"The global impulse recognizes an immense injustice, and that awakens our Christian souls. It is more than solidarity."
As the Russian army’s invasion enters its fifth week, 12 million people in Ukraine are caught in a very fragile situation. 3.8 million have already fled the fighting to a neighboring country and another 4 million are planning to join them. Faced with an unprecedented humanitarian challenge, the Order of Malta is carrying out numerous actions on the ground in Ukraine. These include the distribution of meals in six reception centers in Lviv, where a centralized medical center has been set up; accommodation for refugees arriving in Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk; making available psychological support; and the medical transfer of wounded or sick refugees to the borders.
To date the Order of Malta has provided 275,000 Ukrainians with medical care, logistical assistance or food distribution at the country’s borders. In addition, 47 trucks loaded with medical equipment, food, medicine and survival kits have already been chartered. Additional convoys are being prepared. 69,000 volunteers living in Eastern Europe are committed to supporting the humanitarian effort. Dominique de la Rochefoucauld-Montbel, the Grand Hospitaller of the Order, testifies to their commitment, calling it “more than solidarity” in the face of the tragedy of war. From Krakow, during his visit to Poland and Ukraine, he answered questions from Aleteia.
Aleteia: You just returned from Ukraine. What exactly was your mission?
Dominique de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel: From my experience in the field, I know that seeing the reality for yourself allows you to have a different approach than the vision you receive from the media. As a result, we can organize aid much better on the spot. Our mission remains the same: to take care of the people who are suffering as best we can. In Ukraine as well as in Poland, I was able to meet the people we are caring for, but also the volunteers on the ground. It is very important that they feel supported and encouraged in their action.
You have 30 years of field experience in different places of military conflicts in the world. What particularly struck you about the Polish-Ukrainian border and Ukraine itself?
On the border near Przemysl (southeast Poland), I visited a huge transitional reception center for refugees that can accommodate 9,000 people. It is a shopping mall, which has been transformed into a reception center mainly for women and children. All the services from food, cleaning, sleeping, to the distribution of clothes have been made available there. Seeing these 9,000 traumatized people without any privacy in this huge hall is heartbreaking. Imagine all these women with children: they are both anxious for their future and very worried about their husbands or their sons who stayed in Ukraine to fight. It is a terrible situation. Their future looks very bleak, while they have to live for their children, often babies or small children. Exhausted and in shock, these women find themselves in a real no-man’s land, with only the memory of their destroyed houses, their lost businesses, their husbands and sons in the war.
All those who help are admirable, they give their best.
And I have to say that in the face of this tragedy, I am impressed by the fantastic welcome that the volunteers are giving them. All those who help are admirable, they give the best of themselves. There are counseling groups, or support groups, or orientation for a selected final destination. There are maps of the world on the walls that explain the next steps in this exodus. There is even a hair and makeup salon ready to give these women a little bit of normal life when they find themselves in a totally abnormal life. I was very impressed with this reception center.
You crossed the border into Ukraine, towards Ivano-Frankivsk…
It took a long time to cross the border there are many controls at customs. The presence of the military reminds us that the war is really there. From the border, we went directly to meet our teams in Ivano-Frankivsk to be with them, to have dinner together on the go. Since the Maidan Revolution in 2014, the Order of Malta has been present in Ukraine to evacuate the wounded and transport them to Poland for treatment. Our volunteers continue this mission today, especially at the hospital in Ivano-Frankivsk. At that hospital we have trained 2,500 volunteers in first aid. Most of them are very committed young women who speak English very well, which is very valuable in our daily communication. For our arrival, they prepared an excellent soup … even as this visit occurred in a strange atmosphere of constant threat.
What do you think are the most urgent needs?
Two things: Today, in the immediate future: accompaniment through the border crossing and reception with the medical assistant for those who need care. We have many tents set up along the Polish-Ukrainian border with food, medical equipment and beds. The other form of care, the one for tomorrow and in the long term, is the psychological, social and medical support for all these people. We have no idea how long this war will last. But as soon as Ukraine finds peace, the country will have to be rebuilt. The Order of Malta has seven centers in Ukraine, the one in Marioupol was destroyed. We will have to mobilize ourselves to accompany the Ukrainians on the spot after the war.
The global impulse recognizes an immense injustice and that awakens our Christian souls.
How can this long-term mobilization be sustained?
It is essential to ensure regular replacements. This morning, we managed to organize a team in France to host a first aid post at the border and replace the team that is already there. There are also Italian teams that are reorganizing to deploy between Romania and Poland. A few days ago, Malta France and Malta Germany sent two ambulances to Hungary and six rescue doctors. I am seeing a very strong impulse of solidarity, that of the Poles, but now also of other countries.
How do you explain this generous mobilization of volunteers?
They want to serve the poor and the sick in a Christian spirit; we express this attitude is in our daily prayer. Today, we find this dynamic all over the world. In 2014, the Maïdan Revolution had already struck young Europeans, especially from neighboring countries: the links between all these countries, Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, Romania are historically very strong. Their solidarity was awakened as never before. The global impulse recognizes an immense injustice, and that awakens our Christian souls. It is more than solidarity.