A Campbell River man volunteering in Ukraine witnessed the impact of Russian retaliation after the bombing of a vital bridge link with the Crimean Peninsula.
“I was there the day that they hit the Kerch Bridge,” Darrell McKay said. “So you know, everybody (Ukrainian) was excited and everybody was smiling and happy. And everybody knew there was going to be retaliation.”
In early October, the Kerch Bridge linking Ukraine with the Crimean Peninsula was bombed, destroying a vital supply line for Russian troops and delivering an embarrassing blow to the Kremlin. McKay was back in Ukraine for his second stint of providing humanitarian aid for Ukrainians. He was at the Polish-Ukrainian border in the spring helping refugees settle into camps in Poland. With time and willingness to help on his hands, he returned this fall to volunteer in a warehouse in Lviv that distributes aid goods from the West to Ukrainians.
The retaliation everyone expected from the Oct. 8 bridge bombing came two days later.
“Now we’re at work, the day of the retaliation and we had the air raids go off, and we went to the safe area in the back and two explosions, right overhead. And that really brought reality home. And then one bomb hit very close, like within two clicks (kilometres), which, I mean, that’s close enough.”
McKay kept a diary of his visit:
“October 10, Day 229 of the war.
“… I walk to the gate at 8:50 and I arrive just as the city wide air sirens start. We are directed to go behind the warehouse where there is a man-made pond. The dirt from the pond is stacked five feet high all around with an entrance wide enough for vehicles. This is our bomb shelter …
“We were outside in the road for the first missiles. Two were intercepted and let out one heck of a blunt bang as either cruise missiles or kamikaze drones from Iran are intercepted. The 3rd and 4th hit. The 3rd and 4th were so close you felt the sound bang through your chest.
“This is Putin’s retaliation for blowing up his bridge in the war zone.
“He bombs innocent people hundreds of kms from the front.
“We hopped into a minibus to a park a safe (?) distance from the warehouse as it’s a possible target. When the 4th hit it was so loud with a huge black plume of smoke …
“This black smoke was coming from the local power station. Two strikes hit here, it was pretty fortunate they hit their mark because right beside the power station is ‘The Epicentre’ the main mall in Lviv. There would have been many casualties.”
McKay was working at the warehouse run by a NGO that stored everything from cement powder to horse food to furniture and vegetables and tea.
“Everything you can imagine. I think the warehouse was probably four or five acres big. It was huge,” McKay said.
In the warehouse is mostly Ukrainian volunteers but there were a “couple of other Canadians, a couple of British people and couple of Americans.”
Reflecting on his two volunteer periods, he felt safer in the spring because he was in Poland with no immediate risk. But that session was more personal, dealing with people directly who had been uprooted. Most of them coming from eastern Ukraine which bore the brunt of the invasion.
“Just dealing with the people, it definitely affected me more,” McKay said.
But his fall session of volunteering allowed him to see the resilience of the Ukrainian people. Despite the bombings and the scrambles to bomb shelters, everyone was all matter-of-fact about it.
“And, you know, there was bombs and missiles hitting and they just go down to bomb shelters or into the, you know, the safe places or whatever. And then ‘all clear’ sounds and they’re back to restaurants open and sitting in the parks and living life and not giving a damn about the Russians. They’re pretty tough people.”
It put McKay in mind of the novel, The Cellist of Sarajevo, in which a cellist plays every day amongst the rubble of bombed-out streets.
“This kind of put it in perspective that, you know, people still carry on, they have to carry on, they keep on doing their, you know, their daily stuff and bakers go and bake and restaurants open,” McKay said. “And this trip here made me more mad about seeing Russia sending bombs to Lviv, which is 700, 800 kilometers away from the front … my analogy was if there was a battle in Calgary and people were lobbing bombs on Vancouver Island, just out of spite.”
McKay will be going back to the Ukraine on Nov. 24 to do a third stint of volunteering. This second session was actually cut short because he got sick and had to return to Canada so he feels he has unfinished business.
“So now I’m gonna go back and finish my commitment of doing at least a month,” McKay said. “When I say things, I try and do what I say. And I said a month.
“And my, my belief is like, every little bit helps. Right? So when this is over, I’m gonna be so happy that I was around to help.”