where a box did not arrive where it was supposed to. One fell off the car on the road, and another landed in the hands of the wrong person.

“All other boxes were given to the right person at the exact right time,” says Maria proudly. Their system works and saves lives.

A close up of Bohdan in the driver seat of a silver car.
Maria and Bohdan standing a few feet apart, smiling facing the camera.

But plans and lists aside, they still cannot eliminate the danger.

“We often panic after such a trip, when we look at a map and see how close we actually were to the danger,” Bohdan admits. The scariest moment for him was close to Kyiv. “A military plane was flying very low over us. Then a factory next to us exploded. It is terrifying when rockets fly your way.”

Even though it is very dangerous and terrifying, Bohdan never says no to a trip.

“I cannot stay away. I see people living in metro stations, I hear what the displaced tell us about the war. It is my responsibility to help and to get them out of there,” says Bohdan.

But there are also moments of hope that give Bohdan strength to continue.

“The people really appreciate our help. They are now waiting for us. Sometimes someone makes me a sandwich late at night when we arrive. I can see that what we are doing is important.”

In addition to families, the drivers also rescue pets. At one time Bohdan had 42 cats in his car. One of them had kittens on the road.

In the 25 weeks since the escalation of the war, Bohdan has made 27 trips to these areas, but he still feels that he isn’t doing enough.

“I want to do more, even if I work non-stop. If I go to a coffee shop to drink a cup of coffee, I feel guilty, because I could be on the road and save more people,” the student says, looking at the cup of coffee in front of him.

On each trip the students learn what the current needs are.

“Food is needed most. Ninety per cent of businesses in areas with active fighting are closed. They do not have any food. They are hungry. In Mykolaiv there is no more safe drinking water. First, we only had a few bottles of water with us, now we bring filters, and the car is always full of water,” describes Maria.

The volunteers have been working continuously for six months now, but they are looking ahead to winter.

“It will be a very difficult winter. People are burning out. Psychological support will be needed more and more,” says Maria.

The drivers are also facing their limit. But they never stop, not even when there is an air alarm. Stopping is too dangerous.

Maria and Bohdan will continue to help others as long as they can.

“We get a lot of support. We are all one community now,” Maria reflects.

How CARE supports people affected by the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine:

The student-led organization is being supported by CARE and our partner International Renaissance Fund (IRF) financially, with funds for fuel.

Six months after the escalation of war, CARE and our partners have reached more than 466,000 people affected by the crisis, across Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Georgia, and Germany. In Ukraine, our priority is to meet the immediate needs of affected families through the distribution of critical medicine, food, and water supplies, as well as hygiene kits, cash assistance and psychosocial support. We are also working closely together with our partners to particularly support vulnerable groups —women, children, elderly, and people with special needs —by distributing aid according to their needs and setting-up safe spaces.