IFJ: In the article "Humanitarian aid successfully delivered to Ukrainian colleagues by the ESIEA mission", you say that the JUADN-ESIEA solidarity mission to Ukraine had been a long and difficult journey, could you explain why?
First we had to figure out how to reach the place and with whom to work. Our prime target was to reach Warsaw to deliver the humanitarian aid in collaboration with Jolanta Hajdasz of the Polish Union (SDP), whom we thank from the bottom of our heart and Jeremy Dear, IFJ Deputy General Secretary. Thus we intended to reach Warsaw and deliver aid from there. However, when we started gathering the aid and along with others we got a travelling sponsorship, we decided to try to reach Ukraine if we could.
Travelling was difficult, everything had to be properly organised. When we reached Warsaw Jolanda Hajdasz of the Polish Union was waiting for us and the half ton of cargo we carried from Athens had to be reloaded in a special van in order to continue with our travels. We stayed overnight in Warsaw and visited a special place accommodating 62 orphan children who had fled Mariupol. Afterwards, we managed to find a second van to load with food we bought from a Polish supermarket for our Ukrainian colleagues.
We stayed close to the border along with Jolanda Hajdasz who travelled with us for almost 700km and stayed in a hotel. Fortunately we came across Greek and Polish volunteers who helped us rent cars because cars coming from Poland are not allowed to enter Ukraine.
When entering, the border formalities were not easy, we had to wait for three hours and change cars to reach our colleagues in Lviv, namelyYaroslav Klymovych, the Head of the Lviv NUJU Regional branch.
Our trip back to Poland was more difficult. We had to wait for almost 8 hours despite having a special permission for delivering humanitarian aid, since there were thousands of refugees on the road with the army presence quite apparent and several times we were stopped for checks.
We were able to overcome all difficulties because of the humanitarian aid we carried, always carrying our IFJ Press Cards. Of course the most difficult part was the border crossing and army checkpoints.
We had only 24 hours to organise this complicated endeavour. I was of course concerned about the safety of mission members. At the same time we crossed the border, the Lviv bombing started.
IFJ: In the same release you stated that "solidarity is your weapon". How did this great show of solidarity come about?
JUADN was established in 1914 as a solidarity movement. At the time a colleague had died and there was no money to bury him. Thus, a group of 33 colleagues paid for the funeral expenses and were the first to create the Journalists’ Union of the Athens Daily Newspapers we know today. Four years later the Special Solidarity Fund was created in order to support all Greek journalists in need and whenever asked by the International Federation of Journalists. Let me just say that this Fund supported Greek journalists forced to flee Istanbul, Asia Minor and the Black Sea following the Asia Minor Disaster in 1922. This fund supported journalists during WWII German occupation, among them top poets and writers, all Union members that were journalists by profession. It is this very Fund that for 108 years has supported all Athenian unemployed journalists and our colleagues facing problems. Yes, solidarity is our weapon as confirmed by JUADN history and tradition. This is JUADN tradition and history since 1914, which no President or Executive Board has the right to dismiss. This is what our forefathers did and it continues to happen.
IFJ: Is this your first solidarity campaign?
No. Following the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in the seventies, JUADN, organised a special campaign supporting our Cypriot colleagues, members of our sister union who supported us in return through the difficult times we went through during the last economic crisis. In 1999, when the Belgrade TV station was bombed, a special JUADN mission headed by President Nikos Kiaos travelled to Belgrade to support Greek journalists covering the events and Serbian journalists’ members of the Serbian sister unions. The mission brought food, medicine, money and was supported by all means by our Serbian colleagues. Our presence in Ukraine is a continuation of such efforts.
IFJ: We imagine it must not be easy to undertake a project involving a journey with heavy equipment to a country at war. How did you organise the expedition?
No, it was not easy. It was hard work by George Gavalas 2nd Vice President, Machi Nikolara Special Affairs Secretary and George Votskaris Executive Board member. JUADN International Relations department worked hard to communicate with IFJ and our colleagues in Poland. Also union members volunteered and helped in Poland and Ukraine to carry out this mission and quickly raise sponsorship. Ten people worked day and night at the union for this mission to be accomplished and with IFJ help we were also able to ensure safe passage.
IFJ: Did you follow any safety advice, if so, which one(s)?
