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Community Protection: Lending a Hand, Lending a Bulletproof Vest 

Date: May 24, 2023

Since 2022, NP Ukraine has been lending flak jackets and helmets to local aid organizations and volunteers. On May 3, volunteers with NP’s local partner survived a rocket shelling while evacuating people in Kherson thanks to a bulletproof vest lent by NP.

Firefighters work at a train station hit by a Russian military strike,  
amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kherson, Ukraine May 3, 2023. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Creative Solutions for Safety 

In Ukraine, where the risk of injury or death comes from explosive weapons rather than at the direct hands of another individual, NP faced the challenge of finding creative solutions for keeping civilians safe. Especially in frontline areas, having good quality personal protective equipment (PPE) such as flak jackets and helmets is essential for staying alive.  

Local aid organizations and volunteers, however, have limited or no access to adequate PPE. For local volunteers, purchasing a kit of PPE that costs an average of $450 to $1,000 USD has been largely impossible. With the international community still unwilling to fully or directly fund local volunteer organizations, these groups often prioritize spending their limited funds on fuel for the distribution of humanitarian aid for others over safety items for themselves. 

Unarmed civilian protection works because of strong relationships and centring local actors. NP knew that if we were going to be responsible partners with local groups—some who conduct evacuations, some who provide legal support—we needed to consider some of the basics. In 2022, NP started a PPE landing program to ensure volunteers and first responders are able to conduct their activities more safely: rather than letting our equipment sit idle, we lend our own flak jackets and helmets to our partners. NP has been the only international NGO in Ukraine providing flak jackets and vests to volunteers in Ukraine. There are other organizations, local ones, that distribute PPE, but of poorer quality and second-hand. Distribution of new PPE is only planned in international NGO budgets.

Volunteers Protected During May 3 Attack 

Damaged car door, May 3, Kherson. Henadii (All who cares)

“I’m pretty certain it was a grad rocket,” shared Igor, a volunteer with NP’s partner All who cares. The nickname ‘grad’ means ‘hail,’ because 40 rockets can be launched from a truck and hail down on a target. 

On May 3, Igor and his team were evacuating people with disabilities from Kherson when shelling started at the train station. When he went out that day, he put on a bulletproof vest lent by NP. 

After hearing the first rocket land, Igor acted quickly and used his body to cover Olena, another volunteer working on evacuations.  

“The bulletproof vest saved my life,” shared Igor. And it allowed him to in turn save Olena’s; she and another volunteer walked away injured, but alive. 

Ukrainians are working together to protect their own community: the railroad station chief was on the platform during the shooting and intuitively decided to delay boarding the train. "There was an explosion,” she recalled, “and the next moment I was already lying between the rails, with two policemen and my colleague on top of me, covering me with their bodies." The two policemen were wounded, fortunately without life-threatening injuries. 

Tragically, not everyone was safe. Not only were more than 60 civilians wounded, but the regional governor has since reported that 23 people were killed from the shelling that day that hit the railway station, a construction hypermarket, gas station, and residential buildings. 

Damaged PPE, May 3, Kherson. Henadii (All who cares)
Damaged PPE, May 3, Kherson. Henadii (All who cares)

Advocating for More Protection 

Local organizations and volunteers are the backbone of the Ukrainian humanitarian effort, but they cannot do their job effectively without adequate protection. Incidents like the shelling on May 3 happen often—civilians are wounded or killed every day. Thanks to the support of generous donors, NP has been able to provide PPE kits to volunteers, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Not only are all of the kits currently in use, but more volunteers are reaching out to NP for support. 

The situation on the ground is becoming increasingly dangerous, with volunteers regularly caught under shelling. That's why the impact of this program cannot be overstated – it's a matter of life and death. Since its launch, at least 10 volunteer groups and national NGOs, including first responders, in Kherson and Mykolaiv have benefitted from this program. 

Of course, there is always more that can be done so people like Olena and the others who did not have proper protective equipment that day can also benefit from this program. NP is working to expand the number of flak jackets and helmets available, but it's not just about providing equipment – it's about changing attitudes. That's why NP is also advocating for this practice to be adopted by other international actors. Together, we can keep volunteers safe and ensure that humanitarian efforts continue to make a meaningful impact on the ground. 

“It is not enough to stop at the distribution of PPE,” shared Denys Sukhanov, NP Protection Officer in Kherson. “It is the axiom of the international community that local authorities should manage security themselves in towns and villages on the front lines or in adjacent areas. But unfortunately, the practice is that local authorities in de-occupied areas do not have sufficient personnel and skills to train local services and volunteer associations to manage their own security. International organizations should take note of this. Using their many years of experience in military conflicts in other countries and with the help of experienced volunteers from other Ukrainian cities, develop and implement safety management training programs in frontline areas.”

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In addition to implementing and advocating for PPE lending, NP in Ukraine also works on first aid training to improve the safety of our staff and partners on the ground. Check out this video to learn more:

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