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Comment: Power of the people: Continuing to stand with Ukraine

Ukrainians are so hardened by this war, they have a sixth-sense about when they are truly in danger
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People walk on Khreschatyk Street in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday, Jan. 26, 2024. Evgeniy Maloletka, The Associated Press

A commentary by a 1996 graduate of Victoria High School who works for the United Nations in Brussels. He was on a recent UN mission to Ukraine.

The air raid siren rocks me out of bed. I look over at the clock: not yet 06h00 but the piercing sound blasting out of my iPhone does not let me fall back to sleep.

As I escape from my hotel room, I am thankful to my UN colleagues who had shown me Ukraine’s most popular and essential app: Air Alarm Ukraine.

The app warns me about an impending strike, sending through push notifications based on my geographic location inside Ukraine. The siren in the app alerts users to an air raid, missile strike, drone attack or artillery shelling.

It has been two years since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The invasion triggered a massive humanitarian crisis and the mobilization of millions of Ukrainians fighting to hold onto their territory.

The Ukrainian economy suffered widespread job loss, access to education was disrupted, families were separated and poverty increased substantially.

Losses to Ukrainian agri­culture have reached $40 billion US.

More than 3.5 million people remain internally displaced within the country.

The international community estimates reconstruction and recovery needs in Ukraine could exceed $400 billion US.

I rush from my room down to the bunker in my hotel, but as I arrive I am surprised to find myself alone in the darkened bunker.

I wait 10 minutes and still there is nobody. I return to my hotel room but I cannot fall back to sleep. That morning when I see my Ukrainian colleagues, I ask them why they did not join me in the bunker.

There is a long pause and much smiling at my expense. I immediately get the sense I am the rookie here, the outsider who has not lived through the daily grind of a never-ending war.

Ukrainians are so hardened by this war they have a sixth-sense about when they are truly in danger: when it is necessary to find sanctuary in a bunker or to simply move away from the windows and ensure two walls separate you and the incoming missile.

Later that day, I learn the cause of the air raid siren: two missiles launched by Russia struck an industrial facility 10 kilometres from our hotel.

I am here for five days in L’viv and while this beautiful city is not on the frontlines of a country at war, its shadow is clearly present.

The focus of my work is to support millions of displaced Ukrainians to rebuild their lives, their businesses and their communities.

Thanks to generous donors like the EU, Canada, the United States and Japan, our UN projects provide direct financial support to internally displaced people providing them food, water, shelter, mental health counselling and cash grants to support displaced enterprises which help get people back to work.

Around half of my Ukrainian colleagues have themselves been displaced, and in our group of 20 staff, there are 17 women and three men: Ukraine currently drafts men of fighting age.

With the war dragging on into a third year, the government recently implemented ­martial law, prohibiting all men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country.

I spoke with my male colleagues and while they are playing a significant role to rebuild Ukraine, they are more than aware that at any time night or day they could be sent to the frontlines to take up the quarrel with the foe.

Another air raid siren. This one does not come from my phone but from the loudspeakers set up around the central train station in L’viv. I race to grab my suitcase, but my colleague puts her hand on my shoulder and tells me to chill.

Not to worry. This siren is simply alerting everyone to the presence of a Russian MiG somewhere above the Black Sea.

We commit not to forget Ukraine, to help the country recover. Recovery is about more than bricks, buildings, pipes and wires. It’s about people.

The strength and mental fortitude of Ukrainians is second to none. These are a people who have lived — and continue to live — through the horrors of war.

I continue to stand with Ukraine. To help this country and its amazing people rebuild and rebound.

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