An Irish charity, which has already sent tonnes of medical aid to Ukraine, is embarking on a new mission to help set up a hospital there to treat soldiers who have suffered mental and physical injuries in the ongoing brutal war with Russia.
Members of the Crutches4Ukraine group, who previously shipped medical aid to Poland for injured Ukrainians, have just returned after crossing the border into the war-torn country for the first time.
It is believed to be the first time Irish charity volunteers have done so, and they were seriously impacted by what they saw on the ground and the harrowing stories they heard from the local population.
Crutches4Ukraine founder, former Senator John Gilroy, who lives in Glanmire, Co Cork, led a team of volunteers to take three jeeps they had packed with medical supplies which were shipped to Krakow in Poland and then across the border into parts of Ukraine which have been recently retaken by its army from the Russian occupiers.
Mr Gilroy asked to keep some of the locations and some of the people they talked to secret amid fears that the Russians could retaliate against those they had spoken to.
He said that in several cases Ukrainians who had been liberated by their advancing forces had told him and his group of volunteers that Russian soldiers had indiscriminately murdered civilians in certain towns and villages.
Last July, the charity sent 20 tonnes of medical aid — including walking aids and medical boots, nappies etc — to Poland and these were shipped across the border by the authorities there into the Ukrainian town of Borodyanka, which is 30kms west of the capital Kiev.
The town was extensively damaged, and many civilians and Ukrainian soldiers perished there during the early days of the Russian invasion last February and March.
In July, the Irish volunteers just oversaw the medical aid shipment being handed over from the Polish authorities to their Ukrainian counterparts. This time it got far more real when the Irish charity members drove three jeeps full of similar aid into Ukraine themselves.
The volunteers — Mr Gilroy, Green Party Cork county councillor Liam Quaide, and two members of the Cork-based Ukrainian community, Viktor Danieluk and Alex Gavrya — took turns to drive the vehicles into Ukraine.
“Crossing the border in the first instance was extremely difficult. There’s a huge amount of paperwork needed to do that, you wouldn’t believe how much,” Mr Gilroy said.
The charity workers spent two days in Lviv, 120km inside Ukraine, which has been repeatedly attacked by Russian forces and the volunteers had a series of meetings with local humanitarian organisations involved in aid distribution.
They also spoke with many distraught Ukrainian mothers whose young sons and daughters were preparing to go to the front to fight for their country.
“The meeting with the mothers of children, both young men and women, who were about to be mobilised and sent to the front was very distressing to them and to us to be honest,” Gilroy said.
Mr Giroy, who is a qualified psychiatric nurse, visited the mental hospital there where staff are seeing an increase in people attending with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
He said locals estimate the Russians are firing up to 60,000 shells a day into Ukraine.
“I spoke with the administrators in the (mental) hospital. They have plans to renovate it to cater for the increasing numbers of soldiers returning from the front with psychological and physical issues,” Mr Gilry said.
He is going to approach his very extensive network of contacts in the Irish mental health services to see how they can support this initiative.
“For starters the hospital needs more generators and power tools to make this happen. The full requirements will become clearer when we have more discussions with our Ukrainian partners. We know they immediately need warm clothing and blankets to deal with the influx. The weather there is going to turn very cold and a lot of times there are power outages,” he said.
Mr Gilroy and the team got a chance to deliver food to some Ukrainian soldiers who were on the way to the front. Some of them were just 18 and 19 years old.
“We met a policeman who went to work one morning and a Russian missile hit his home a short time later. He lost his mother, father, his wife, his daughter, his brother and his wife. The missile wiped out his entire family. You couldn’t believe how traumatised this man was,” he said.
“We also heard first-hand accounts from people who said their civilian relatives were shot on the streets by the Russians. While we were there we also attended the funerals of two Ukrainian soldiers who had been killed at the front. The scenes of grief at the funerals were just unspeakable. One of the soldiers was 21 and the other was 45," he said.
"We also got a tour of the battlefield north of Borodyanka, on the road to Chernobly, where the Ukrainians destroyed a huge column of Russian armour. There are no words to describe it. Anybody in the column hit by a shell was incinerated. War is terrible and this was shocking to see I have to say,” Mr Gilroy said.
The Mayor of Borodyanka presented the team with a special citation acknowledging their efforts.
The humanitarian aid the team brought into Ukraine was immediately taken by the local authorities and sent to the recently liberated areas the Ukrainian forces seized from the Russians.
Mr Gilroy said while there's a renewed confidence amongst the Ukrainian population, they still live in daily fear.
“There is a constant threat of airstrikes and artillery barrages even in areas which are not normally targeted (by the Russians). There is a sense of confidence that they (the Ukrainians) can win the war, but there is also a prevailing sense among civilians of being attacked and losing their sons and daughters on the frontline,” he said.