Ukraine-Russia: ‘It was as if it was liquid gold’, says aid worker distributing fresh water in war-hit Ukraine

An aid worker has told how she navigated fields laced with landmines and learned how to dodge cluster bombs while helping at a water distribution station in the Ukrainian city of Mikolaev.

By Jane Bradley
Sunday, 29th May 2022, 4:55 am

Retired teacher Maggie Tookey, who is on her second stint in the war torn country with Edinburgh Direct Aid (EDA), is distributing essential food and aid parcels into the communities worst hit by the conflict.

After travelling to Odessa by train, the group, which included an Australian fighter pilot and a Danish firefighter, drove the rest of the way to areas which needed the most aid. The east has been harder hit than most parts of the country, as Russian forces focus their attacks on territories which were already aligned with Moscow.

Ms Tookey said: “The main road north east from Odessa was fine, but after an hour we veered off onto a minor road, much of it unmade and mostly rough gravel. From here we began to notice signs next to the road warning of land mines and in some places soldiers were busy digging trenches. There was no traffic on these roads. There was no fuel for hundreds of kilometres.”

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Maggie Tookey is a volunteer with Edinburgh Direct Aid.

Ms Tookey also told of her train journey across Ukraine – from the western city of Lviv to Odessa - in which the carriage windows were sealed with tape to stop them shattering in the event of an attack, while blinds were tightly closed to prevent light escaping and alerting Russian forces to the train’s presence.

She said she felt frustrated by the train’s slow speed through areas which she knew were likely to be targeted by Russians.

She said: “Why weren’t we going full throttle to get out of the hit zone instead of sitting still and inviting a strike? This happened many times on this journey - we seemed to have the misfortune of passing from one air raid area to another. Each time I wanted to shout to the engine driver to get his foot down but I kept quiet and hunkered down in my sleeping bag.”

In Mykolaiv, the water supply has been entirely cut off and locals are being forced to drink from the river, which is bright green in colour, polluted by toxins and dubbed locally as “technical water”. The supply pipes were damaged and cannot be repaired due to Russian forces in the area.

Maggie Tookey helps distribute drinking water in Ukraine.

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EDA has delivered 50,000 litres of drinking water to the port city, which was one of the first to be occupied by Russia.

She said: “This green water even corrodes heating elements in the heaters used for showers. Imagine what it can do to the skin. The municipality had tried to use a basic filtration system on the green water, but it had barely made any difference.”

She added: “It is a privilege for EDA to participate in this. I saw many relieved faces as their containers filled up with fresh water. It was as if they had filled them with liquid gold.”

A Mykolaiv resident collects drinking water brought by volunteers from Odessa, in Mykolaiv, on April 19, 2022, during Russia's military invasion launched on Ukraine. - Mykolaiv has been without a central water supply for several days due to damages caused by shelling in the conflict. (Photo by Oleksandr GIMANOV / AFP) (Photo by OLEKSANDR GIMANOV/AFP via Getty Images)

However, while Ms Tookey was helping to distribute the water, the town was hit by an air raid.

Ms Tookey said: "I had a vest on but I didn’t feel particularly safe in it. Fortunately it stopped a while later and we were so busy with the distribution, I had something else to focus on.

"Apparently the most dangerous risk at the distribution are cluster bombs. They come undetected by radar so there’s no warning sirens like with missiles and rockets. I had a crash lesson in what to do when I hear a peculiar buzzing in the sky - run for cover because there’s on average 25 seconds until it hits.”

After giving aid to a priest in one area, the group was approached by a second priest, who desperately needed help for his 2,000 parishioners. The priest, who in the Orthodox religion which is most common in Ukraine, unlike Catholic priests, is married, had two sons fighting in the Ukrainian army.

“The place is difficult to access for many reasons as we were to find out and also involved a 260km round trip into uncharted territory,” said Ms Tookey.

"The church was very small and very pretty; built by the priest himself. We unloaded all we had to bring - tinned meat and fish, rice, sugar, flour - food basics but so important for this community. Saying goodbye, I felt guilty that we could not do more - we just didn’t have the fuel to make another round trip. As it was the van would need to try to get into Moldova to buy the diesel we needed over the next six days.

"The priest’s wife looked so sad as we left. Her sons were at the front. When would the next visitors come with help? How long would this dreadful war go on? When would she see her sons again? We had no answers for her.”

Ms Tookey said villages in the east were feeling the effects not only of the war itself, but of food and fuel shortages.

She added: “The absence of fuel and the war has made life here in these parishes so much more difficult - the few small shops have closed because no supplies can be brought in - the population has to endure the threat of war at closer proximity here.”

EDA is taking donations for its Ukraine appeal here.