Japan NGO in quest to get medicine to Ukraine Japan NGO in quest to get medicine to Ukraine
Backstories

Japan NGO in quest to get medicine to Ukraine

    NHK World
    Correspondent
    The conflict in eastern Ukraine has halted supplies of urgently needed medicines to hardest-hit areas, endangering the lives of some of its most vulnerable civilians, including victims of the 1986 Chornobyl nuclear accident. One Japanese NGO is looking for ways to get help past the battle lines to those in need.

    For more than 30 years, Japan's Chernobyl Children's Fund (CCF) has been providing medicine to people in Ukraine still suffering from the effects of the world's worst nuclear disaster.

    Sasaki Mari, head of the Chernobyl Children's Fund (CCF), has been helping children in Ukraine for more than two decades. Since the Russian invasion, it's difficult to deliver supplies.

    The fund has been working with a Ukraine-based group that delivers essential supplies to more than 3,000 people, including those who still carry physical and mental scars of the Chornobyl accident.

    The fund provides Ukrainian institutions with medicines needed to treat thyroid cancer.

    The 1986 disaster triggered the largest-ever uncontrolled radioactive release. A 2018 United Nations thyroid cancer study among people who were under the age of 18 at the time of the explosions identified 5,000 cases that are likely linked to radiation exposure.

    The Chornobyl disaster in 1986 is regarded as the worst nuclear accident in history.

    The fund's efforts to assist these and other victims of the fallout came to a grinding halt when Russia's invasion of Ukraine severed contact with the group's local partners.

    Sasaki Mari, who has been working with the CCF for two decades, says she has been working round-the-clock to restore communication lines, and also looking for new ways to get aid into Ukraine.

    The CCF has held summer camps for Ukrainian children who suffer from thyroid cancer and other diseases.

    "They've faced so many struggles, but some have grown up, gotten married, and had their own children," she says. "Now, seeing them having to go through this, I have no words."

    Sabina Kuzmik is one of the few people she's managed to contact. The 22-year-old was born with spina bifida, a spinal development disorder, and was in hospital for treatment when the conflict broke out. She says Russian troops surrounded her hometown of Slavutych in northern Ukraine.

    Sabina Kuzmik sent Sasaki an email calling for help. She managed to escape to Poland but had to leave her family behind.

    In an email she sent to Sasaki in March, she wrote: "There is no water, communication, or electricity in Slavutych. I recently had an operation on my leg, and it's not better yet. There's no way of getting food or medicine or other supplies to us here. The supermarket shelves are almost bare. People are hiding in bomb shelters and begging God to keep them alive till day break."

    Sasaki had to wait weeks for an update. Then Kuzmik wrote to say she had managed to reach Poland, but not without a heavy heart — she had to leave many relatives behind.

    Sasaki heard from another woman, who lives in the eastern Donetsk region, who said she lives in a state of constant fear and anxiety. She has thyroid cancer and needs medicine every day to treat her illness.

    But supplies of medicine have dried up. She wrote: "There are no doctors here who can give me treatment. My blood pressure is rising because I'm scared of the bombings."

    Russia destroyed hospitals across Ukraine, placing vulnerable patients at risk.

    As Russian forces grind forward, they reduce hospitals to empty shells. Sasaki is worried that all the progress that has been made to raise public health standards will soon be wiped out.

    Since the invasion, the CCF has seen an uptick in donations, but it has had no way to get the money to the people who need it.

    Sasaki heard about a Swedish non-profit group that still had people in Ukraine. The group's coordinator, Djamal Hamaili, agreed to team up.

    Djamal Hamaili has also been working for Chornobyl victims for decades. He says people are living under constant fear, making health problems even worse.

    "Ukrainian people are very thankful, all our friends, that two organizations are trying to cooperate for their sake because two strong organizations with two strong hearts for our friends, they can move any mountain," he says.

    Sasaki hopes to visit Ukraine as soon as possible to ensure ongoing help for the people the CCF supports.

    Sasaki hasn't given up trying to reach her old contacts. She says even if she can't be there for them in person, she wants to find other ways to help. The most important thing, she says, is that they know they must never lose hope.