My Week In Ukraine
Brooks Newmark, right, delivering humanitarian equipment in Ukraine
I arrive in Kyiv in time for lunch at my favourite restaurant, “Beef Meat and Wine”. I love Ukrainian beef and order a steak with a salad. The war notwithstanding, many restaurants have remained open and this steak is as close as I can get to a USDA prime cut, but a third of the price.
The restaurant is opposite the Brodsky Choral Synagogue, so I drop by to see Chief Rabbi Moshe Azman, a larger-than-life character. The synagogue is an imposing late 19th-century yellow brick building. I go in through the front door, grab a kippah to cover my head and go upstairs to meet the rabbi. I brief him on my work to date – that I have set up a new charity, Angels for Ukraine, through which we have managed to evacuate more than 21,000 women and children from warzones in eastern and southern Ukraine.
The rabbi, who has over a million followers on social media, berates me for my poor PR (he called me a modern-day Schindler earlier in the war which both embarrassed me and brought a tear to my eye). He grabs me and we go outside the synagogue where he makes a recording thanking me for my work in Ukraine. I now have 10 per cent more followers on Twitter!
That afternoon I went to Bucha, a town outside Kyiv which was the scene of a massive war crime when the Russians slaughtered 458 innocent women, children and men. I went to visit 11-year-old Angelika, displaced from Mariupol and living in temporary accommodation with her mother and grandmother. The rest of her family had been killed. I had met her two weeks before and loved one of her paintings. She offered it to me and I asked what would she like in return. She said an iPad. She couldn’t believe that I had returned with a blue iPad with a yellow cover (the Ukrainian colours). She hugged me. Her mum and grandma hugged me. It’s moments like this that make this all worthwhile.
We move on to Kharkiv, where I visit a local café decorated with cartoon figures of Boris. He is a hero in Ukraine, especially here in the East. That night Kharkiv comes under attack and two S-300s are fired into the city. Putin has this habit of firing them at around 4am when I am sound asleep. Even though I am getting used to bombing during the day, these early morning wake-up calls unnerve me; I lie awake until dawn and scour the news to find out what has happened. The university and an apartment block were hit.
The missiles rain down for about an hour. My heart is racing and I am praying one doesn’t hit my building
As I am up early, we get going to Sloviansk and Kramatorsk – both on the front line and both being shelled constantly. I meet up with half a dozen soldiers I have got to know, including Denys Berinchyk, the WBO Lightweight Boxing Champion. We deliver more humanitarian aid to the villages – mainly warm clothing for the elderly and medical supplies.
We arrive in Zaporizhzhia to find that our hotel has no electricity, it’s -14C outside and we are on the seventh floor. I get into bed in my thermals. At 4.30am I’m woken by a loud bang, followed by another. I can tell they are S-300 missiles, and they are close by. The missiles rain down for about an hour. My heart is racing and I am praying one doesn’t hit my building. Suddenly after an hour there is silence. Amazingly the city defences worked well, with most of the missiles shot down although two hit the city’s power plant.
My week finishes in Odesa - as Valentine’s Day is approaching, my wife Lucy comes to visit me. Amazingly the Opera House has just reopened, so we get tickets to see La Bayadere, a ballet by Ludwig Minkus. In this war-torn country, what never ceases to astonish me is the resilience of the people and their determination that civil society must go on.
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