Many have asked, “What’s it like”?
Initially I thought the question was about the war. Consequently, I provided an overview of operations, as far as I knew, always anchored within the context of scale: “With a 1000km front, this is the biggest war in Europe since World War II”.
I soon discovered these were entirely unsatisfactory answers. The question was about Ukraine. And it was mostly about the people.
So, with a big breath, I’m going to share my naive perspective on Ukraine and its people, after serving just two short tours of duty, for lack of a better term, since Kiwi K.A.R.E was founded in July 2022.
You can tell a lot about a people by the way they treat their animals. And consequently, I’ve fallen in love with Ukraine - and its people. This country has moved my soul on many levels. Ironically, Ukraine would not have made my bucket list in early 2022. Not because I knew about it, more because I knew nothing about it.
By late 2022, Kyiv was one my favourite cities in the world and remains so today.
And in these times of uncertainty and disorder we most certainly need understanding and empathy, that, and decisive action, which led me to Ukraine.
I’m very conscious that I purposely ventured into Ukraine during, and because of, their existential struggle; the biggest war on the European continent since World War II. While they are fighting for their survival, the majority of non-Ukrainians who serve here, freely offering their support, do so because of the immorality of this illegal war, and the fact that Ukraine is essentially fighting for Europe and the free world.
We wear Ukrainian colours on our chevrons and caps, wrap blue and yellow bands around our wrists, and emblazon our vehicles in stylised Tryzubs.
Despite being all but antipodal to New Zealand (that point is 2000km southwest of the Cook Islands), Ukrainians are a lot like us: friendly and helpful, pragmatic and practical, hardworking and resourceful, innovative and with an unconquerable “can-do-attitude”’, outdoorsie and sports mad; they possess an intellectual curiosity, a love of learning, and they are artistic, passionate and, above all, they honour family values and traditions.
Ukrainians have a strong sense of family and community; they prioritise spending time with loved ones and cherish their traditions and cultural heritage. Which includes food – lots of amazing food! They love and support their children, can cook up a storm and they are crazy about their animals.
The big departure from New Zealand, particularly that of European Kiwis, is “the Village” holds a significant role in Ukrainian culture and is deeply rooted in the country’s traditions and way of life. It provides a rural anchor to the traditional past for many and has been the heart of Ukrainian agriculture, with farming and livestock playing a vital role in the economy.
Many Ukrainians have familial ties to a village, and it is common for families to have ancestral homes or land there. Still today, the village plays a crucial role in Ukrainian life, representing a sense of identity, community, and connection to the land.
Even my erudite friends in Ukraine’s largest cities talk about the village, particularly ahead of winter, when many return to cut wood, furlough a garden, and generally help ageing parents ensure heating systems are fully functional.
Like many foreign volunteers here, I have spent time delivering humanitarian aid to villages. I sincerely hope I will return, with my family, to a victorious Ukraine and spend more time in the villages; it’s good for the soul.
On the subject of cities, I find many in Ukraine magnetic. I’ve mentioned Kyiv as a fav, and Kharkiv, Dnipro, Odesa and L’viv all rate highly for very different reasons. The one thing they all share is history. They are all so old and I feel it in my bones each time I drive over the cobbles. Kyiv, for example, was founded in the year 482 . . . no, there is not a digit missing and yes, ironically and despite all the rhetoric, it’s much older than Moscow.
Juxtaposed against this ancient history is Ukraine’s technological sophistication. It has a growing tech industry, including Fintech, with modern banking applications supported by a strong pool of skilled IT professionals, with many leading successful tech companies and startups. Ukraine has made significant contributions to the global tech community, particularly in software development, cybersecurity, and artificial intelligence.
By the way, it is not ‘The Ukraine’. In the same way it is not ‘The New Zealand’. It’s just New Zealand.
Ukraine is a sovereign country, and the continued usage of the definitive article fails to assert and acknowledge its eastern border as geographically separate to that of Russia. While part of the former USSR, it was indeed described as The Ukraine, in a similar fashion to New Zealand’s description of The Wairarapa or The (Mighty) Waikato. But that was then, pre-August 1991, and this is now, a pivotal time in Ukraine’s history and future sovereignty.
So, that was a snapshot of My Ukraine. While I spend many hours a day navigating the rural extremities of this extraordinary country via a strong 4G signal, it’s not unusual to pass an elderly couple sitting on a cart full of hay or chopped wood pulled by a horse or two. And I think of their village; I think of my many Ukrainian friends who are serving at the front; I think of my wider team moving vital supplies forward; and I think of Ukraine’s future.
I’m pleased I came, and I’m pleased Kiwi K.A.R.E has attracted such a great team and is making a small difference to a big country with whom I now have a soul connection.
Tenby Powell is the former mayor of Tauranga and Founder of Kiwi K.A.R.E, a Kiwi Aid & Refugee Evacuation organisation.