It has been almost three months since the war in Ukraine began.
We have all been touched by the news reports and, no doubt, we all feel we have to do something – anything – to help. I’m lucky. I’ve got the skillset and the training that means I can do something. And so I did.
But was it enough? What even does that word ‘enough’ even mean?
As war broke out, in February, I would watch the news, feeling helpless, like so many others. As part of the UK emergency medical team, I have been sent to some of the world’s most troubled areas to help out. I’ve flown halfway around the world to deal with outbreaks of diphtheria in refugee camps in Bangladesh and measles in Samoa.
And so this time, I wanted to be called. I waited to be called.
I was desperate to do something, anything.
When the phone rang there was little notice, I’d be leaving in just two days. So I packed a bag and tied up as many loose ends as I could. I cancelled evenings with friends, I swapped shifts and I prepared to say goodbye to my family.
The night before I left, I lay awake in bed, knowing that I was going to be leaving my family – my husband and children – for a war zone. A small, but not insignificant worry popped into my head. Would my life insurance be valid if something happened to me? And then, does knowingly putting yourself at risk negate a policy? We thought about phoning the insurance company before lifting up the carpet and sweeping the idea underneath. We couldn’t go there. We couldn’t have that conversation
We’ve taught our children to help others. Saying no to this request was not an option.
“This is what you do, Mum.”
But I knew their hearts were heavy.
Friends and colleagues may have admired what I did, even envied me going, doing something useful, something practical, but others couldn’t understand. Conflicting emotions are the backdrop to this experience.
As we did in Bangladesh, we set up clinics to care for those who have been forced to flee their homes. Refugees from the war were living in school classrooms and halls of residence. Families of six or eight were crowded into rooms designed for one or they were living in classrooms, wooden desks pushed to one side to make room for blankets and camping mats.
We looked east, to the bombings and raids and our team of six felt safe. It felt that life still carried on. But did it really? The air raid siren would sound every few hours but there was no scramble for shelter. We came to understand that liminal space between shrieking klaxon and the all clear. It was a collective holding of breath. There was a sense that there was no life beyond today, beyond the present. There was a fragility.
“I’m not planting my garden until Putin has blown up the nearby oil refinery”, one of our translators told us.
Our clinics provided care to those who joined the queue. We never really knew if we were giving them what they needed, always wishing we could do more. Whatever physical wounds we could treat, the psychological scars of this war will never heal. We hope that our presence sent a message though – that we care, that there are people out there in the world that care.
Images endure. Piles of donated items: children’s clothes, little slippers placed carefully in neat lines, jars of homemade jam. This was evidence of humans opening their hearts to other humans. I see the tired father standing in the corner of the classroom he now calls home while we look after his daughter; a haunted look on his lined face, light gone from his eyes. I see the woman who described watching her husband crumpled to the ground as he is shot, then showing us photos of her now destroyed home. I see the family that survived their trek by drinking snow. I cannot unsee them.
I clung to small interactions that we did something. A joke shared with a teenage boy as I persuaded him that using his inhaler regularly was a good thing. I get this at home from my own teenagers, I told him as he rolled his eyes. The brief interlude where our team spends a few minutes high-fiving a group of small children who were shy and sombre only moments before.
All the time I was there I received tweets and messages from friends and strangers alike telling me that I was doing an amazing job, that I was brave, selfless. I didn’t feel any of those things. As a team, we were unclear as to whether we were really helping. Whether we were doing the right thing.
When I left, along with the sense of relief that I would soon see the ones I loved, there was a sense of guilt, of unfinished business. Doing humanitarian work, there is always the need to do more, to take more risks, to sacrifice more. It can be hard to stop and check: am I really needed here? Should it be me? Is now the right time?
I talked to a friend who has had similar experiences. Someone needed to help me make sense of it all. She told me that I’d look back on it when I got home and be able to see the good we did. That maybe me going allowed people at home to have something to believe in – a sense that someone is helping. We’ve spent so much of the last two years feeling helpless, wishing we could do something that would make a difference, hoping that someone would make things a little bit better. Perhaps it encouraged donations and raised awareness. Perhaps our going gave others hope.
It has taken time to settle, to gain perspective, and perhaps I’m not quite there yet. One thing, though, is clear. Whatever I could and should have done in Ukraine, there is only one place where I am truly irreplaceable. Home.