“You can be going about your day in Kyiv and then the sirens go off all over the city, like sirens from World War II, really loud, and then you have about 15 or 20 minutes to get yourself down to a basement or an official shelter,” says Steve Coughlan, speaking in Barry’s in his native Douglas.
The 38-year-old works as an information management officer for an agency of the United Nations, providing aid to the six million people displaced within Ukraine, and he has lived in Kyiv since September. He says the current aerial bombardment of Kyiv, which has gone on since October, has become a grim fact of daily life in the Ukrainian capital.
“You have 15 or 20 minutes, because that’s the amount of time it would take a cruise missile to get across the country to the city; the drones are slower, they might take 40 minutes.
“You might then spend the rest of the day in the shelter, and depending on how lucky you are with your location, it might have heating, it might have amenities, or it might just be a basement. You may or may not have phone signal.
“If I’m working from home, I’ll have bottled water I can grab, and also a blanket, because you mightn’t have heating. The electricity might go out. If you end up in one of the subway stations, there’s a very nice atmosphere of camaraderie between the locals. They sing songs, they sing the national anthem, they get the children to sing just to calm them down.
“You’ll have people working away on their laptops, they don’t stop, I think it’s because they’re just used to it now and just get on with it.”
Kyiv is a city of five million, about the size of Berlin, he says, although the old city centre is more like Dublin, but surrounded by a vast, Soviet era sprawl of high-rise concrete towers.
“The city centre is gorgeous, very historic, with loads of public parks and amenities, it’s very beautiful. If it were in peace time, I’d be happy to be permanently based there.”
He says the current bombardment is designed to demoralise the civilian population but it has so far failed.
“They’re hitting the power plants, the water supply, the heating plants — heating comes from a centralised source, which dates back to communism— they’re trying to destroy the infrastructure to demoralise and frustrate people, they deliberately attack at three and four in the morning so people don’t sleep, and sometimes they don’t even fire missiles, a jet will take off in Belarus or in Russia, which triggers the alarms and wakes everybody up.
“Their aim is to demoralise people, but if anything, it’s had the opposite effect, they’re galvanising the people against them. What Putin wants is that crowds of people be gathered outside Zelenskyy’s office, demanding that he make terms with Putin. Absolutely the opposite is happening. People are just becoming angrier, and more and more polls show that up to 96% of the public wants this war to end on Ukraine’s terms, not Russia’s.”
Steve studied Business Information Systems in UCC, working initially as a web developer, a job he didn’t like. Returning to college, he studied Geographical Information Systems and later found a job with an NGO (non-governmental organisation) in Iraq, working in Mosul during its liberation from ISIS.
His work entailed creating maps of the vast tented cities around Mosul, while also creating high-resolution maps of destroyed buildings in areas still occupied, to help determine where aid would be most needed. He went on to work for the WHO (World Health Organisation) in Jordan, mapping out epidemics of polio in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen.
Taking a break from humanitarian work, he worked for a marine science company in Dublin for a year, using satellite imagery to map ocean pollution. When the war in Ukraine began, he sought work there.
Up to 10 million of Ukraine’s 44 million population have fled the country since Russia’s latest aggression began in February of last year. The UN agency for which Steve works provides aid to the six million people displaced within Ukraine, most of whom come from the Donbas and Luhansk regions seized by Russia.
“These regions are the most war-torn, and these people have lost probably everything that they own. They are mostly women and children, people with disabilities, elderly people, and they’re fleeing to the west of Ukraine, which is technically the safest part of the country, but of course really no part of Ukraine is safe.”
Displaced people are typically housed in buildings such as community halls, schools, medical centres, or university dormitories, often with hundreds of people staying in each centre, and Steve’s agency assesses the needs of the people in each setting and then issues recommendations on the allocation of funding and services.
The centres are managed by different groups, NGOs and private individuals, with standards varying considerably, not least because of the wartime scramble to accommodate millions of displaced people.
“Our job is to ensure that each centre is up to scratch and providing dignified conditions for people. Some of the services we would provide would be in offering maintenance and repairs, upgrades to heating infrastructure, and upgrades to ensure there is proper access for people with disabilities.”
Many of those fleeing the Russian invasion have suffered rape and torture, and are living with unimaginable trauma.
The agency for which Steve works has a unit which offers counselling and therapy, but he says resources are stretched.
“It gets pretty dark,” he says, his voice faltering.
He feels that Irish people have responded with decency and empathy to the plight of Ukraine, perhaps for historical reasons.
“In Ireland, we have a collective memory of being downtrodden and oppressed, and there’s something in Irish souls that just can’t put up with seeing another country being bullied by a bigger neighbour, we automatically side with the underdog.”
As he returns to Ukraine after his Christmas break, Steve Coughlan is careful to avoid political comment, given the nature of his job, but he says his own sense is that Ukraine will prevail, fighting as it is for survival against a powerful aggressor.
“It’s really amazing to see the Ukrainian people’s resilience and resolve. They’re in the middle of winter, minus 10 degrees, no power, no heating, and they’re out singing songs on the street. I have absolute admiration for the Ukrainian people.”