Like people around the world, Paul Hughes says, he was transfixed by the images being broadcast out of Ukraine in the days after Russia invaded.
Unlike most people, he hopped on a plane.
As thousands fled the devastation playing out in the eastern part of the country, Hughes, who describes himself as a former member of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry who is now a Calgary farmer and food advocate, went toward it.
Hughes, 57, says he felt an urgent need to go: “I have fought bullies my entire life, and Putin is now the worst in my lifetime,” he said in a recent message.
After the invasion, the Ukrainian president issued an urgent plea for foreigners to join the fight, and while exact numbers are unclear, there are many reports of Canadians heeding the call. Canadian officials, meanwhile, have warned that any who join the fight could face serious repercussions, as the legalities of bearing arms on foreign soil are unclear.
Hughes arrived in Ukraine a week ago, and while he’d still like to make his way to Kyiv to fight, he’s currently in Lviv, a tourist and cultural hub that has become a place of refuge for those fleeing violence further east.
He’s helping at a camp for displaced people, where he’s made soup, chopped wood, greeted arriving families and, he says, grappled with the emotional magnitude of it all. He says he plans to stay until the war is done.
Over the course of a recent day, he kept a diary for the Star. Here’s what he wrote.
0515: Wake up and have coffee. Was going to sleep until 0730, but Canadians don’t know the time difference so phone started going off at 0515. Better than the air raid sirens from a few days ago.
0520: Started responding to messages from Canada. I receive nothing but support. So many thoughtful & kind messages. Wishing me well, to be safe, come back safe, keep my ass down, keep my head down, keep my head up …
0530: Second cup of coffee.
0540: Third cup of coffee. I love the way they do coffee here, much smaller & tastier. It is very strong and very delicious, though I bring my own coconut oil because I’m addicted to that. Miss my maple syrup. (Full disclosure, I’m a huge coffee snob.)
0545: Spoke with HUGS co-ordinator in Calgary. HUGS is the ad hoc group started in Calgary by a bunch of friends. It stands for Help Ukraine Grassroots Support. They’re helping buy some food here for the camp from a huge local market.
0600: Fourth cup of coffee (Gonna be a long day).
0615: Begin the 30-minute walk to the Lviv Central Train Station to assist with food prep and chopping wood for a large outdoor camp for displaced people. The camp is run by a local man named Denis, who is putting in huge hours.
The first day I just showed up and started doing things after observing for 60 seconds. Just jumped in. Then they said something in Ukrainian and I said I speak only English and that I’m a Canadian and a bunch of them came over and hugged me.
0635: Arrive at the camp and have another cup of coffee & soup. The camp is mostly outside, and the weather here generally ranges from -8 C to 0. A little chilly still, but great for working. It is hard on the refugees at night. Spring is coming. Thank God this is not in winter.
0645: Start splitting wood to fuel the two outdoor kitchen burners. The giant soup pot must be close to 45 gallons, maybe 60. It is a local soup with everything in it. It is so delicious. Potatoes, onions, carrots, cabbage, beef, etc., like a vegetable beef soup, Ukrainian style.
0730: Quick water break, back to splitting. The wood is very knotty and twisted, difficult to split, but burns so excellent.
0800: More coffee & talking with some volunteers and refugees in soup line. Most of the people here are coming from the east, from Kharkiv, and Kyiv and many other eastern towns and cities being attacked or about to be attacked. They are going to Poland, Romania, Hungary at first and then many want to go to Germany. Many dream of Canada, but there is no one here except me handing out little pins.
0815: Start handing out sandwiches and soup. So many hungry people. Unrelenting lines. Children everywhere. As hungry and cold as people are, everyone is well mannered, unbelievable really.
1100: Another coffee. Time just flew on the soup line. Speaking to people in English and joking around always gets people in line smiling. Such despair in their faces but everyone smiles and says Дякую dakuyu (thank you).
1110: Haul water & start making more soup. Also a load of dog & cat food arrives. We unload that truck as well.
1130: I offer to wash some items and I am told “No, it is OK.”
