6 Months After Russian Invasion, Christian Aid Group Leader Recounts Death, Destruction He Saw in Ukraine

Dave Donaldson recently returned to the U.S. after his second trip to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion of its Eastern European neighbor. 

“The city is pretty much obliterated,” Donaldson, co-founder and board chairman of CityServe International, says of the city of Bucha, where Russians are said to have massacred 1,300 people. “It’s like watching a sci-fi film.” 

CityServe is a Christian humanitarian aid organization that works with churches all over the world to meet the needs of local communities.

In addition to visiting Bucha, Donaldson also spent time in Kiev and met with bishops from all over Ukraine to learn about the spiritual and physical needs of the people. 

It’s been six months since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, and Ukrainians need “prayer that this war will end,” he says.

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Donaldson joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss what he saw and experienced in Ukraine, and how the people of Ukraine are coping with the death and devastation.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: I am so pleased to welcome to the show author speaker, humanitarian leader Dave Donaldson. Dave is the co-founder and chairman of the board of CityServe International. Dave, welcome to the show.

Dave Donaldson: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me.

Allen: Dave, you-all at CityServe work with local churches in America and all over the world to really impact communities and serve those who are in need. Could you just begin by explaining a little bit about what you-all do at CityServe?

Donaldson: Yes. There are three primary pillars. First, we have a robust pipeline of gifts and kind, so home furnishings, school supplies, diapers, you name it. We receive that through great companies like Amazon, Costco, Home Depot, and many more.

We have warehouse hubs that this product first goes to, and then that’s channeled to PODs, points of distribution, which are typically churches all across America, now in Mexico, about to be in Costa Rica, and then throughout Europe.

Secondly, we build the capacity of our partners, help them to adopt what we call the 10 initiatives, everything from programs that fight substance abuse, human trafficking to also help people become foster parents, adoptive parents, and so many more.

Then the third is collaboration to bring organizations, churches together in communities to find solutions and to execute those solutions to help people move from dependency to sustainability.

Allen: Critical. Your work at CityServe recently took you to Ukraine. I want to hear about that. Why did you decide that you were going to willingly enter a war zone and travel to Ukraine?

Donaldson: Well, first of all, we were there soon after the war broke out, serving on the border, the Polish-Ukrainian border. I can’t adequately describe how moving that was to see a tidal wave of women, children, the elderly trying to escape the war.

It was about 5 degrees and I went into this large tent. In there, women, children, the elderly trying to escape the cold, but also to hide from predators. In fact, two days after we were there, 40 suspected predators, traffickers were arrested.

So we spent time encouraging the women. I went up to one young woman about the age of my daughter and she was crying. So I leaned over to give her a fatherly hug and she was trembling. As I pulled away, she said, “Ne zalyshay mene,” which means, “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me.” Obviously, a heartbreaker.

The good news is that we are not leaving them. CityServe and our partners have been surrounding churches, 1,800 churches throughout Ukraine, and providing vehicles to evacuate women, children, the elderly, but also to rush in emergency supplies, food, medical, hygiene. Also, we’re in the process of building the C-train homes that provided temporary shelter.

So that was my first trip. The second, we just returned about 10 days ago. If you’d like for me to share about that, I’d love to.

Allen: I’d be really curious to hear a little bit about what life is like on the ground right now. I know you spent time specifically in Kyiv. Explain a little bit of what the situation on the ground looks like there. I mean, are people going to work and sort of going about their lives or is it really completely a war zone?

Donaldson: It’s still a war zone and people are trying to live as normal as possible.

Yes, we traveled from Warsaw to Bucha, which, as you know, has had the mass graves. The city is pretty much obliterated. It’s like watching a sci-fi film. From there, we went into Kyiv.

Our driver told us that a week earlier, a sniper had shot a bullet through his windshield, went over his shoulder, and hit the passenger behind him and killed the man. Well, I was seated in that same place.

Then he took us to our hotel, the Ukraine Hotel. I can only describe that as like Hotel California. You can check in, but you can never leave.

