‘Heartbreaking’ – Watch as South Tyneside volunteers describe traumatic scenes after returning from mercy mission to Ukrainian border
Mothers relying on handouts to feed their babies in sub-zero temperatures, tearful husbands returning to fight the Russian onslaught, and families living out of suitcases on a train platform - just some of the traumatic scenes witnessed by Hebburn Helps founder Jo Durkin and local businessman Paul Briggs on their mercy mission to the Ukrainian border.
The two dedicated volunteers have been describing their “heartbreaking” experience after seeing thousands of terrified, displaced refugee families seeking sanctuary in a Polish train station.
They were joined by Paul’s uncle, Colin Bone as co-driver, as they visited the Polish city of Przemyśl on the Ukrainian border to deliver vital supplies of nappies, baby milk and food, non-perishable goods, basic first-aid equipment and warm clothing to refugee families fleeing the war-torn country.
Jo, 53, said: “It was absolutely heartbreaking to see. I was walking around the train station and there were families just sitting with their children, surrounded by their bags. It was freezing - around minus five degrees – but these were all the belongings people were obviously able to grab before having to flee.
Striking new images show vision for South Tyneside College and Customs House in bid for town centre levelling-up cash
The 10 South Tyneside streets with most disorder and anti-social behaviour in June
UPDATE: Man dies after serious collision between car and pedestrian in South Shields as police appeal for witnesses
Mr Gay Europe contestants get magical tour of South Shields on visit ahead of finals
Countdown to Metro line closure - travellers urged to prepare for service suspension between Pelaw and South Shields
"There was even a separate area which had been set-aside for women with their babies. It was terrible to see all the children there. I saw one woman sat with her three daughters. I have three daughters and that’s when the gravity of this situation really dawned on me and I began to fill up with tears.
"I had to go outside to compose myself. When I was outside I saw a young couple getting off a coach. They embraced and then she walked away as he got back onboard – presumably to return to fight – it was so sad to see.
“It really hit home that these are just ordinary people, like you and me, who were going about their daily lives who’ve suddenly been plunged into a situation where they’ve been displaced from their homes and families or are fighting on the front-line.”
The supplies, which had been donated by Hebburn schools, businesses and residents, were split between refugees boarding trains seeking safe havens across Europe, with other items being taken by local charities for distribution.
Jo spent some of her time in Przemyśl at the train station’s make-shift refugee camp handing out cards containing messages of support which had been made by Hebburn schoolchildren.
She said: “The people were so happy to see us and were very grateful for both the cards and items we’d brought. One of the cards was from my nephew. We had researched on the internet how to write a message of support in Ukrainian.
"I gave it to one little girl and to see her face light-up made it so worthwhile.”
Despite being inside the border, the Polish city hadn’t escaped the impact of the war unfolding just over a mile to the East.
Jo said: “I went for a walk outside and the streets were deserted. It was a Saturday, yet all the shops were closed. There was no one in the city. Being so close to the border, we were told that many people had decided to head west over fears of being caught-up in the conflict.
"We didn’t hear it ourselves, but I was talking to some of the volunteers who said when Lviv was was being bombed they could hear the explosions. For many people, despite being across the border, the war was obviously too close for comfort.”
After an almost 50 hour journey, via the Amsterdam ferry, the signs of fear caused by the invasion became apparent even on the approach to Przemyśl.
Paul, 45, who’s Managing Director of local IT company ExCommunicate, said: “When we got to within 15 miles of the border, the roads were suddenly deserted. To be honest, it made your stomach churn as you thought my God, what are we going into here?
“Driving into the city was such an eerie experience. The only people who seemed to be there were refugees.”
After arriving at their destination, Paul’s first job was to speak with the local authorities to see where to unload his aid laden van.
He said: “When I walked into the train station what really struck me was how many children were being looked after by grandparents – many of whom were in their 70s and 80s. Their parents – both men and women – had obviously made the decision to stay and fight.
"There was one woman with her children who was breast feeding a baby. She was talking to the children, who were all crying. There was a policeman standing nearby who spoke English. I asked him what was happening and he said she was explaining to her children that they were going on a big adventure and they would see their father again soon.
"As a dad myself, that’s when it really hit me. It was absolutely heartbreaking to see.”
Paul felt compelled to act after witnessing harrowing images of the conflict on the television, including the disturbing sight of a young child disembarking a train with his parents’ contact number penned across his arm.
He said: “This has been such a humbling experience, but I’m pleased I went out. It’s not often you get the chance to help like this and make a difference.”
Jo added: “After returning home, it took me few days to process all the things I witnessed. It has been a truly life-changing experience. I felt like I needed to do something and I’m pleased I went out there to help in what little way I could.
"Hopefully the war will soon be over, but if it’s still going on in the summer then it’s something I will look to do again.”
Since the start of the conflict, more than 11 million people are believed to have been displaced with 5.2m refugees seeking sanctuary in other European nations, including almost three million in Poland.