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How humanitarian aid makes its way from Germany to Ukraine

Donations exchanged hands in Vatra Dornei, Romania

Donations exchanged hands in Vatra Dornei, Romania

On a cold spring morning, a small truck passed the almost empty Ukrainian-Romanian border. During the day, hundreds of cars often wait in line on both sides. But on that morning just before eight a.m., there was hardly any traffic.

A Red Cross sign is visible behind the windshield, a Ukrainian flag and the words "Humanitarian Aid." Oksana, Serhij, Wassyl and Vitalij showed the Romanian border guards their passports as well as Ukrainian government documents identifying them as aid workers. They were quickly waved through.

Just a few hundred meters down the road in Romania, a man and his daughter were waiting for the truck. They live in a nearby town and met Oksana and Serhij a few weeks earlier during an aid transport. Now they always bring a few boxes of donations whenever the truck crosses the border again. That day, they had a bag of potatoes, oil, canned food, pasta and detergent. After a heartfelt thank you and a quick hug, the truck continued its journey.

Hub for aid shipments

Oksana Matijtschuk, Serhij Lukanjuk and their two companions, Wassyl Samaschko and Witalij Kindserskyj come from the Ukrainian city Czernowitz, 40 kilometers (24 miles) north of the Romanian border. This particular trip took them to the Romanian town of Vatra Dornei, a two-and-a-half-hour drive southwest of the border. They planned to meet up with group of young people from Dresden driving two minibuses with donations from Germany. Once the boxes were moved to the truck, the Ukrainians were scheduled to head back to Ukraine.

Chernivtsi, the former capital of the historic Bukovina region, is an economic hub in southwestern Ukraine with a population of 250,000. It has not been attacked or shelled, which is why tens of thousands of people have fled there from other parts of Ukraine. That makes it an important interface for humanitarian aid supplies from abroad, which are brought to the war zones in the north, east and south of Ukraine.

Oksana Matijtschuk and Serhij Lukanjuk teach German at the University of Chernivtsi. Matijtschuk teaches foreign-language literary history and heads the Chernivtsi Ukrainian-German cultural society. Lukanyuk is head of the international office at Chernivtsi University.

Volunteer network

Since the beginning of the Russian war of against Ukraine, their everyday lives on campus have changed radically. Whenever they can they travel across the border to Romania to pick up food and in-kind donations for Ukraine, sometimes several times a week. They are part of a huge network of volunteers in Chernivtsi that receives, distributes and passes on donations.

On the drive through the northern Romanian mountains, Oksana and Serhij told DW that almost all of the donations from Germany and Romania are organized through personal contacts, for the most part contacts via the university.

Germany's Institute for German Culture and History of Southeast Europe (IKGS) at Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, a University of Chernivtsi partner institution, quickly stepped up to help.

"On the first day of the war, we received a lot of messages of solidarity and offers of help from our German partners and colleagues," says Oksana Matijtschuk, adding that aid transports started arriving in Chernivtsi two weeks later.

In Romania, colleagues from the university in the northern Romanian city of Suceava, near the Ukrainian border, are particularly active, says Serhij Lukanjuk. "What is special about our work with humanitarian aid is that we organize everything through personal contacts at universities in Ukraine, but also among acquaintances and friends, and know exactly what is needed where," Lukanjuk says, stressing that donations really make sense, and that they are quickly distributed.

Canned goods, baby food, 3D printers

Helena, Joshua, Simon and Stefan, all from Dresden and in their mid-20s, were waiting at a rest stop near the small northern Romanian town of Vatra Dornei. Two have already made the trip to northern Romania before. Everyone hugged before reloading baby food, flour, oil, pasta, canned food, detergent, soap and other hygiene items into the Ukrainian truck. The German volunteers also brought clothing, a chainsaw, an ultrasound machine, a laptop and a small 3D printer, which is useful for printing tourniquets, a device to stop an injured arm or leg from bleeding.

Joshua Peaceman co-initiated the donation drive. "When the war started, I wanted to do more than just protest, but my friends and I also didn't want to just head off and risk standing at the border with stuff that wasn't needed," says Joshua, an IT expert whose mother works at a German partner university in Chernivtsi and knows Oksana and Serhij. "We got in touch with Oksana and Serhij, they told us what was needed, so we raised donations privately, and bought the things."

The city of Chernivtsi is grateful for the aid deliveries. The city has so far been spared being shelled, but the war has arrived all the same, Mayor Roman Klitschuk told DW in a video call, adding that the city is currently home to some 60,000 internally displaced persons. "Most of the humanitarian aid that arrives here is sent on to frontline areas, but we also need food, clothing and medicine for the refugees here," Klitschuk says.

As grateful as the mayor was for the donations, especially from Germany, he was critical of German politicians, arguing that "many have not yet really understood what this war is about."

'War of values'

"This is not just a war of Russians against Ukrainians, but a war of values," he argued, adding that if the evil is not stopped in Ukraine it will spread to other European countries.

"Hopefully, people in Germany will get it before it is too late," he says.

Seated in a restaurant at the rest stop near Vatra Dornei before heading back to Dresden or on to Chernivtsi, the German volunteers take a similar view. "German politicians would say, we don't want to provoke Putin," says Joshua Peaceman, adding that now the world knows "what he'll do if you don't provoke him."

"German politicians are now saying they were wrong about Putin — but after what he did in Chechnya, Georgia, and Syria, people could have known about everything he is now doing in our country," says Oksana Matijtschuk, wondering where the Kremlin experts were back then, and how they could have been so badly mistaken.

"I think German civil society is way ahead of German politicians when it comes to Ukraine, and they are much more active," says Serhij Lukanyuk, thanking the volunteers from Dresden. "You are part of it, and we thank you for that."

This article has been translated from German.