1135: Get a chance on the big spoon to stir the soup.
1215: Another coffee and then I head to the station to see if I can help there. Train after train arrives & departs with refugees coming from the east & south, then taking them to Poland, Romania & Hungary, I am told. Mostly Poland.
I walk around the station and give hugs, pet dogs, go back for dog/cat food, carry luggage, help people off and on the trains, more hugs, stop and watch in awe as thousands of women, children and the elderly come and go. I’m moved to tears so often and my lips quiver whenever I stop to assess what is really going on, which is why I rarely stop.
1400: Go back for some soup and someone has brought pastries. So good. They say it is some kind of sweet waffle. I devour mine and look around to see everyone else savouring their piece. I suddenly feel very uncivilized. Everyone looks at me and is smiling and nodding in approval. I guess it’s OK not that they could have stopped me because it was fantastically tasty.
1420: I decide to walk around and just help randomly. I don’t get 50 metres before I find a family with little children crying. I reach for my Canadian pins and hand them to the three little ones. Magically, they all stop and stare at me and then at their pins, then back at me. This goes on for a few minutes but the crying has stopped and the mom looks at me with a smile. I say, “Canada,” and mom looks at her children & says, “Canada” in her thick Ukrainian accent as she points at the pin.
It’s a moment that fills me with a selfish pride, considering the circumstances, as that little red & white pin with the maple leaf carries such power and meaning to people around the world.
1500: Yet another cup of coffee. There is a ban on alcohol sales. No clue why, but I think productivity has taken a huge increase.
I help stoke the fire, split some more wood and watch as even more refugees arrive. The entire square and boulevard in front of the train station is filled with refugees, probably 25,000 people.
It really has a festival-like atmosphere that belies the deep misery and despair everyone is feeling. The parents, adults, volunteers, everyone is putting on a brave face for the children and it feels at times that any moment the façade will come crumbling down, but it does not. And that is the beautiful strength the Ukrainian people have as they face evil and wholesale misery brought on by this invasion.
1700: I take a break. No more coffee, but I light a smoke with some older volunteers and I speak stupidly in English as they all just nod their heads and point at the firewood, seemingly impressed with my wood splitting skills. (I won the wood splitting contest in Yellowknife back in 1999 at the Snowking winter carnival).
It really doesn’t matter what we are saying, people are smiling and that is incredibly rare and valuable regardless of what the source material is.
1730: I get a third wind and once again head to the train platforms and try to help where I can.
I don’t last long as I may be physically able to assist but emotionally I have hit the wall, just like a marathon runner hits the fatigue wall from pushing to the max. The misery is unrelenting. The façade is unrelenting. And so the cycle continues. It is starting to get dark and cold and so many people have nowhere to sleep.
Then people start moving toward large rooms at the train station where beds start being set up. There’s a huge flow of people up the boulevard as people seem to know where to go to take cover for the evening.
1815: It is dusk and at 1830 the street lights come on. There are even more people in the square and I begin to realize so many of them will be up all evening. There are oil drums everywhere with fires burning to help warm the 30 to 50 people huddled around them. People take shifts getting close to the fire, rotating in and out. The smell of smoke is thick in the air.
I am absolutely in awe and wander around handing out soup & sandwiches with some other volunteers. I even hear some laughter. Again, it’s overwhelming emotionally and I take a moment to just breath all of this life in.
2200: Start walk back to where I’m staying. I sleep at a modest flat near the station, in the sleeping bag and camping mat I brought with me. A widow mom and her son were connected to me by a military attaché. They are very good to me.
I catch up on social media, shower and have supper.
2400: Time to sleep. I’ve lived a lifetime in a day with the Ukrainian people. I feel blessed and honoured to have been able to witness the spirit of these remarkable people.
It is this spirit that no military strategist can account for and it is why the Russians will not successfully invade Ukraine.
There is a passion for their country that is unrivalled on this planet and I have witnessed its energy and power in the faces of the hundreds of thousand of refugees I have seen in Lviv.
This account has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
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