What motivates New Zealanders to go to Ukraine?

Despite the risks, ordinary Kiwis are drawn to a nation fighting for its existence, to promote its cause, deliver aid or care for the wounded. James Halpin reports.



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Increasing numbers of Kiwis are heading to Ukraine, despite government advice that it is not safe to travel to the war-torn European nation. Those heading there include soldiers, combat nurses, humanitarian aid workers and journalists. Some of them are public figures: reporters such as Today FM’s Tova O’Brien, Newshub’s Lisette Reymer and TVNZ’s Daniel Faitaua have made the trip. But others are just average Kiwi citizens looking to help with the fight against the brutal injustice of the Russian invasion. Going to Ukraine is incredibly risky, illustrated by the case of missing aid worker Andrew Bagshaw. Even away from the front line, there still remains the threat of Russian missiles deep in Ukrainian territory, or a Russian advance. So why do Kiwis go? Peter Macky – Author Macky, a 70-year-old blogger, wanted to witness history, so he went and had tea with a Ukrainian general. Macky made that trip across the Polish border in September to write for his blog on his Facebook page – 52 entries in 2022 which have now formed the basis of a book he’s written. He interviewed Ukrainians at the sites of some of the worst Russian atrocities, including Bucha and Irpin, also near Kyiv. ‘‘There’s nothing like being there ... I think it’s essential. I don’t know how else you could do it.’’ At Hostomel, a town outside of Kyiv, he had tea with a general who described to him how the Russians held the airport. ‘‘Being so hungry, it was the best breakfast I’ve ever had, and all courtesy of Ukraine’s military,’’ Macky described the experience on his blog. But Macky isn’t an experienced journalist or academic; he’s a lawyer, amateur author and advocate for historic buildings. His desire to go to Ukraine and then write a book about it is because he had travelled to the country several times before and does not want the conflict to be forgotten. He said this had happened after Russia first invaded eastern regions of the country in 2014. His book is packed with his own political analysis and his interviews in Ukraine, and he’s lecturing about it at venues such as the Northern Club. Shannon Taylor – Nurse Taylor had been a nurse at Middlemore Hospital before she went to Ukraine in November. Interviewed by the Sunday Star-Times in September, the 25-year-old said she would be working in an area 40km from the front line. ‘‘I always wanted to do combat nursing. I loved watching series with nurses in war zones. ‘‘My safety is not guaranteed, and there’s an increased risk, but I’m determined to do this. This is my dream.’’ Since making the trip, Taylor has met families who are fighting to survive. She said it was a privilege to be helping them. Taylor has gone without showering for 11 days due to no running water and has struggled to charge her phone and stay in touch with family because there is no power. Ron Mark – Humanitarian aid The former defence minister travelled to Ukraine back in May 2022 to help with getting body armour to an aid organisation. What drove Mark, who was 68 and out of politics, was a sense that the West wasn’t going to support Ukraine as much as he thought it should. ‘‘You cannot ignore it when a hospital is bombed. For me personally, it is a question of what are ‘you’ going to do about it.’’ Money was not the driver for Mark, he said, and the feeling of needing to help probably derived from having grown up in foster care. ‘‘It just cuts against your brain to sit there and watch it [the invasion] happen.’’ He’s now been back in New Zealand speaking to groups and trying to raise more money, although he said it hasn’t been coming through as fast as he wanted. Dr Paul Buchanan, director of 36th Parallel Assessments, said the kinds of people who were going into these humanitarian roles weren’t getting a sense of service they desired in their home countries. ‘‘People in countries like NZ often find foreign wars as a place for fulfilment.’’ However, they were there for the benefit of a greater cause. ‘‘You’ve got to give credit to these people, they have a sense of humanity.’’ Buchanan said there tended to be an even gender split, but women were more prevalent in humanitarian roles and men in investigative roles. For journalists, whose work is naturally promotional, Buchanan said their presence wasn’t completely altruistic because there was a certain satisfaction for them in getting into a war zone. ‘‘I admire them for what they do, even though some of them may have mixed motives.’’