“One of the most challenging countries I ever worked in”
Mark Mullan, LWF team leader in Ukraine, reflects on his work as a humanitarian
World Humanitarian Day: Field staff reflect on work in Ukraine
I have headed humanitarian missions in hostile work environments such as Somalia, Rwanda, and Syria, but Ukraine is one of the most challenging countries I have ever worked in.
I arrived in Kyiv in February 2023, after a 10-hour train ride from the Polish border. After I checked in at the hotel, I went to my room to rest. I had just lay down on the bed when the first air raid sounded, with a deafening siren that could "wake up the dead" and a verbal message that I "must go immediately to the air raid shelter" and "not to be complacent." I didn't need much encouragement, to be honest, and I was down the stairs in record time.
Sometimes we would be in the shelter 5-6 times a day. Going through this intense experience forges unique bonds with people. From those early days and sleepless nights in the air raid shelters in Kyiv and Kharkiv, I have had so many laughs, and forged new friendships.
One interesting detail: the English version of the Air Alert mobile app that we use has the voice of Mark Hamill (the American actor who played Luke Skywalker in the film Star Wars). His voice would tell me to take cover, and when the air raid was officially over: "May the Force be with you."
Days have now run into months, and the daily air raids on Kyiv continue unabated. I have never felt so tired in my life. Sometimes I fall asleep on my bed with all my clothes on, including my boots. It is easier to wake up and make my way to the shelter without fuss. Sleep deprivation sometimes impacts my energy levels. While I heard people around me, both international and Ukrainian, mention that they were constantly exhausted, they never admitted that they were afraid. It is as if everyone must put on a brave face.
I work with a fantastic team at the LWF offices in Kyiv and Kharkiv; despite the many risks, no matter which office you are in, you are met with smiling faces and a willingness to do their best. Even though it's a new team, there is already an extraordinary closeness between the LWF staff. They reach out to each other even after hours to check that everyone is okay. I like it, and it says a lot about the quality of our people!
With a deeply developed sense of commitment, you can do humanitarian work in challenging locations over the long term. Having a good sense of humor helps me thrive in these situations, coupled with a willingness to reach out to others around me, engage, and make a community.
No winners in war
Seeing that our work makes a real difference in people's lives makes all the challenges worthwhile. LWF is rehabilitating housing in Kharkiv damaged by the war, so families can return to their homes. We also provide humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable populations in and around Kharkiv City. The most critical thing for me is to remain impartial and stand in solidarity with people in need of humanitarian assistance, and through our work, to show them that they are not alone, that someone cares what happens in Ukraine.
Seeing that our work makes a real difference in people's lives makes all the challenges worthwhile.
Mark MULLAN, LWF team leader, Ukraine
I recently went to see the film Oppenheimer when I was on leave. As I now sit in Ukraine with the alleged plot to cause an explosion at a nuclear power plant, it reminded me that there are never any winners in war.