A small nonprofit labors to fill the aid gap as Ukrainians ask, ‘What is taking so long?’

Editor’s note: This story was originally published by The Boston Globe on April 25, 2022

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Past the devastation of Russian airstrikes and against the thunder of artillery fire, a truck laden with medical supplies, protective Kevlar vests, and generators trundled forward to the front line here, where a small village waited anxiously.

And as the villagers of Vysochanskja greeted two aid workers from a newly formed nonprofit organization called Save Our Allies, staffed largely by ex-US military Special Operations forces, they were welcoming and grateful. But they also had a penetrating question: What took so long?

Billions of dollars in humanitarian aid promised by the international community, including $1 billion in commitments from the United States alone, that Ukrainians constantly hear is on the way is, in reality, not getting to where it is needed the most. The fact is so self-evident that one US State Department official described it as a “critical strategic failure.”

That question — what is taking so long? — often plagues international aid organizations as they struggle to respond to humanitarian crises, particularly one as massive as the war in Ukraine. But even when measured against the past, the delays in Ukraine are dire, according to local, national, and international officials.

And it is of particular urgency here in Ukraine’s Northeast city of Kharkiv, with its bombed-out factories, neighborhoods of mortar-punched apartment buildings, and tank-battered warrens of smaller villages close to the Russian-occupied areas along the nearby border.

“We don’t know why none of the food and medical supplies that we hear is coming to us has not actually arrived until now,” said 50-year-old Natalia Plutnik, head of the community center in Vysochanskja where the Save Our Allies truck had stopped to unload its cargo. “We are so grateful! This is so needed!” 

Save Our Allies staff allowed a Boston Globe correspondent to embed on their mission of mercy — a 48-hour odyssey that traversed nearly 2,000 miles of highways and backroads through scenes of devastation that could be observed at every turn. But just as evident, glaringly, was the absence of aid for basic needs, most pointedly medical supplies and food.

While massive military aid has finally delivered the tanks, howitzers, weaponized drones, and missile systems desperately needed as the war escalates in the east, purely humanitarian aid is not getting through, according to US and Ukrainian officials on the ground. It is either bogged down in warehouses in Poland and western Ukraine, or idling at the border in long lines of trucks with insignias of big aid organizations such as the World Food Program, International Red Cross, Mercy Corps, and others. 

A question about the challenges in delivering humanitarian aid in Ukraine was raised at a press conference early Monday after the visit to Ukraine’s war-torn capital by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday, as he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in a show of solidarity during Easter on the Eastern Orthodox calendar.

On Monday, in Poland, near the Ukraine border, Blinken spoke with reporters at a warehouse stocked with humanitarian aid. He was asked about delays in the delivery of the aid to the front lines inside Ukraine. He gestured to the piled-up crates of aid behind him and vowed that it would be delivered promptly. He added that additional massive amounts of aid have already been delivered in Ukraine and to countries around the region to support the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

“And if there are bottlenecks, there are challenges there, we’re working through that. But what I’m seeing at least is that aid is getting here and other distribution points is getting out the door incredibly quickly. Again, this place is gonna look different five or six hours from now than it does right now,” he said.

Among those highlighting the apparent failure to deliver aid was Representative Victoria Spartz, Republican of Indiana and the first Ukrainian-born member of Congress, who was also in Kyiv Sunday to observe her native country at war and to be with her elderly grandmothers for Easter. Both were born before the start of World War II, surviving the horrors of Hitler, the brutality of Stalin, and the hope for freedom after the fall of the Soviet Union, only to see an unprovoked invasion by Russian President Putin that threatens to destroy the sacrifices made to secure independence.

Spartz made a sharp criticism of the failure of the United States, the United Nations, and Europe to ensure the delivery of nearly $10 billion in promised humanitarian and economic aid, and its collective failure to push Putin to honor the so-called humanitarian corridors for the flow of medical supplies, food, and shelter.

Speaking on CNN of the stalled aid delivery, Spartz said, “Nothing is happening here. I haven’t seen it on the ground anywhere at all, and people are suffering.”

Save Our Allies sees itself as a kind of special forces for humanitarian aid, intent on changing that equation by reaching isolated areas that need the aid. The medical supplies they delivered were picked up from Samaritan’s Purse, one of the largest American aid organizations operating in the country. Samaritan’s Purse is based out of a makeshift field hospital and medical supply warehouse in a parking garage, which is safe, but far from the front lines.

“A lot of what we have seen on the ground in Ukraine is that the larger, more established, traditional humanitarian aid groups are not nimble enough to establish supply lines and get humanitarian aid to where it is needed most,” said Sarah Verardo, a Rhode Island native who founded Save Our Allies, which is headquartered in North Carolina.

The Save Our Allies truck was driven by a former member of a US military Special Operations team who goes by the name “Seaspray,” to protect his identity in the war zone. “These people need help, and we know how to get it to them,” said Seaspray, SOA’s operations chief in Ukraine, as he shifted gears and motored the truck forward. “That’s really what it is all about.”

