Death was everywhere: Edinburgh man delivers aid to frontline Ukrainian villages

An Edinburgh charity founder who has personally delivered aid to “decimated” frontline villages in Ukraine and helped thousands of civilians has urged Britons to continue to care for ordinary people impacted by war in the country.

Oleg Dmitriev, 43, told the PA news agency he was compelled by the “feeling of injustice and the catastrophe” to start helping deliver aid to Ukraine two weeks after Russia’s full-scale invasion began on February 24 2022.

Since then he has established his own charity, Sunflower Scotland, which has helped more than 11,700 people in Ukraine’s frontline villages, people in liberated areas and hospitals.

Oleg Dmitriev has delivered aid to 16 frontline towns and villages (Oleg Dmitriev/PA)

He first visited the city of Kharkiv, which he said was a “heartbreaking experience”.

“At that time, the city was half-encircled by Russians and each day after dark, they started shelling it, and you just drive or walk through Kharkiv and a big part of buildings in the city centre had no windows and had cracks in the walls from the bombs, and it was dreadful,” Mr Dmitriev said.

“On the main square there was an unexploded missile right in the centre of it.

“It felt like there was like a dark cloud over the city – everyone was very depressed and everyone was scared.”

Oleg Dmitriev in Prikolotne, Kharkiv Oblast, as he carried out aid work (Oleg Dmitriev/PA)

He said: “I drove through villages after villages after villages that were decimated and it’s actually a road from Kupyansk to Izyum that impressed me so much in the most terrible way.

“All the villages were just decimated and you could see the houses with roofs broken and everything and you could see the sheer scale of destruction.

“Death was everywhere.”

He said “one of the worst things” about aid distribution work is when the volunteers do not have enough for everyone who needs it.

Oleg Dmitriev saw numerous destroyed towns and villages as he travelled to distribute aid (Oleg Dmitriev/PA)

“When you’re starting, everything is nice.

“Everyone is cheerful because food came and then you see that you only have a few bags left and then you say, ‘people, please don’t queue up, we only have enough left for 10 people’, and then five people, one.

“Then they always come, ‘oh, can you please give me an extra one for my neighbour, she is very old, she’s ill, she’s injured, she cannot come, please’.

“It’s actually very hard for the volunteers to go through this because you basically have to turn down people. After this, you drive in silence for some time.”

This experience always sticks with him.

Oleg Dmitriev experienced “one of the most most devastating moments in my life” when he encountered a destroyed nursery in Kharkiv (Oleg Dmitriev/PA)

He experienced “one of the most most devastating moments in my life” when he encountered a destroyed nursery in Saltivka, a district of the city of Kharkiv.

“The structure, the frame remained of the building, but some of the walls were cracked and destroyed, and then most windows had no glass and all the furniture inside was broken, and it was a mixture of rubble, broken furniture, toys and snow,” he said.

“I have two kids and as a father, obviously, I take those things very personally.

“After a few minutes, something suddenly cracked and I started crying and I couldn’t stop crying for about 10 minutes. Thinking what happened to those children was very hard.

Oleg Dmitriev saw destroyed buildings in Kharkiv (Oleg Dmitriev/PA)

Mr Dmitriev’s experience has been captured in a documentary, Sunflowers In The Rain, directed by Aaron MacCarley, which follows the stories of 10 Ukrainian and foreign volunteers.

Mr Dmitriev believes the documentary will shed light on the experiences of ordinary Ukrainians suffering because of the war as it shows “how their lives changed, what they go through”.

He now plans on returning to the front line and urges others to continue to care about the ordinary people affected by the war.

He said: “I think, as a society, we moved on and it’s very hard to explain this to people who need help, because people need to eat every day and they are getting injured every day.

“We would like our donors not to give a one-off donation but to make space in their heart to support people for a longer term.”

Sunflowers In The Rain is premiering at Edinburgh City Chambers on February 23.

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