Exploding shells, gunfire and curfews are some of the risks Australians who travel to Ukraine to help are faced with, but also more mundane problems including a lack of equipment, lots of waiting around and an oversupply of certain roles, returning volunteers have told Central News.
And they warned others from doing the same thing or going to the war-torn nation for the wrong reasons.
Andrew Strunk, a firefighter from Perth, went there in April to help firefighters in cities like Kyiv and Kharkiv, but had a clear message for other Australians wanting to go.
“Don’t go. Good intentions don’t help in these situations,” he said. “It’s understandable and noble, but you will just become a burden.
“Unless you have a job with an NGO or a specific task and you have food, housing and transport, you will just be a burden. Do not show up in Ukraine. It’s not a f—ing game.”
Despite the risks and repeated warnings from the Australian government, hundreds of Australians are currently working or fighting in Ukraine.
In May Tasmanian truck driver Michael O’Neill, 47, became the first Australian known to have died in the fighting in Ukraine. He was believed to have been delivering supplies for a humanitarian organisation when he was killed. And, in an interview posted on the ABC, another man with an Australian accent believed to be fighting with the foreign legion in Eastern Ukraine spoke positively of the difference he and other fighters were making on the ground.
The Russian Ministry of Defence claims four Australians have joined Ukraine’s army since February but two have been killed and another has left the country.
The guy [at the airport] realised I’d been to Ukraine so he sent some people to talk to me but they didn’t really know what to do. They asked what I was doing in Ukraine, and I answered: ‘We’re sending them weapons, I don’t think it matters,’ and then they let me go.
The Australian government has so far committed almost $300 million to support Ukraine and is expected to do more in the coming months. Despite their support, the government has warned Australians not to go to Ukraine for any reason.
As of June 17, government sources told the ABC that as many as 200 Australian citizens and Ukrainian dual nationals have travelled to Europe to join the war effort. In conversation with Central News, two of these Australians shared their experiences on the ground.
A week before Russia launched its invasion in February, foreign nationals fled the country as the Australian government insisted Australians leave Ukraine. During this time Joseph Grace, a photojournalist and Sydney University student, touched down at Kyiv International Airport.
At the time, 150,000 Russian troops were amassed on Ukraine’s Belarusian and Russian borders.
Having developed a fondness for Ukrainians throughout his many trips to the country over the years, Grace felt drawn to Ukraine to get a sense of what was unfolding as it teetered on the brink of full-scale war. The 24-year-old, who uses a pseudonym for his photographic work, spoke to Central News on the condition of anonymity.
“[I was] trying to understand exactly what the Ukrainian mood was at that time and what they were expecting,” Grace said.
“There was clearly a very wrongful thing that was about to happen… to even just be there prior to the invasion was an interesting time, to discuss and talk with people. Every bar you went to, every place you went to, on the street – it was the topic of everything.”
On February 24, after a night out in Kyiv with friends, Grace was woken in the early hours of the morning by rockets exploding across the city and nearby gunfire. He joined a group of journalists and quickly took shelter in a nearby subway station with thousands of civilians as the scale of what was unfolding became clear.
“At that point, you’re in it with everyone else… it was so absurd when it happened. I couldn’t believe that it was actually happening. I went there not expecting that there would be a conflict,” he said.
Grace has worked in conflict zones in the Middle East and Africa but admits he wasn’t prepared for Russia’s invasion.
“I can’t believe this is happening to a country I love so much to a people that are being punished for their desire for self-determination,” he said.
As the invasion unfolded, Grace moved into an apartment building with other journalists and found work covering the conflict. Throughout the next month, he travelled across Kyiv and its surrounding districts covering Russia’s advance toward Kyiv. Due to the rapidly shifting frontline, long waits at checkpoints and Kyiv’s strict curfew, Grace said he struggled to get more than 100 kilometres outside the city.
As the war surpassed a month and Russia abandoned its advance on Kyiv, Grace felt his time in Ukraine was increasingly pointless. He was struggling to get enough work to sustain himself as journalists flooded the country and admits he was ill-equipped to cover the conflict.
“I think [I left] because it was so saturated with journalists. If I was producing work that I thought was important to what was happening, maybe I would have stayed,” he said.
“There were huge groups of journalists all the time, and I felt I wasn’t adding value to the situation.”
Grace’s university semester had also started while he was reporting in Ukraine and he could only keep up his online attendance for so long from his Kyiv apartment. He caught a train to Poland in early March before catching a flight back to Sydney.
“It feels like you’re running away from a situation that no one should run away from,” he said.