As the truck made its way from the Polish border through Lviv and Kyiv and onto Kharkiv, it hurtled past the bloody path of destruction of Russian military forces. Along the way was the evidence of the indiscriminate nature of the Russian invasion, with some areas almost untouched and others devastated. Villages are protecting themselves against Russian tanks with trench lines and checkpoints fashioned out of sandbags and logs. Volunteer militias at these checkpoints huddle around open fires in scenes that look straight out of World War II.

Once the truck arrived in Vysochanskja, residents immediately formed a line to offload five pallets filled with enough medical supplies to restock the local clinics treating lighter casualties as well as the elderly and the infirm who have gone without regular medical attention since the war began two months ago.

A State Department official working directly on the humanitarian effort underway in Ukraine told the Globe, “This is a critical strategic failure right now. We are simply not reinforcing the people we need to keep fed and to keep alive so they can keep up the fight.”

The $1 billion allocated to USAID for the humanitarian effort has not even been transferred to the agency’s accounts and the budgeting process, the official said, noting it has been slower than it should be during a crisis.

Along with Save Our Allies, Verardo also helped start the Independence Fund, a charitable organization dedicated to supporting US military veterans that she was inspired to establish in part to honor her husband, Sergeant Michael Verardo, who was severely wounded in Afghanistan in 2010.

SOA received its official IRS approval as a 501c3 charity only last month, Verardo said, and has seed money of approximately $1 million to get the initiative off the ground. Currently operating on a month-to-month budget, SOA has a small paid staff in the field based out of operations centers in Poland, and in neighboring Romania.

The idea for Save Our Allies was forged last summer out of the chaotic end to the war in Afghanistan, when former Special Operations members helped evacuate Afghans who had worked with the US military. A core of 12 Special Operations veterans, including Seaspray, are credited with the daring rescue and logistical expertise that resulted in the evacuation of 13,000 Afghans out of the airport in Kabul as the United States stumbled through its final exit in Afghanistan.

“A group of highly talented, trained veterans ran toward the fire and filled the gap that others could not,” said Verardo, who has visited the staging area in Poland and observed the team’s field operations. “The problem is a lot of other large UN-affiliated aid groups get allocated all the money but they need groups like SOA to serve as a bridge until they can get their supply lines established.”

These kinds of efforts do have critics. Some humanitarian aid experts have long maintained the importance of ensuring that humanitarian aid is not seen as an extension of any military operation. The State Department official said she supports Save Our Allies’ efforts, but concedes there are good reasons to have a process for delivering humanitarian aid that is not run by the military, or by ex-military, as it can unravel the long history of protection for humanitarian efforts under international law.

But others would argue that it is simply practical to deploy the operational expertise of elite special forces and their skills in navigating war zones while keeping a low profile. The Save Our Allies team insist they are tightly focused on their humanitarian mission and are not engaging in any military operations.

They rely on a local network of scores of churches and community centers as a “force multiplier,” as they put it, giving them greater visibility across Ukraine that also provides an early warning of where aid is most needed. So far, they have been called to extract wounded and vulnerable people trapped on the front lines, including orphans and an elderly woman with Parkinson’s, as well as a prominent American journalist.

SOA’s Seaspray worked closely with Fox News to evacuate correspondent Benjamin Hall when he was severely wounded near Kyiv in March after his crew came under direct attack by Russian forces. The group also helped to recover the bodies of two members of the Fox reporting team who were killed in the incident and returned them to their families for burial.

Recognizing a debt of gratitude to Save Our Allies, Yuliya Svitychna, a member of the Ukrainian parliament representing the Kharkiv district, was in the capital Kyiv last week and wrote a letter into the parliamentary record thanking SOA for pushing forward and delivering the aid.

An estimated 500 people have been killed in the fighting in the Kharkiv district and tens of thousands have been wounded. But Svitychna fears the numbers are much higher, as there are many who may have died in their homes and not yet been identified.

That hospitals have been targeted is a war crime, she said, and many people in need of urgent care are not getting it. She said a particular concern is for a resupplying of medicine for diabetes, thyroid conditions, and cancer treatments. “These medicines are particularly urgent,” she said, adding that local doctors and medical workers have asked her to check on why these are not being resupplied through the massive global effort to assist Ukraine.

“I see lots of people who want to help and saying how much they are helping, but honestly I am not seeing it. We are just not seeing the humanitarian aid being effectively delivered and distributed into our region. And I am hearing the same from other regions,” she added, urging Save Our Allies to continue and expand its operations.

As the villagers on the edge of Kharkiv finished offloading the supplies, they insisted on inviting the SOA team and Globe correspondent for lunch. In a small back room of the community center, they shared details of living in almost complete isolation and fear on the front lines of this conflict.

Preparations for the Easter holiday were underway, led by the women who had come together to protect their village. The meal began with a prayer, infused with the meaning of Holy Week and the celebration of the Christian belief in the resurrection.

As they laid out a home-made lunch of chicken soup, fresh vegetables, pickles, and fresh-baked bread, one of the women broke away from the talk of military and humanitarian aid, saying with a smile, “This is from the arms of Ukrainian women.”

A version of this story appeared on THE BOSTON GLOBE on April 25, 2022