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From Rzeszow

From Rzeszow

April 6, 2022 6:23 pmComments are Disabled

I’m back from Ukraine, safely in a cheap hotel about an hour north of the border. I go to Warsaw tomorrow to organize one last major shipment to Lviv before I depart back for New York.

I’m happy to report that our humanitarian aid supply chain is officially up and running! As of today, our first major aid package with 500kg of food is on its way to Kharkiv to assist displaced persons, 70 first aid kits are going to Sumy, and, as a bonus, we were able to deliver 3 night vision goggles which are on their way to the front. I was also honored to participate, but not directly involved in, the delivery of a used SUV last night that will also be sent to the front to be used as a makeshift humvee.

Despite the success of our mission, it was not without its hiccups. I’d like to propose a wartime corollary to Murphy’s Law: In war, everything that can go wrong, will go wrong twice. And when it comes to wartime supply logistics, the reality on the ground is that nothing is dependable — because dependability went out the window the moment that Putin decided to invade a sovereign country and start murdering its people.

Right now, as far as I know, there’s only one company right now you can use to ship large parcels into Ukraine (Lviv only), and I still haven’t been able to get them on the phone to find out the biggest packages they ship and how expensive it would be. I would be pleasantly surprised if they do truckloads.

Shopkeepers and merchants can evidently place orders through their regular commercial shipping routes, and life seems relatively normal in Lviv (except for the checkpoints and sandbags everywhere). But having gone through a border crossing in the middle of the night and waiting at least 2.5 hours, I can’t imagine that the war doesn’t have a deleterious effect on commercial shipping as well. This probably would explain why I’m still hearing about half full grocery store shelves in Lviv, and my new “Lviv warehouse guy” told me that some food has become too expensive or unavailable altogether. Those are the goods we will start shipping from Poland, and we are getting the contact info of the wholesalers in Lviv that can help us buy and ship food that’s already inside Ukraine to the front.

Which is all to say that whereas commercial shipping is operational, emergency humanitarian aid shipping is certainly not. This is why hundreds of independently run humanitarian convoys are currently running, and everyone who’s interested in getting donated supplies into Ukraine right now needs to use one of these or set up their own supply chain. But there’s risks to the first that the cargo will get deprioritized or rerouted (which is what happened in our first shipment), and there’s a slew of surmountable, but extremely difficult, challenges to the second.

I’ve met many folks on both sides of the border now involved in informal supply chains and that seems to be the way most of the aid is getting where it needs to go right now, and since it is all a volunteer effort it is quite efficient from a monetary perspective. Of course the tradeoff is that it’s slow, clunky, and extremely fickle. In order to get our humanitarian package to Lviv we had to deal with:

  • 4-hour+ late arrival times from partners on the ground
  • 2.5 hour border crossings
  • Paperwork for a newly purchased SUV that never got done properly
  • Last minute documentation needs
  • Almost running out of gas
  • Wrong addresses
  • Missed phone calls at pickups
  • Having to wait for the warehouse owner to approve delivery

These challenges, however, were nothing compared to the constant, ever-present anxiety of being in a country at war. After spending only a couple hours in wartime Ukraine, every minute my urgency grew to get out — and I actually had the option to leave at any time in a city that’s relatively safe so close to the border. So many millions of Ukrainians can’t leave — not just fighting aged men, but people trapped in enemy territory, people with mobility needs, orphans, itinerant folks and displaced persons. From what my host told me, after a couple weeks the feeling of anxiety that I was experiencing “fades into the background.” I can only imagine it must be like what life was like in the US after 9/11, where for a while we didn’t know if another attack would be coming and there was a constant tension in the air, but we didn’t really talk about it after a while and tried to live life normally.

