Lithuanian volunteers help soldiers in eastern Ukraine

AP News
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Posted: Apr 19, 2017 10:44 AM
Lithuanian volunteers help soldiers in eastern Ukraine

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — In a cramped warehouse on the banks of the flooded River Neris in a tranquil part of the Lithuanian capital, Jonas Ohman and his crew are loading unmarked boxes and bags onto a truck destined for the front in eastern Ukraine, more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away.

The Swedish volunteer heads the so-called Blue-Yellow Movement, which helps Ukrainian government forces in their struggle against pro-Russian rebels by supplying non-lethal military aid, such as night-vision goggles, helmets, bullet-proof vests and telescopic sniper sights. They even pack colorful teddy bears for children — to help ease everyday life in the devastated region.

"If we don't help stop the Russians in Ukraine, they will eventually come to get us too," he says, while trying to answer one of the calls for aid from the front and check whether previous supplies had arrived.

Recent heavy fighting in eastern Ukraine has again reminded the world of the bleeding conflict, but many in the Baltic states are only too aware of the clashes that are causing death, suffering and devastation.

According to U.N. figures, the conflict has cost almost 10,000 lives, including civilians, Ukrainian soldiers and rebels, and more than 22,000 have been injured.

Since the conflict began, millions of euros have been pumped into Ukraine by Lithuania and smaller amounts from other Baltic states, with regular fund raising events and government aid. Hundreds of wounded soldiers are treated at Lithuanian hospitals, and children from the war zone are brought to schools in the Baltic country.

Lithuania has no border with Ukraine, but like its Baltic neighbors it shares a frontier with Russia — in this case, the exclave of Kaliningrad, which Moscow uses as a major Baltic military base. Although this border is less than 300 kilometers long, Lithuania — like Latvia and Estonia — has bitter memories of five decades of Soviet occupation and holds a deep distrust of Moscow despite its 13-year membership in NATO since regaining independence in the wake of the 1991 Soviet collapse. Lithuanians fear the conflict could prefigure Russian ambitions to forcefully retake them.

Meanwhile Ohman, who has visited the front several times, ensures the aid keeps flowing "directly to the soldiers and units, who need it badly."

"We have worked in Ukraine for several years now. We know the needs, who needs it and how to provide it," Ohman told The Associated Press before leaving on another trip there. "Ukrainian people are very happy when we come. Even though we may not have much stuff, they are thankful not just for aid but also for the attention."

The Lithuanian government is aware of the group's activities — none of which is thought to be illegal.

Though rules governing exports are complicated and vary from country to country, there is technically no international embargo that prevents these items from being distributed in Ukraine, especially as they are donations. The respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI, which researches global arms issues, said what the volunteers are doing is probably legal.

Another volunteer, Kotryna Stasinskaite, said she's noticed that people in other parts of Ukraine are not showing much interest in the struggle.

"I saw lots of happy, rich people in the streets of Kiev and they were obviously not concerned about all the violence and the tragedy happening in their own country," she said.

However, studies seem to indicate that the Blue-Yellow volunteers are not alone in their mission.

A survey by pollster Rait in December indicated that 63 percent of Lithuanians support efforts in helping Ukraine, and a recent charity concert raised more than 110,000 euros. The government has helped, too, with more than 8.5 million euros aid to Ukraine, according to Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius.

"A common historical past bonds the people of Lithuania and Ukraine very closely. We are united by a common struggle for independence and the same challenges," he said.

"We will continue to help Ukraine to become a thriving European country — it is the aim of the whole of the Western world."

Lithuanian officials and specialists constantly travel between Vilnius and eastern Ukraine.

Defense Minister Raimundas Karoblis, who visited in January, assured Ukrainians that Lithuania would continue supporting its resistance against Russian separatist aggression and provide practical support for defense reforms.

"I was met with the warmest gratitude for all the support their country has received during the war against Russia," Karoblis told the AP. "It was also important to hear reassurances that they would provide the same assistance if Lithuania was in need."

He said a major reason for his nation's support to Ukraine is that Lithuania has a long history of fighting for its own freedom. "We take it as our concern and duty to help other nations in their struggle," he said.

Ukrainian Army Lt. Oleksander Valevich was severely concussed during heavy shelling and later was sent to Lithuania. He and other Ukrainian soldiers are being treated in Druskininkai, a luxurious resort amid pines and pristine lakes in southern Lithuania.

He now feels like he's the luckiest man on Earth.

"We used to be one state a long time ago. Later, we were separated, but I feel that Lithuania is still our soul brother," he said. "It took our pain and cares just like brothers," he said, with tears welling in his eyes.

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Vitnija Saldava contributed to this report from Vilnius.