After five weeks abroad, he landed in Sydney and strolled through customs.
“The guy [at the airport] realised I’d been to Ukraine so he sent some people to talk to me but they didn’t really know what to do. They asked what I was doing in Ukraine, and I answered: ‘We’re sending them weapons, I don’t think it matters,’ and then they let me go.”
As Grace tried to settle back into student life in Sydney, Perth-based firefighter Andrew Strunk, 36, started searching for ways to support Ukrainian firefighters on the front lines.
“It was pretty obvious straight away that they are probably the hardest working firefighters in the world, and I don’t think any firefighter would have been able to ignore that. I started looking for avenues to assist them in some way,” Strunk told Central News.
In the early days of Russia’s invasion, Strunk submitted an expression of interest to US-based NGO, Project Join Guardian, and became the only person outside the United States to be selected as part of its 12-man team. The project initially focused on donating gear to Ukrainian Firefighters but then received an invitation from the Ukraine Fire Service to work alongside them in Ukraine.
“When there’s an identified kind of need, every part of you wants to kind of contribute, where possible… and when your skill set lends strongly towards that it makes you want to go even more,” Strunk said.
“I wanted to go help. Not for the reasons that have led up to this [conflict], but purely for the fact that Russia was the aggressor, and it was Ukrainian civilians that were suffering and not the other way around.”
After finishing high school, Strunk joined the Army as a combat engineer and then worked in the Army Fire Service as a firefighter where he deployed to Afghanistan, East Timor and Papua New Guinea. Since leaving the Defence Force he has been working in the Urban Search and Rescue Task Force (USAR) within the West Australia Fire and Rescue Service.
“The [USAR] task force is more geared towards natural disasters, things like earthquakes, structural collapses, cyclones, tsunamis, that sort of thing. But obviously, in military environments where you’ve got collapsed structures from shelling or missile attacks, the work is effectively the same,” he said.
Strunk was also involved in emergency relief efforts following the 2015 Kathmandu earthquake that devastated Nepal.
After months of planning, on April 11 Strunk flew from Perth to Warsaw where he met the rest of the team, before crossing into Ukraine from Poland.
During the first half of their three-week trip, the team worked north-west of Kyiv in Bucha, Borodianka and Irpin, areas previously occupied by Russia. Russia held these areas during their advance on Kyiv but withdrew in early April, leaving behind scenes of alleged civilian executions and mass graves that have since prompted an investigation into potential war crimes.
Working alongside Ukrainian Firefighters, Strunk and the team cleared destroyed buildings and debris in search of civilian casualties. Like Grace’s time in Ukraine, Kyiv’s strict curfew and long waits at checkpoints meant the crew’s working hours were restricted.
Strunk spent the remainder of the trip in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest and fiercely fought over city in the north-east. Unlike his time in Kyiv far from the front line, in Kharkiv, the team was kilometres away from fighting as Russian forces attempted to take control of the city.
“The day before we arrived [in Kharkiv] the Russians started double-tapping, where they’d shell a site and then wait 15 minutes and shell it again, trying to hit the first responders. They had three firefighters killed the day before we got there. So, while we kind of acknowledged the risk involved in being there, the Ukrainians were pretty hesitant to start throwing us on active sites after that,” Strunk said.
Restricted from going too close to the fighting, the team used their time to prepare local firefighters to work on the frontline.
“There was very little first aid or combat trauma experience. So, we provided trauma packs for all the fire trucks along that front line and then training on how to use them,” Strunk said.
Since returning, Grace has been working part-time and focusing on his studies. As he hands in his last assignments for the semester, he considers going back.
“I think this conflict will go on for a long time. It’ll be forgotten about in some way. I think there will be important stories that should be told, whether I’m the one to do that is the question. I don’t speak Ukrainian. I’m not an expert on Ukraine, but these stories are universal and human,” he said.
As he reflected on his time in the war zone, Grace worried about people going there for the wrong reasons.
“If I felt there was a purpose for me there again, I would go, but I don’t want to go there to see bombs going off, that was terrifying… I didn’t go there so I could say ‘look at me I’m f—ing wild, I went to Ukraine’, I hate the cocky ‘I’m a war photographer’ bravado bullshit.
“There is an issue with some young reporters, they have this toxic bravado about what they’re doing.”
Strunk is preparing to return to Ukraine in the next few weeks.
“We’re hoping with a second trip, now that we’ve developed relationships, we’re hoping they can lift that ban on us working with active sites,” he said.
“The plan is to head straight back to Kharkiv when we get there in July, and then you can hopefully be allowed to work with the teams once more.”