Of course, I can’t complain at all and I have no idea what it’s like to live with this perpetual fear of threat, but I viscerally understand it better now than I ever did before. In startup world, they say to know your customer, and there is no better motivator for the work we are doing than having just a little bit of an inkling of what people are going through right now, and what they are escaping from when they come across the border. I had to deal with the potential of a threat for only 12 hours. Many of these refugees have been under literal bombardment for weeks. This is why when a door slammed at the Przemysl train station this week, the entire room jumped a foot. This is why my driver today got into a huge blowup fight with a warehouse worker over a minor car issue. Everyone is on edge, and you can feel it in the air in Lviv.

But staying in Lviv, I met so many great new friends and partners, all of whom were doing everything they can to help the war effort. In fact, one of the reasons why it was so difficult to make everything work logistically was that everyone was also running missions for other folks — shuttling packages, driving people to various places, and so on, and traffic in Lviv being what it is combined with compounding complexity and timing issues across everyone’s activities, it’s surprising that anything ever came together at all. But the fact is that everyone in Lviv understands the urgency of the mission, and no one is asking “what’s in it for me” or failing to offer a helping hand when needed. In one instance, four of us were in the SUV waiting for a pickup, and, even though none of them knew more than a couple words in English, we managed to have a full conversation about the effectiveness of grassroots efforts in this war against Russia, and how Putin cannot win this war because he doesn’t have the people on his side. This is the truly first WhatsApp war — where logistics, supply, strategy, propaganda and defense efforts meld together seamlessly in a web of informal communication lines. The biggest thing I have learned in Ukraine was the best way to have a successful organization that I look forward to taking home with me for my day job: Give people a vision to fight for and the empowerment to do whatever they can, and they will do magic for the cause.

It also didn’t occur to me until I came to Ukraine that I hadn’t talked to any of the men involved in this crisis yet. All the men 18-60 are not allowed to leave the country, and so being in Ukraine I was finally able to get to know how men are coping with this war. In just a day, I met men who are working their day jobs in between organizing civilian defense efforts, men who had fled the violence in the east with their families and were just laying low, men who in civilian life have blue collar jobs but are now taking an active part in procuring supplies (like our SUV!) for the war effort. Some men are alone, having sent their families abroad. Many others are not, and one of their wives even made me lunch today! This man also asked me if I could get a helmet for his best friend who’s about to go to the front and doesn’t have one. I said I would do my best, and I intend to.

With the help of many of these men (and a couple women too!), we were able to work together to hand off 2 of 3 shipments that I personally supervised, and the third which my friend delivered after I left. I was then given a ride back to the border where a queue of at least 2,000 Ukrainians were waiting to cross on foot. Fortunately, I had a friend who had come across earlier to interview people and had already been waiting an hour, so I was able to push in, but as it turned out it didn’t save that much time.

We waited for 4.5 hours to get across back to Poland, and this was probably the highlight of my entire trip so far.

It was not just living the experience, for just a little bit, of the pain refugees have to go through crossing a border after weeks of traveling west to flee bombardment, rape, and as we’re now learning, massacre by Russian soldiers. Being in a crowd of thousands pressing towards the border as the last, painful leg of their journey, and watching the children behaving so well and obediently, and the old women patiently standing for hours, and the dogs getting antsy and picking fights with each other, it’s hard not to imagine, if even for a second, that I’m not just another privileged American who made the choice to be here, but that I could be any one of these people. And indeed, almost all of us have refugees in our families. Such is the banality of displacement during wartime throughout history.

When we were approaching the exit customs, maybe it was my imagination, but I swear I could feel the growing anticipation and bated excitement of the crowd around me as the promise of safety and security was in view. When we finally crossed the border, I felt for a small moment some relief, as if I myself had escaped a war torn country and finally arrived in freedom on the other side. Of course whatever I felt, it must be one fraction of the relief that these refugees who have been traveling for days are feeling, and despite my cynicism about the NGO camp on the other side of the foot border, it was quite nice to have a warm bowl of soup provided by United Sikhs after almost 5 hours of standing around in the cold.

Hopefully when our aid package arrives, our displaced friends in Kharkiv will have that feeling soon, too.

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