'I just felt the need,' says Manitoba medic heading overseas to help Ukrainians fleeing war

As fresh horrors emerge from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, some Manitobans are joining the scores of volunteers from around the world travelling to the besieged country in the hopes of helping. But a University of Manitoba professor urges caution for those who want to travel to lend aid.

U of M prof warns people travelling independently to help in Ukraine could put themselves, others in danger

Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from the maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol on March 9. Such images have prompted many Canadians to do what they can to help, but a U of M professor says well-meaning volunteers who aren't linked to established organizations may not be equipped to deal with security threats. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

As fresh horrors emerge from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, some Manitobans are joining the scores of volunteers from around the world travelling to the besieged country in the hopes of helping.

In the weeks since Russia's invasion began, Ukraine says hundreds of people have come in to provide assistance, including former soldiers.

Pedro Bédard, a fire medic from St. François Xavier with advanced first-aid training, left Winnipeg Tuesday bound for Poland, where he and a small group intend to buy an ambulance to shuttle supplies in and Ukrainians out.

"You see things on the news, and you say, 'That's not right. It's not right.' These people need help. They're getting help, don't get me wrong, but they need more," said Bédard.

He's taking five weeks of unpaid leave to help.

"I just felt the need," he said.

The group plans to work out of the western Ukraine city of Lviv, which Bédard says is comparatively safe, having been shelled once in the 41 days since the war began.

"Something could happen, but you're going to let that worry you. You might as well worry about slipping and falling on the ice," he said.

Chad McFarland and Pedro Bédard left for Poland to buy an ambulance on Tuesday, April 5. They plan to use it to bring supplies into Lviv, Ukraine and shuttle people out of the country. (Alana Cole/CBC)

But the risks have been far greater in other parts of Ukraine.

Last month, a Mariupol maternity hospital was damaged in shelling, killing a pregnant woman and baby and leaving at least 17 wounded.

Over the weekend, images of bodies left in the wake of Russia's withdrawal from the town of Bucha on the outskirts of the capital of Kyiv have stirred global outrage and led to demands for tougher sanctions and war crime prosecutions against Russia.

U of M prof urges caution

Prof. Paul Larson says such scenes may understandably prompt Canadians to action.

But Larson, who studies humanitarian logistics and is a professor of supply chain management at the University of Manitoba, urges caution for those who want to help.

He says people who are thinking of travelling to Ukraine to offer their help might inadvertently do more harm than good if they go without the support of a well-established organization.

"Don't get me wrong, more help is better than less help, but disorganized help and uninformed help — help that doesn't really know what's going on or what to do — it could end up being a sort of a disaster within a disaster," he said.

Ukrainian women are pictured with humanitarian aid, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues in the village of Sloboda on April 5. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

Larson encourages people who feel inspired to help to donate, or to volunteer with well-established organizations that have undertaken thorough risk assessments, developed a security plan and have experience providing humanitarian aid in conflict zones.

Those who show up on an "informal venture" are in real danger of being caught up in the violence and may end up needing to be rescued themselves, tying up resources, he said, and their efforts to help "might have the opposite effect."

Chad McFarland, from Tyndall, Man., said he understands the risk as he joined Bédard Tuesday on the trip to Poland.

"I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous. I mean, it is a war zone. There's every possibility of things going badly. I mean, just stand in the wrong spot at the wrong time," he said.

"We'll do what we can. And that's that's all we can do."

With files from Jérémie Bergeron and Alana Cole