CANADEM's Humanitarian Response in Ukraine
~ Ukraine and the Importance of Coordination~
Edward Tawil in Ukraine with OCHA
On 03 August 2022, on a bright, sunny day, I left the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, in an armoured UN jeep accompanied by one driver and a Ukrainian assistant, heading northeast to the city and Hromada (administrative district) of Ivankivka. The remote rural town was close to the Belarus border (closed since the start of the invasion by the Russian Federation Armed Forces on 24 February), surrounded by marshy land ensconced in high pine trees. All along our drive north to Ivankivka we caught glimpses of damaged houses along the road and a large, flooded area caused by a dam, blown up early in the war by Ukrainian forces to slow down the advance of invading Russian forces.
My Ukrainian assistant and I were finally ushered into a large office to sit by a conference table, behind which was a large administrative map of the Hromada on the wall. Tatiana Dimitrievna, the head of the Hromada, a short, no-nonsense older woman, greeted me drily and curtly – there was no smile, no syrupy words of welcome – only an impatience to see what another UN visit would bring and how much time it would take from her pressing problems and the enormity of her challenges following the end of the Russian occupation of her region. For you see, back in early June, none other than the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Ukraine had visited her, more than two months after the withdrawal of Russian forces from her Hromada, and after being given a briefing on the exact state of humanitarian needs for Ivankivka – especially in terms of shelter reconstruction – had promised there would be a response. Tatiana Dimitrievna glowered at me impatiently with drawn brow and informed me that after a one-time delivery of building material by an international NGO, nothing else had come of the visit (despite the HC’s best efforts). With a deep breath, she then went on to describe to me in detail the extent of the damage to houses and infrastructure in Ivankivka caused by the war and occupation, and how desperate people were to have their damaged homes repaired before the onset of winter. Indeed, more than 2,360 buildings were damaged or destroyed in 16 villages of the Hromada in March, many of which remained unrepaired in August.
The reality in Ivankivka was indicative of one of the many challenges to the international humanitarian response in Ukraine – despite the generous funds provided – which is the vital need for coordination and accurate information from the field to better target the aid to where it is most needed. Another challenge was the heavy focus early on to the battleground areas in the east of Ukraine, while somewhat neglecting the heavy humanitarian burden of communities in the rest of the country hosting large numbers of IDPs, and the shelter needs of the devastated areas of the north of Ukraine vacated by the Russian Federation Armed Forces in March in Kyiv, Chernihiv, and Sumski Oblasts.
War damage in Trostynets, Sumski Oblast
I had been recruited as a Civil-Military Coordinator for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Ukraine by CANADEM and saw firsthand upon my arrival in March at OCHA’s temporary HQ in Lviv, the febrile energy of the international humanitarian response and its reactive nature at the start. I understood that I was not going to play the role of CM Coordinator (since there was no need for it), but I was going to be involved in humanitarian coordination. This was right up my alley! And I was soon on the road heading to the Oblast of Kirovograd in the east of the country, where together with one Ukrainian driver, we opened an OCHA sub-office in the capital city of Kropovnytsky. We started with visits to the local authorities and to Ukrainian volunteer associations that were doing stellar work from the start of the crisis, delivering needed humanitarian aid in terms of food, clothing and hygiene kits to fleeing IDPs. We brought people together around a coherent humanitarian approach and drew the attention of the major UN agencies to the needs present in the Oblast, all the while sending accurate reports from the field to OCHA management and the heads of the humanitarian Clusters. After almost 3 months in Kirovograd Oblast, OCHA asked that I replicate this model and open a sub-office that would cover the Oblasts of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Sumi and Cherkassy. The prospect of covering such a vast area with so many humanitarian needs was daunting. I followed the same model as in Kirovograd and started to go out into the field to the neediest and most remote areas to reach out to local authorities and civil society, while trying to also meet with all the international partners gradually deploying in the area and looking to implement their program. Bringing people together, coordinating resources and activities, liaising with local authorities in a spirit of respect to keep them in the loop of humanitarian work and in compliance with their priorities, was the daily and weekly substance of my work for the remainder of my time in Ukraine. I understood that Ukraine was going to be a great challenge for OCHA because of the extent of the emergency, but also because OCHA was working in an environment where effective and powerful state institutions had the lead in reconstruction while prioritising the conduct of a war effort.
Inspecting damage with the mayor of Makariv, Kyiv Oblast
I went on to visit many more Hromadas in the four Oblasts I was responsible for. I encountered extraordinarily resilient people in the villages and towns, committed to rebuilding their communities after so much devastation. After many months of upscaling and recruitment, OCHA was finally stabilizing its operations and structure in Ukraine. It is with pride that one can say that Standby Partners, such as those deployed by CANADEM, played an important role in this stabilizing process during these first critical months of the humanitarian emergency.
The humanitarian needs remain large in Ukraine while the winter months loom menacingly and the war tragically goes on. However, it is comforting to know that there are dedicated humanitarian officials giving their all to accompany the victims of the war with solidarity and aid. I was proud and enormously privileged that I could make a humble contribution to that humanitarian effort, an effort that was recognized by OCHA when it asked me to come to Kyiv to open a sub-office there. This experience has immensely enriched and marked my life.
As for Ivankivka, after meeting with the UNHCR, the latter agreed to sign an MoU to repair and reconstruct 300 damaged houses there. Tatiana Dimitrievna must surely have been pleased that something came of that meeting. But I suppose she is still scowling at foreign visitors for the sake of her community…
Damaged building in the town of Trostynets, Sumski Oblast