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Humanitarian responses to the war in Ukraine: Stories from the grassroots

Article by Andra-Lucia Martinescu

April 6, 2023

Humanitarian responses to the war in Ukraine: Stories from the grassroots

Two journeys: mobilising through grassroots networks.
When Anna and her family of four were evacuated from Inhulets in Mykolaiv Oblast (southern Ukraine), they left their entire livelihoods behind to relocate to relative safety, a story of displacement that mirrors millions of others. Two British independent volunteers brought Anna and her children to a shelter in Odesa, a safe haven for hundreds of thousands of refugees, evacuated from de-occupied regions. Since the outbreak of a full-scale war last year, perhaps hundreds of British nationals left for Ukraine to provide humanitarian assistance, conducting evacuations and supply runs in hard-to-reach areas, often driving their personal cars into the warzone. In some cases, their unmandated and decentralised voluntarism has morphed into an expeditionary rescue network that spans the vast geography of Ukraine (and beyond). Anna safely reached Odesa on 15 February with meagre belongings and no winter provisions. Her baby daughter’s pram was also left behind.


The journey of another baby pram starts in Purley, South Croydon, at a local, suburban parish. Here, another decentralised ecosystem is fledging. The church’s hall has become a collection point manned by British-Ukrainian charities and their volunteers who pooled resources together to sustain humanitarian efforts in the long term. In December, a local family donated a pram, which was packed, loaded, and shipped to Ukraine along with 10 tonnes of winter supplies. It reached Odesa on the 15th February, the same day as Anna, her children, and her baby daughter were brought to safety by the two British volunteers. And so, the two journeys converge in a story of resilience and compassion.


What these networks of humanitarian activism accomplish often goes unnoticed, but perhaps, more than a year into the war, it is worth shifting our perspective to the grassroots impact of humanitarian interventions. While the trauma of living under Russian occupation remains unspoken, the hardships of this precarious mobility, of these families’ journeys to safety, can be somewhat relieved. For instance, an item as basic as a baby pram can bring solace even in the midst of unimaginable terror.


Two impulses: what drives people to the rescue?
There are, of course, many others who left the comfort of their (mostly Western) homes to come to the rescue, despite a modicum of knowledge about Ukraine or the region. However, in a war so disproportionate in terms of capabilities, strengthening Ukraine’s capacity to resist becomes a strategic imperative for the democratic world in its entirety, and a whole-of-society approach (whether domestic or transnational) is the most effective response in redressing material imbalances. The presence of self-mandated foreign volunteers and the sustained contribution of grassroots (solidarity) networks are of paramount importance to the multifaceted humanitarian effort, and ought to continue unabated, despite criticisms that it lacks institutionalisation or oversight. But it is equally important to engage reflexively with the impact of such grassroots interventions and the motivating factors simmering beneath. As one Ukrainian friend and long-time civic activist insightfully told me once: ‘There are volunteers and volunteers…’, the meaning of which I grasped only later.


The public nature of this war has, to a certain degree, historical correspondence in the paradigmatic shifts prompted by the Spanish Civil War. Thenvisual coverage and reporting from the frontlines, conducted by prominent cultural figures and disseminated through various mediums, internationalised the conflict often acting as an instrument for foreign mobilisation.[1] At the time, the ideological battlefield was also exacerbated by the intelligentsia’s political engagement with a cause, which many perceived from a partisan lens without ever stepping foot on Spanish soil (before joining the international brigades).[2]


But no matter how binary taking sides may appear to the outside public, personal motivations are in fact a complex mixture of belief systems, ideological inclinations, and at times opportunistic pursuits, which need careful discerning. Subjective narratives built around the act of helping can indeed take negative turns and twists. In my interactions with (foreign) independent or affiliated volunteers, I, unfortunately, witnessed such cases, whereby allegedly supporting Ukraine’s most afflicted became a personal crusade, with disastrous consequences.


A middle-aged man from the Midlands drove his car into the warzone to help evacuate the vulnerable, delivering supplies and assisting local charities in their local distribution. I met him in Romania at a humanitarian warehouse last summer, but subsequent conversations pointed to an increasingly disruptive behaviour. Perhaps one telling indicator was the volunteer’s steadfast belief that his unmandated humanitarianism ought to grant him a privileged status. Volunteers from abroad can stay up to 90 days in Ukraine and a special residence permit would be required for an extended period, as well as proof of affiliation with a local organisation. Paradoxically, he outrightly refused to comply with Ukrainian law, which prompts the question: why such disregard for the legal requirements of a country he purportedly intends to support? He is a salient example of how personal motivations or myopic perceptions disconnect the humanitarian effort from the wider, long-term implications for Ukraine’s political future and body politic. Such sporadic (hopefully isolated) attitudes often disregard the civil society’s fight for substantive reforms in a country long afflicted by entrenched corruption and a selective application of the rule of law.


In hindsight, the case is also revealing in terms of othering practices that tend to disenfranchise local agency, under the tutelage of civilised saviourism. As my activist friend recounted: “some [volunteers] can be in Ukraine for months on end, some even doing admirable work but without actually learning anything about our country”. As is sadly the case, some may not even wish to learn.


In effect, the geographical proximity of this tragic war facilitated the spontaneous mobilisation of individuals who may not have otherwise participated in relief efforts. But citizen aid, decentralised networks and volunteer humanitarians are part and parcel of an almost titanic effort in support of Ukraine’s resistance. It is not the institutionalisation of these grassroots initiatives that I argue for. On the contrary, rigid, bureaucratic hierarchies tend to hamper the effectiveness of such interventions. However, a more reflexive approach as to what motivates voluntary participation in a warzone could help address legitimacy issues surrounding ground-up mobilisation and advocacy.


Photo courtesy of the CF Manifest Mira humanitarian team.


[1] ​​Perhaps the most notorious examples, novelists Marta Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway, though many others documented the Spanish Civil War.


[2] Paul Preston (May 2022). ‘From the role of international volunteers to debates about Western intervention, there are many comparisons to be made between Ukraine and the Spanish Civil War’ in LSE Blogs. Available at: 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not reflect the views of The Foreign Policy Centre.


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