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Despatches from Krakow

“It’s all quite strangely normal here in  Krakow.” – Christine Jackson told HOT’s Sam Davey. “The streets are still full of holiday makers and hen-parties – but you know there is a war going on just across the border”.

Less than a month ago, Christine was living in Hastings, going about her daily life like the rest of us. Now she is based in Krakow, managing a logistical procurement and supply chain focussed on getting urgently needed medical supplies into Ukraine.

Christine is a procurement specialist who has worked for Crown Agents (a not-for-profit international development company) for thirty years. Six years ago, they were asked to take on the procurement of medical supplies and equipment for Ukraine as the country was struggling to rid itself of many years of corruption and poor administration. In doing so, they managed to cut the costs of medical procurement by $50million in the first year. Recently, Christine had been working on procuring supplies of Covid vaccines and has built up strong and supportive networks with her colleagues in both Poland and Ukraine. When the chance came to do something practical and positive to support her colleagues, Christine did not hesitate for a minute, but flew to Krakow.

In addition to ensuring that the people of Ukraine are still able to access vital medical supplies, her other overarching priority was the safety of her colleagues. Help was given to provide secure accommodation for those who could no longer remain in their homes in Ukraine, but out of a team of nineteen, only five have left their homes – the others remaining in Ukraine, determined to carry on doing their job and keeping their families together.

It takes people differently” said Christine “some just want to focus on work, keeping busy, doing something practical”. She is working closely with three young women who have left their homes in Ukraine. Christine is particularly worried about one of her colleagues whose mother lives in Mariupol. She has heard nothing from her for two weeks now, and is becoming increasingly anxious and withdrawn.

I asked Christine what the mood was like, both in Krakow and with her contacts across Ukraine: “In the main, there is just a determination to stay as close to business-as-usual as possible. We will keep the supply chain working, the most important things right now are trauma kits, anti-biotics and pain killers”. One of the difficulties is actually managing the safety of the supply teams and the first responders. Christine told me that they are using a number of ingenious and inventive ways to do this – but not surprisingly, she has to be cautious about the details she can share.

One of the issues that is at the forefront of people’s concerns is the risk of human trafficking as so many vulnerable women and girls are making their way across the border. Christine said that she had heard stories of cars and vans cruising the borders, looking for likely victims, but the Polish authorities were very aware of this and are doing their best to crack down. As the displaced Ukrainians have made their way into Poland, they have been greeted with open hearted generosity – and practical support. In Krakow, items like buggies, mobile phone chargers, sanitary products, nappies and baby food are all available for free, and many of the city’s hotels have opened their rooms to their Ukrainian neighbours without charge. However, this is no holiday. Many Ukrainians have turned to family and friends closer to Ukraine borders, who are doing what they can to help, but they do not have endless space or limitless resource. One of Christine’s colleagues is sharing a room with eight of her relatives, whilst other internal displaced people who have no one to turn to are creating makeshift shelters down in the city’s Metro.

And what does Christine think about the way  President Zelensky is leading his people?: “I have been utterly humbled by what I have seen” said Christine. “I was in Kyiv when Zelensky was elected, and to be honest, I had my doubts. But he has brought in reforms, tried to open up the country in a way that was unpalatable to Putin, and this is the result. The man is incredible, always visible, and his people are completely inspired by him” Christine gives a small smile: “Ukrainians are a proud and stubborn people. They are very brave”. From what Christine has seen, most of the women who have fled Ukraine wish to return to what is left of their home towns as soon as possible, to take up their lives and reunite their families. But the underlying optimism that sits beneath such sentiments is not always easy to share.

What I worry about most” says Christine “is that the rest of the world will forget us, become bored with Ukraine as a news story and move on to the next big thing.” The war is scarily real  even in Krakow. Russian missiles have targeted strategic locations close to the Polish border, and there is a real fear that, if Ukraine falls, Putin’s ambition will not stop there.

So as I sit here in Hastings, looking out at the streets thronged with people, talking, shopping, laughing and getting on with their day – just as Christine was doing just a few weeks ago – I wonder what we can actually do to help: “It is money that is needed” says Christine unequivocally, “at the moment, we need to buy medical supplies, we need to provide better equipment for our early responders. By sending money we can procure goods here in Poland, which adds benefit to the local economy, and we can direct these urgent medical supplies to where they are needed most, and as quickly as possible”.

The call ends then, as Christine is needed – she is working long hours and never seems to get a spare moment, although it is quite a long walk from her temporary accommodation to the office and she is still managing to achieve her 10,000 steps a day. She doesn’t see herself as brave or inspirational. She sees herself as someone using her knowledge and expertise to help others because it is the right and decent thing to do.

Christine, I am proud to know you.

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Posted 18:07 Wednesday, Mar 23, 2022 In: Politics

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