The working day here also lasts 18 hours. At the end, Tomáš Bendl just drinks half a beer and “looks at something that doesn’t light up”. He is part of a team that has interviewed 156 media from around the world over the past ten days.
Journalists’ interest in Ukraine is enormous, in contrast to the difficulties encountered by the head of communications in the Prague office of Médecins Sans Frontières during his previous mission to South Sudan. “We faced the opposite problem there – to get the world to care about the suffering of the people there,” Bendl says.
And even though he feels war is coming to the once calmer Lviv where he is now, he is not afraid of himself. “There are so many stressful jobs and situations that I forget he’s fighting,” he says.
What is the scope of your work now and how long will you be in Ukraine?
By the nature of my job, it’s to hear from our people on the ground in the world. I coordinate the various testimonies of some of our seventy colleagues who live in various places in Ukraine. However, several dozen of them are also on the borders with Poland, Slovakia, Moldova, Belarus and Russia.
Some of the information we have is very sensitive and could directly endanger our colleagues. This is why it is important that we do not disclose any strategic facts, such as negotiations, etc.
I will only be in Ukraine for a fortnight, then I will have to resume my work at the Prague office of Médecins Sans Frontières and a colleague from New York will replace me here.
Will you also provide assistance in Russia?
Médecins Sans Frontières is an apolitical and impartial organization. We will help wherever we need it. We currently have a small office in Moscow, waiting to see what happens.
You have been in Ukraine for ten days so far. How is the situation changing from within?
I am now in Lviv. The situation here is relatively calm, the city is a refuge for many people, and there are international organizations. There is no active warfare, but depending on the local mood, it escalates and the fighting gets closer from time to time.
What doesn’t change and what I can’t accept is the powerlessness in the face of the situation in Mariupol. For ten days, the city has been cut off from electricity and drinking water, and often the mobile signal does not work here either. The testimonials from our twelve-member team are overwhelming. People have nowhere to bury the corpses, and they sometimes end up in mass graves, like someone in the garden. Hospitals are devoid of drugs and other medical supplies, and I hear of children slowly dying of dehydration.
However, it is not possible to evacuate the inhabitants from here, Mariupol is still surrounded and another security corridor has still not been opened. We don’t even know how many civilians there are.
But by nature, Médecins Sans Frontières is accustomed to war conflicts. Is there anything happening in Ukraine at the moment that surprised you?
We are used not only to war, but also to genocide or famine. Nevertheless, we in Ukraine were surprised by the intensity, the force of the military strike. Even with all our experience, it’s very brutal on our scale. We did not expect the number of children who would die of thirst here.
What qualities are important for you to manage the mission well?
I must not be stepped on, I must remain calm and flexible. Balance and calm are central here, as is a sense of humor. It may come as a surprise, but no kidding, you won’t last here, it helps overcome the previously unthinkable.
Many of us feel frustrated and helpless in the face of war. How can each of us help?
I’ll take it to the other side. We value all intentions and activities, we understand good intentions. But don’t send humanitarian aid on your own. To actually send what is needed, you must agree with the relevant hospital and its medical professionals, who will explain to you what drugs or materials they need, in what quality.
This is a difficult task for the average person, so I recommend supporting organizations you trust financially. They are able to get what they need most quickly.
What is most difficult for you personally in the conflict in Ukraine?
I don’t understand why one human life is more valuable than another. When we started helping in the Mediterranean in 2015, and then in camps in Greece during the so-called refugee crisis, the refugees were given terrible stickers. I dare say they wanted the same as the Ukrainians now. Preserve your life, ensure a future for children where there will be no war.
While we gave economic migrant tags to one, we open our homes to the other without any problem. Which is great, it’s just something sad for me.
Isn’t it because Ukrainians are closer to us in mentality and appearance? Such behavior is natural to the human psyche.
Yes, the Ukrainians look like us and their war is taking place near us. Still, that’s no reason why I shouldn’t save more lives.