“There is a Shortage of Body Bags”
By Brian Dooley
On the first night of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February, Human Rights Defender Mila Yankina from the NGO ZMINA spoke to me from a bomb shelter in Kyiv.
She volunteered as a medic, and she’s been based in the city ever since, taking medical supplies and food to the vulnerable during the bombardments.
A few weeks ago I went to Ukraine and brought her flak jackets and safety helmets to help protect her. Since Russian forces have been driven from the city and its surrounding areas, she says her work has changed.
“I’ve been going to Bucha, Irpin and other towns and villages that were occupied by the Russians,” Yankina told me. “I still take medicine and food to people but I also now find body bags for the morgue. I have 300 body bags in my car right now. They’re hard to find, and we need more.”
Before the areas around Kyiv were liberated, she spent many weeks providing humanitarian aid in the city, and had experience and the necessary authorization to take food and medicine to those in need. She was among the first humanitarian workers allowed access to the liberated areas, arriving just a few days after the Russian retreat.
“Many bodies were hurriedly buried in the towns, often just in the back yards of apartment buildings. People couldn’t spend a long time digging graves during the bombings,” she says of the victims she and her colleagues found. “Some people were shot in the head, some have signs of torture, many had their hands tied behind their backs. There are many mass graves, and we have DNA experts if it’s hard to identify the bodies.”
Some of the towns and villages that were occupied now have no electricity, water, or gas supplies. “Buildings were attacked by tanks and destroyed — some places were under occupation for 40 days. Stores were destroyed and there are food shortages in many places.”
Bucha, she says, “is a modern city. But people there now are cooking on open fires — they need batteries, flashlights, clean water and sleeping bags. Some people are sleeping out on the street next to the communal fires.”
She is adjusting her work to the new challenges. While she still brings people medicine, food has become more of a priority. “In Kyiv people could cook, but in places with no electricity we have to bring hot food. I’ve been working with a local restaurant called “Salt of the Earth.” It’s well known as a fairly fancy place, offering traditional Ukrainian cuisine. Now it’s helping me to provide thousands of hot meals every day to people who have no cooking facilities, people who are in desperate need of food.”
Some days she travels hundreds of miles to remote villages where no other humanitarian aid workers have yet reached. The journeys are often dangerous, with the roads littered with unexploded missiles and mines.
She says the process of clearing up the rubble and of rebuilding has started in many of the places that were occupied. Streets are being cleared and services are slowly being restored. Not everywhere needs emergency help.”
But there remains plenty to do. Many people remain in desperate need of basics.