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‘They’re traumatised, tired and sick with blisters on their feet’

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id workers enduring air raid sirens, sleepless nights and sub-zero temperatures are helping desperate Ukrainian families arriving in Chernivtsi find shelter.

In the past two weeks the small city in western Ukraine has seen 220,000 men, women and children arrive after being forced to pack up their lives often in just a backpack and a few plastic bags and flee from their homes. Situated about 40 miles from the Romanian border, it has seen its population almost double.

Red Cross operations manager Julia Brothwell arrived in Ukraine a month ago to help from Chernivtsi. “We were all hoping this wouldn’t happen. It’s very cold, today it got down to about -6C and there is a bitter wind. We are away from fighting here. But we do get the air raid sirens.

“This morning we had one at 3.30am so had to go down to the bunker in the hotel. Everyone in the city when the siren sounds needs to get to safety. We are lucky if we get four or five hours sleep.”

Ms Brothwell, 58, has been helping families who arrive in Chernivtsi. Many have just small suitcases stuffed with essentials and rely on the kindness of other residents for accommodation as they make plans to travel to the border.

“Most who arrive here are really worried,” Ms Brothwell said. “All of them are badly traumatised after having to leave everything behind and get out very quickly. They’re also very concerned about anybody who didn’t leave.

“A young lady who was interpreting for me has a lot of friends in Hlukhiv [a town just south of the Russian border]. For the first few days she had contact with them and then suddenly she lost contact.”

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Facilities and hospitals in Chernivtsi are still functioning, but medicine is now in shorter supply. The country is also under martial law which means men age 18 to 60 cannot leave, fuel is rationed and in some places food and water sources are scarce. But despite the danger, many young Ukrainians who have managed to get to a bordering country have come back once they know their vulnerable relatives are safe.

Ms Brothwell said: “A woman in the office where I’m working spent 10 days getting her grandparents to Poland. Then immediately she came back because she just wanted to help. I’ve heard that story so many times.”

Aid workers are in vital need of donations to provide those fleeing with the essentials and help them play for accommodation.

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