To begin with we avoided moving around alone in Ukraine. All mission members were always together right from the start. We had discussed and decided that we were not going there for reporting, we went to help our colleagues on the front line and we avoided taking pictures or filming anything of military interest. Also in spite of Greek Ministry Foreign Affairs advice to avoid the war zone, Greek diplomatic authorities in Poland helped us to pick up the cargo and organise the trip, giving us practical information of distance to be covered etc. They advised us to avoid exposing ourselves to danger and until the very last minute not to travel, but for us the symbol of getting to Ukraine was of utmost importance and that is why we made it happen.
We are talking about almost half a ton of aid for journalists in Ukraine, was it difficult to collect so much aid? How did you do it?
It was half a ton of humanitarian aid from Athens to Poland. In Poland we bought another 350 kilos of food and therefore we came close to one ton. No, it was not difficult. Because all these years, through our Cultural Foundation we have succeeded in working with very well known people who offer assistance and they were the first to whom we turned for help. JUADN Executive Board unanimously decided to contribute with 2000 euros in cash to IFJ/EFJ International Solidarity Fund to support ukrainian journalists as well 8000 euros to be used for the mission that were increased by our sponsors’ offers. And I would like to thank AEGEAS Non Profit Cultural and Charitable Foundation, WIND and COSMOTE telecommunication companies as well as AEGEAN Airlines for their valuable contributions.
Still these companies who could not offer sponsorships had reduced their prices so much as to enable us to buy goods for our colleagues. I hope that such a need may not occur again however if it occurs and our union finances allow us, we will continue wholeheartedly to stand by our colleagues in need.
IFJ: On the evening of 10 March you arrived in the Ukrainian city of Lviv. Could you describe your meeting with the journalists' union?
Indeed our colleagues in Lviv did not expect such aid. They were probably waiting for something less or some other kind of assistance. They rushed to help us get the load out of the three vans carrying the aid. They had their arms open and no words enough to thank us. They made sure we had something to eat and offered us dinner, but for security reasons we did not want to stay long. We wanted to reach a safer place before dark when traffic stopped, since mission safety was paramount. I really thank Yaroslav Klymovych, the Head of the Lviv Regional NUJU branch and our colleagues who opened their hearts to us. We do not speak the same language and one of the Lviv members has a sister living in Greece, speaking fluent Greek. She translated our conversations via mobile. Another colleague who is a University professor of journalism had a translator to assist the conversation. We thank them all from the bottom of our hearts because they opened their arms to us, their souls and their love to us, also for their struggle for the news as well as for saving their lives.
IFJ: How was the aid distributed to Ukrainian colleagues?
The material was distributed in consultation with Sergiy Tomilenko, the President of NUJU and Yaroslav Klymovych, the Head of the Lviv NUJU Regional branch. I wish we could have carried more cameras. A large part of the aid besides the food we bought in Poland included electronic equipment, mobile phones and digital equipment provided through sponsorships of WIND and COSMOTE telecommunication companies as well as AEGEAS Non Profit Cultural and Charitable Foundation. EDOEAP our Press Health Care and Subsidiary Insurance Fund provided 87 First Aid Bags fully equipped with medical and hygienic materials. JUADN purchased sleeping bags, backpacks and Covid-19 protection masks with the financial support of the journalists' union PFJU. We contributed 2000 Eeuro in cash to IFJ/EFJ Safety Fund and AEGEAN Airlines covered humanitarian aid airlift costs and air tickets.
IFJ: What message would you like to convey to journalists around the world who are willing to help colleagues in Ukraine?
We journalists are all a family. All families face good and bad times. Solidarity is what unites us wherever we come from, whatever political reference we have, no matter our skin colour, our religion, journalists manage to overcome all these problems. I am asking all of us to cooperate and I call on all colleagues to help journalists in Ukraine going through these difficult times. Open up your arms, your souls, your hearts and collaborate with IFJ to support our colleagues
IFJ: Are you working on any other initiatives related to Ukraine or other countries?
I hope we don't have to work on any other similar initiative. I come from a refugee family. My grandparents fled Turkey in 1922. I know what it is like to be a refugee since the day I was born. If the Union is asked to undertake other initiatives even offering hospitality, we will contact public and private entities who are usually helping us and we will do so. Let me just say that in the past JUADN along with Athens Municipality hosted our Serbian colleagues' children in summer camp right after the war. In recent years on IFJ and EFJ requests we supported colleagues from Turkey offering medical care, accommodation and special aid similar to the one provided to our union members. In the past five months we took care of two families of Afghan women journalists and by unanimous Executive Board decision we are providing financial aid of 500 Euros per month to each family from our Special Solidarity Fund. EDOEAP, our press health care and subsidiary insurance fund, provides the families with medical care and some former board members offered money to buy clothes for them and their children.