by Arnold R. Grahl
Less than a day after Russian troops entered Ukraine in February, Rotary clubs in the Czech Republic and Slovakia were using their connections to access a strategic rail hub that allowed them to get essential supplies to the Ukraine and helping refugees get out.
The city of Košice, Slovakia, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) from the border with Ukraine, is home to a railway terminus where east meets west. For decades, the terminus received trains transporting raw materials out of Ukraine along wide-gauge railway lines. The cargo is then transferred to wagons that run on the standard gauge rail lines used elsewhere in Europe.
A number of multinational shipping companies use the hub. Rotary members quickly realized they needed to be able to use it too.
Martin Pitorák, president of the Rotary Club of Košice, is a former vice president of US Steel Košice, which uses the hub. He and Michal Sláma, president of the Rotary Club of Pardubice, Czech Republic, were among the Rotary members who were able to negotiate access.
“We acted very quickly,” says Monika Kočiová, a member of the Rotaract and Rotary clubs in Košice. “We were making arrangements while others were still knocking on the door.”
The hub is important because Ukraine’s extensive rail network, one of the largest in the world, serves parts of the country that are difficult to reach by truck.
Rotary was the first humanitarian organization to gain permission to use the rail hub for relief supplies, Kočiová says, and clubs have sent trains full of medical supplies, non-perishable food and hygiene items across the border. The Slovak government and the European Union have since designated the hub as the main route for transporting supplies by rail to Ukraine.
Supplies arriving in Košice are unloaded and sorted by Rotary volunteers in warehouses before being transported to Ukraine. Rotary and Rotaract clubs also used more than 60 trucks and buses to transport 740 tonnes of supplies to the western Ukrainian region of Uzhhorod, just across the border. From there they are distributed to locations across the country.
“It’s great to see the power of Rotary at work in this time of need,” says Pitorák. “In addition to supplies, financial support is coming in from many parts of the world.”
In addition to using the broad gauge rail network, Rotary and Rotaract clubs are part of an initiative called Railway Helps. Founded by the owner of Gepard Express, a Czech passenger transport company, Railway Helps uses passenger trains to transport supplies to Ukraine and refugees.
So far, the initiative has brought more than 500 tons of supplies to Chop, a town in the Uzhhorod region. The trains returned to the town of Pardubice carrying over 5,500 Ukrainian refugees.
Rotary members helped raise funds from a variety of sources, including public fundraising, district funding, and a contribution from the owner of Gepard Express. Participating railroads also absorbed significant costs, and other organizations waived fees.
Sláma continues to seek additional funding for Railway Helps, which currently sends trains across Poland to Mostyska. The plan is to eventually build a waiting room and passenger station in Mostyska to speed up the flow of supplies and help refugees leaving Ukraine.
Work with others
Coordination with other entities was crucial to the success of the efforts. Rotary and Rotaract clubs worked with Ukrainian government officials, including MPs, diplomats and regional governors, as well as with hospitals in the cities of Kharkiv, Cherkasy, Uzhhorod and Mukachevo.
Kočiová and Ivana Lengová, both members of the International Association of Health Professionals, overseeing the purchase of medical supplies and the processing of medical equipment donated by companies in Europe. Lengová, a member of the Rotary Club of Košice Classic, helped secure equipment worth more than $730,000 from Siemens Slovakia, including four mobile imaging units and three mobile X-ray units.
“Because the fellowship includes members who work in Ukrainian hospitals, we were able to react very quickly to changing needs,” notes Kočiová.
The clubs are also in regular contact with officials and volunteers at several border crossing points between Slovakia and Ukraine, coordinating the accommodation and transport of refugees.
Only four days after the start of the war, Kočiová spent time at the border.
“You could feel a lot of pain and see tears,” she said. “The refugees are broken, but they are very strong and proud. They didn’t ask for anything. Even the small children did not complain.
Kočiová was away from home on a business trip when the war started, but when contacted by a Ukrainian friend and fellow rotaractor, she arranged for her to stay home.
“I arrived home a day later and saw her with only one small backpack containing everything she had,” says Kočiová. “She’s a top manager. Her mother was fleeing another route, and her sister yet another, and they were planning to end up in Switzerland. When you imagine yourself in that situation, it becomes very real.