The war for Ukraine is now more than 500 days old. To some Canadian volunteers who have been on the ground delivering aid for most of that time, Western fatigue with the conflict is becoming almost as dangerous an enemy as the invading Russian army.
Sunday marked Paul Hughes’ 500th day in Ukraine, a stretch that began when the Canadian military veteran arrived on the ninth day of the invasion. He planned to fight the Russians with a gun in his hand. His role quickly morphed into what he calls an “underground” humanitarian operation. He now delivers food, medicines and other goods to cities on and near the front line, using minivans that display large Canadian flags on their hoods.
The 59-year-old Calgarian spent Sunday in Kharkiv, a city that was attacked with rockets over the weekend, planning what will be the 227th and 228th aid delivery missions carried out by Helping Ukraine – Grassroots Support, or HUGS, the ground-up aid operation he founded after quitting the International Legion for the Defence of Ukraine in March, 2022.
April Huggett said Sunday was her 207th day in the war zone. The 34-year-old native of Castlegar, B.C. – who left her life and family behind in Canada after she saw social media images of the massacre of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha last year – spent the day stuck in southern Ukraine with a rescued dog that she had been planning to bring to Kharkiv, where it could be put up for adoption. But her vehicle broke down, leaving Ms. Huggett, who is used to much more dangerous missions bringing aid to places under heavy fire, to spend Sunday waiting with the dog for a tow truck to arrive, in a part of the world where the security situation can change in an instant.
Both Mr. Hughes and Ms. Huggett are used to the risks that come with driving in and out of the range of Russian artillery fire. But just as the Ukrainian army is reliant on Western military support in its battle with the Russian army, their humanitarian efforts depend on maintaining interest – and convincing people to keep their wallets open – in Canada and other Western countries.
Private donations to Ukraine have largely dried up, after a surge in the first months of the war. Candid, a U.S. non-governmental organization that tracks publicly announced donations to Ukraine, reported that nearly three-quarters of the US$2.8-billion given or pledged to the country in 2022 came between February – when the war began – and June, before plunging in the second half of the year.
“I worry about the declining interest every day,” said Ms. Huggett, a mother of three who explained that she became frustrated in Canada with how people around her carried on with life as normal, despite the images of suffering coming out of Ukraine. “I know what it’s like, war fatigue. Keeping yourself in the crap. It’s hard to take emotionally being here, let alone when you can look away, when you can change the channel and fill yourself with positive vibes. I get it, I do. I did the same with other wars.”
Mr. Hughes, a long-time hockey coach, compared the ebbs and flows of Western interest in the war for Ukraine to the way some fans jump on and off the “bandwagon” at NHL playoff time every year, while others never stop thinking about their favourite teams. “The original influx was an epically gargantuan response. That could not be maintained, of course,” he said. “There are a number of orgs that consistently donate aid to us. I think this is common in all disasters and emergencies.”
Mr. Hughes – who previously founded Grow Calgary, a non-profit urban farm that provides food to the city’s vulnerable communities – said HUGS has raised and spent over half a million dollars since he started the organization last year, with 95 per cent of all its donations coming from Canada. That’s why HUGS puts the maple leaf front and centre on its delivery missions.
When people in Canada ask to send care packages, he said, “we say, ‘get pins and more pins.’ They go a long way.” He was referring to the tiny Canadian flag pins that he hands out as he does his delivery missions. The Canadian brand, he said, is still very popular in Ukraine, in part because of the large Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora.
“They’ve gotten us through blockposts, they’ve gotten us all over the place. Make friends, boom, here’s a pin. The pin means a lot to people, actually. We can market HUGS all we want. But that flag’s worth a zillion dollars of marketing. It’s the second homeland here.”
On Friday, HUGS sent two minivans packed with clothing, medicine, mattresses and a generator to the southern city of Kherson – which in addition to regular Russian shelling is recovering from flooding unleashed by the June 6 destruction of the Nova Kakhovka dam. Those were missions 225 and 226 for the organization, and the trip to Kherson was headed by Mr. Hughes’ 21-year-old son Mackenzie, who left his construction job in the Canadian Arctic almost 300 days ago to join his father in Ukraine.
Mission 227, due to leave Kharkiv this week, will also head to Kherson, where Mackenzie is setting up something of a HUGS branch office to help the city deal with the impacts of the flooding. “Mac and I were both caught in the Calgary flood of 2013. We know how much work is required to recover from such devastation. Kherson will need a lot of help over the next year,” the elder Mr. Hughes said. Mission 228 will be medical supplies bound for the city of Kostyantynivka, barely 10 kilometres behind the front line in the eastern Donetsk region.
Ms. Huggett was a one-woman aid operation until recently, when she decided to join up with a small group of like-minded foreigners she met in her travels. They formed a new NGO called One Team One Fight. She said she and her team had raised more than $200,000 since the start of the war, much of it via her 31,000 Twitter followers. The money funds aid delivery missions, such as her trip last week to the battered southern village of Orikhiv, a scene of heavy fighting in recent weeks during a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the area.
Some in the aid community question how helpful independent do-gooders like Mr. Hughes and Ms. Huggett really are. Donald Bowser, a Canadian anti-corruption expert who is Ukraine country director for COAR Global Ltd., a political risk and development consultancy, said smaller organizations like HUGS and One Team One Fight can end up hindering the larger aid effort.
“Small-scale delivery makes little financial sense, as big organizations can procure and deliver in bulk at a fraction of the administrative costs,” Mr. Bowser said, adding that a lack of oversight at smaller NGOs also makes it easier for donated funds not to be used as intended.
It’s an argument that both Mr. Hughes and Ms. Huggett reject. They say smaller NGOs have proven themselves in Kherson and elsewhere to be more nimble and effective than the larger organizations.
“You can’t buy passion,” Mr. Hughes said. “The little guys and gals are making huge personal sacrifices for no reason other than to help. The big boys won’t even move if there isn’t an MOU or contract in place, every ‘t’ is crossed and ‘i’ dotted.”
Both Canadians have taken enormous physical risks to do what they do. Mr. Hughes – who quit the International Legion after waiting for weeks without even being issued a weapon – made headlines last year when he drove across the front line into Russian-occupied territory to find a six-year-old girl and escort her back to her mother. HUGS also helped recover and repatriate the remains of Kyle Porter, a Canadian member of the Legion who was killed in April near Bakhmut, the site of a prolonged and bloody Russian siege.
Ms. Huggett, meanwhile, survived a scare when Russian artillery struck the building next to the one she was in during a delivery of weapons and supplies to Bakhmut, shortly before the city finally fell under Russian control.
“There’s been lots of close calls. It doesn’t matter where you are in this country, you have the possibility to be hit,” she said, adding that she has struggled to explain to her family why she takes such risks, and why she feels the need to be in Ukraine rather than back home in Canada.
Like Mr. Hughes – who compares asking when he’ll go home to asking a firefighter the same question while they’re in the middle of fighting a blaze – Ms. Huggett says she’ll keep going as long as the war does. “War is exhausting, but I don’t want to stop. It doesn’t feel okay to do the normal things anymore.”