On the Road to Help Ukraine: An interview with Dennis Ougrin
What is most surprising about my conversation on the phone with Dennis Ougrin, a Ukrainian Consultant in child and adolescent psychiatry working in London who has raised more than £60,000 for urgent medical aid and equipment to bring to Ukraine through his JustGiving page, and driven the almost 1,900 km from London to Przemysl, on the Polish-Ukrainian border, and back, in the first few days of the war in order to deliver a portable ultrasound scan to the Lviv Military Hospital in western Ukraine — what is most surprising, I was saying, is that he finds the time and energy to have this conversation with me in the first place.
He is talking to me from his car while driving back to the Polish-Ukrainian border (this time to deliver first aid kits) for his second time in so many weeks, with a friend, and at the head of a convoy of cars that includes four ambulances (that will remain in Lviv) as well as journalists from the BBC and the Sunday Times. Talking to me from Belgium in the evening of the 10th of March, he is planning to stop soon in Germany for the night, and arrive to Poland the next day.
He is calm, lucid, determined. I hear his tiredness in his account but not in his tone: since the war has started, he has woken up at dawn every day for organising what he calls his “large scale operation”, the concerted efforts of people donating to his page, NGOs, charities and NHS organisations, in order to bring medical equipment to his war-torn country — and driving back and forth in the meantime.
When he first arrived in Przemysl only a few days after the war started, he found the situation perfectly managed by the Polish government and NGOs like the Red Cross, an organised environment where the first refugees that were arriving from Ukraine were well cared for, all sheltered, fed and warm, notwithstanding the freezing temperature.
This was before the number of refugees in the city reached hundreds of thousands. A recent interview with the mayor of Przemysl, Wojciech Bakun, explains that about 300–350,000 refugees have passed through the city in two weeks, moving forward west into Poland. Dennis is concerned about what he will find at the border this time.
When Dennis arrived with his wife on his first trip, he was hosted in a big house near the border that had been rented by a Ukrainian family who was skiing in Austria when the war broke out. This family had remained in the border area since then, helping the transport of food and other necessities into their country. Dennis connected with them through the Ukrainian Scouts organisation. For this second trip, he has managed to secure hotel accommodation in the area.
I was curious about why his first delivery was a portable ultrasound scan, of all possible medical equipment? He explained to me that soldiers often die because they cannot access an ultrasound machine that can identify if they have shrapnel in their bodies, and where. Before his first trip he called Lviv Hospital and asked what they needed most, and this is what they asked. In his subsequent regular conversations with them after his first trip, he had been reassured that the machine he had delivered was already saving lives.
Lviv Hospital is not only a military hospital but also a regional hospital for trauma in the Western region. Being close to the Polish border, Dennis adds, it will also be the last hospital to fall. A report from two days ago describes Lviv — a Unesco World Heritage site 50 miles from the border with Poland, a symbol of Ukrainian nationalism, and currently hosting 200,000 internally displaced people — preparing for the arrival of the Russian army.
In this second trip, Dennis plans to bring first aid kits destined to the city of Mykolayiv, in the south of the country. A recent report describes the city under attack of the Russian artillery, and their inhabitants fleeing to the Palanca border crossing in Moldova.
Soon the phone conversation with Dennis moves from the organisational to the personal. To his friends and family.
His parents and his wife’s parents, all in their 70s, have chosen to remain in Ukraine and to fight.
Was he surprised by the heroism shown by Ukrainian people who have remained in the country, or that have returned to Ukraine from abroad, in order to fight?
He was not. And the reason is in Ukrainian history. Ukraine has always been culturally and historically distinct from Russia, while maintaining strong ties with this country.
A brief excursus into Ukrainian history gives me more information. Russian and Ukrainian languages are different (they separated in around the 13th century) and Ukraine has its own distinct literature. The country was an independent nation in 1917, but this experience was short-lived, before it became part of the Soviet Union in 1922. It has always been an industrialised country with a well-educated population.
Dennis also reminds me of the different histories of the different areas of Ukraine. The West remained fiercely independent and was only included in the Soviet Union in 1939, following the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact; this was the first time in history that it had come under the control of Moscow. Central and eastern Ukraine, under Soviet control since 1922, experienced the “Great Famine” in 1932–1933: according to a UN report, “women and children fell victim to the cruel actions and policies of the totalitarian regime (…) The Great Famine of 1932–1933 in Ukraine (Holodomor), which took from 7 million to 10 million innocent lives and became a national tragedy for the Ukrainian people.”
The recent history is also important, Dennis continues. The country was unprepared when Russia invaded Crimea in 2014, but they prepared this time. He recalls the recent success of the Ukrainian army in holding back Russian invasion, and the heroism of the civilian population engaged in fighting. He is sure that Ukraine will win the war, that Russia will not be able to control the territory post-occupation.
Dennis is also convinced that the war will end soon. He tells me about what he calls a “horrible mathematical equation”.
On the one hand, there must be a limit to the number of Russian soldiers that the Russian people are prepared to sacrifice, beyond which they will intervene internally to stop the war.
On the other hand, there must be a limit to the number of Ukrainian civilians and children killed in this conflict that Western countries will tolerate, beyond which they will intervene directly in the war.
He is adamant that, through one, or the other, or both these factors “in the equation”, the war will end soon.
Yesterday’s report from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) has recorded 1,663 civilian casualties in Ukraine: 596 killed and 1,067 injured, although they say the actual figures are considerably higher. These figures include 85 children that had been killed and more than 100 injured. Up to 4,000 Russian soldiers may have died in Ukraine, but this estimate is from a few days ago.
I really hope that Dennis is right and that the war will end soon.
“Let’s have a beer when you are back in London”, I say to Dennis at the end of our phone call.
“I have stopped drinking alcohol since the war has started”, Dennis replies, “as I need to be always sharp in my mind. Let’s have coffee instead”.
You can support Dennis’s campaign to buy medical equipment and supplies for Ukraine here.