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International and grassroots groups alike are working to get supplies into Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Picture three massive currents flowing through Ukraine at the same time right now - first, the war effort as the outnumbered Ukrainian military fights back against the invading Russian troops; then, the exodus of refugees as millions of people flee the country they call home; and third, the flood of supplies going in the other direction - humanitarian aid coming into Ukraine to help people in increasingly desperate circumstances. This logistical labyrinth involves major international organizations and small grassroots groups, both inside and outside of Ukraine. And that's the effort we're going to focus on now, telling the story from both sides of the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINES RUNNING)

CHRIS MELZER: These four trucks will leave in a few minutes. On board are the 16,000 blankets. They came in from Dubai with a nice big jumbo jet.

SHAPIRO: Thirty-five thousand blankets have already passed through here in the last few days. Chris Melzer is a spokesman for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. We are in a parking lot next to the airport in Rzeszow, Poland. When war broke out, this site became an operation center for UNHCR.

MELZER: The most important things - everything what has to do with cold and warm - so blankets, outer garments, sleeping bags. Yeah, also some canned food.

SHAPIRO: But can these trucks get into Kyiv, into Mariupol, into some of these cities that are being surrounded or close to it?

MELZER: This is exactly the question, and that's why we ask for these so-called humanitarian corridors - to not only get people out of these areas, but also supplies in.

SHAPIRO: We step out of the freezing cold to see the place where the supplies are being stored here in Rzeszow. It's a mostly empty warehouse. And Silva Alkebeh says the emptiness means the system is working. She's chief of supply logistics here.

SILVA ALKEBEH: You know, our target is to not have this warehouse full. Whatever is in, is out - if not the same day, next day.

SHAPIRO: And how does that ideal compare to what is actually happening right now? Is it flowing the way you want it to?

ALKEBEH: Exactly. It is like that because, just to give you a very concrete example, we receive a donation from IKEA, we receive shipment from our operation in Greece, and all of them already inside Ukraine. Even the airlift today is planned to move tomorrow.

SHAPIRO: She grew up in Syria and has worked for UNHCR for 15 years in places from Darfur to Pakistan to Bangladesh.

ALKEBEH: When Syria emergency started, this is when I start to feel the difference because when you see it happen in your country, when you see that assistance going to your people, you are connected. It's not just a job. It's much beyond a job. It's not just a humanitarian. It's something you know that - they say you are helping here; someone is helping your friend, maybe your family, in your countries.

SHAPIRO: And so how do you think about the people in Ukraine right now?

ALKEBEH: I cannot - I don't know what to say here. It's like, you are forced to flee your home, leave everything behind. You don't know what will happen tomorrow. You don't know who will receive you, how they will receive you. And all of that happens. Suddenly, you leave your family - maybe your family, you will lose it. So I cannot even describe it with the word. It's not something - I don't know. I cannot describe it. Nothing could be worse than that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SUPPLIES RATTLING)

SHAPIRO: Back in the parking lot, the drivers are waiting for the final things they need before they roll towards the border of Ukraine. A 63-year-old man with gold teeth named Mikola (ph) asks us to only use his first name. He's been driving trucks since 1975. Over the windshield, he has a little, red curtain for shade with white pompoms hanging down. He still has family in Ukraine, and he worries about them.

MIKOLA: (Through interpreter) Especially my granddaughter, who is eight years old - she's really afraid of the sirens that sound every night. It's scary.

SHAPIRO: What is the drive like?

MIKOLA: (Through interpreter) It's, of course, very dangerous. Wherever you go, whether it's the western or eastern part of Ukraine, they can start attacking you any time, dropping bombs or whatever.

SHAPIRO: Does that frighten you?

MIKOLA: (Through interpreter) What is fear? I may or may not be frightened, but I'm human, and I have to do my job.

SHAPIRO: Today his job takes him into a war zone. The trucks roll out, headed for the border.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN BEEPING)

SHAPIRO: On the other side of that border, this river of assistance will join a much larger flow of aid - groups small and large, official and unofficial. And our colleague, Tim Mak, has been spending time with one of those smaller, unofficial groups in Ukraine. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

SHAPIRO: What have you seen there on the other side of the border?

MAK: So what's really interesting is the spontaneous humanitarian relief efforts, not particularly organized with international aid groups, but just among folks who want to help out. So on the first day of the war, there was this local here in Rivne Oblast named Vlad (ph). He joined 13 of his friends, and they were brainstorming. What could they do to help?

They started this Telegram group. Friends invited friends. One thing led to another. And by the end of the day, 500 people were brainstorming about what they could do to help. In two weeks, that number was nearly 6,000. This is without the backing of any aid groups or formal structure.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

MAK: They arranged for a warehouse in Poland. They arranged for a warehouse in Rivne in northern Ukraine. They're gathering humanitarian supplies for civilians and troops. Here's me talking about it with Vlad.

So basically, anyone can write you and tell you, we need this in Kyiv; we need this in Odessa. And then you put that on a list and try to get them the stuff?

VLAD: And we try.

MAK: Yeah.

VLAD: Because it's hard to - it's hard with logistics. Oh - you can see.

MAK: What's this? Where's this from?

VLAD: New stuff has come.

MAK: Let's go take a look.

SHAPIRO: So where is this stuff actually coming from?

MAK: Well, that particular truck arriving came all the way from Sicily in Italy. Its contents were handed off in Poland, then again in Lviv in western Ukraine, then now here in Rivne. It was driven, that last little bit of the route, by a lone driver, a man named Vilyan (ph).

What's inside this truck?

VILYAN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Food.

VILYAN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: Medicaments.

VILYAN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: First aid.

VILYAN: (Non-English language spoken).

MAK: And kids' food.

So it's really a sight to see volunteers without orders, formal orders, begin lining up. They form this human chain and unload this arriving truck. It has medical supplies, hygiene supplies, water, food, sleeping bags, tents, children's toys, even dog food. And all of this was organized spontaneously in 14 days. They're getting donations of supplies from all over the world. One group of well-wishers even flew over a load of supplies from Brazil to Eastern Europe.

SHAPIRO: This is such a contrast with what I saw on the Poland side. It sounds like a real hub of organized chaos.

MAK: Yeah. I mean, there was always movement. They were either unloading a truck or organizing supplies that they had unloaded or pre-staging supplies to be loaded for the next onward truck.

SHAPIRO: Tim, it's hard enough for the UNHCR, which has an international infrastructure to stand up something like this - how did this completely improvised system get built in two weeks?

MAK: Well, so as I'm asking this, they bring me back into this office. Vilyan wants to show me their logistics process - this big, constantly updating Excel file with requests from various hotspots and supplies they want to pull into the country.

SHAPIRO: Did he tell you about why he's doing all of this?

MAK: I mean, it's really remarkable - right? - because it's all voluntary. This is all about people who want to do their part to contribute to the alleviation of suffering further east in Ukraine. For the people at the warehouse, they really feel like Ukraine and civilians, like them, can win this war against Russia.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Tim Mak reporting from the Ukraine side of the border. Tim, thanks so much.

MAK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GABRIELLE CHILLMARK'S "FOREST AIR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.