It was dark. It had military inside. We tried to sleep, but at 4:30 in the morning, the sirens went off. Missiles were coming in. The missile defense system intercepted four of the five. So one landed just miles from us. Then you try to go back to sleep and then about three hours later, the sirens went off again with incoming missiles.

So if the siren goes off one time, that means it’s coming to your region. If that siren goes off a second time, it’s coming to you. Obviously, you are on edge.

We went to a restaurant and the waitress, she handed me the bill and she said, “Please pay this right away in case you get killed or something.” We were eating outside and she would come out, hand us whatever, and then flee back into the restaurant. You’re on red alert always.

The good news though is that we met with the bishops from all over Ukraine representing 1,800 churches. We met some of the bishops, for example, from the Donbas region where there are posters of them that [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has put up.

These are public enemy No. 1, if you will, to the Russians. They are in search of these bishops to arrest, kill them because they recognize how much influence they have in their communities and how these churches, these pastors of these churches refuse to leave, they refuse to give up their cities, their people, and these churches are lighthouses. It’s powerful.

So that’s who we are helping. We’re actually supporting them with funds so that they can survive, but also food, meals, including even meat provided by our partner PMI Foods.

Then from Kyiv, we traveled into Odesa. As you know, Odesa’s been repeatedly bombed. While we were meeting with the bishops there, they received a report that one of their pastors had been apprehended by the Russians and they had no idea where he was at.

So it’s sobering to say the least.

Allen: When you were there and you were speaking with these bishops and church leaders, what did they say to you? What do they say about the state of their country and how they’re doing personally, how their congregations are doing?

Donaldson: They’re not victims, they’re victors. And they are convinced that they’re going to beat—they call him Putler, not Putin, so a cross between Putin and Hitler.

So they’re on self-defense protecting their people from not only the artillery but the really hand-to-hand combat and kidnapping, but at the same time, they’re proactive.

If I can give you an example, they have bought up the billboards throughout Ukraine. There’s like 2,000 billboards that they’re renting. And on those billboards, they have positive messages, including Scripture, in working to inspire the Ukrainian people and the military. We saw many of them as we traveled throughout the country.

We are also meeting with them at their headquarters in Kyiv. It’s like a bunker because it’s surrounded by military. They turned over their whole compound to the military and inside, they have one room where they meet to strategize. We were part of that.

They’re very hopeful. These are great men and women, heroic. It’s a joy and honor for us to serve them.

Allen: Did you get to talk to any of the soldiers while you were over there?

Donaldson: Yeah. The hotel that we stayed at, they put me on one side of the hotel. Again, we were the only guests and on my side, it was military. I actually had two military stationed outside my door because of these snipers and they never know when they’re going to be attacked.

So yes, I had a good chat with the military there and they are resolute that they are going to defeat these occupiers and that their nation is going to be fully restored.

Allen: I mean, that’s really incredible to hear that they’re that resolved. We see these images of totally bombed-out buildings and you mentioned going to Bucha, which, of course, such horror stories out of that city of just a total massacre of individuals, including children, 1,300 lives lost that we know of so far from that one city. Yet, the fact that you’re saying that the people of Ukraine are resolved to keep fighting and to win this fight is really incredible.

Donaldson: It is and in Bucha, for example, we were there to dedicate one of the homes that we helped to bring in.

They’re called C-train mobile homes—very nice, includes all the amenities, a couple bedrooms, which is critical to provide women, children, elderly with privacy. Many of them have been staying in church safe houses, which is like converted sanctuaries and gyms, but now they have a nice little home.

Well, this one home is on the property of a home that had been destroyed by the Russians. Incredible interview with the mom who shared about how they barely escaped their home getting bombed there in Bucha and how they left, but then they returned and they said, “We’re not giving up our land.”

So right there, we dedicated that new home to them and they moved in along with their dog.

Again, you hear this mom share with such resolve, “We’re not giving up our land,” she says. “We’re not giving it up. We’re back.” How can you not support them? I mean, it’s only $25,000 to build one of those homes.

Our vehicles, we now have a transportation network of vans and trucks, and those are only $25,000, but yet they’re rescuing people, they’re rushing in product, food and other supplies. It’s actually a relatively small price for what we’re able to do in these cities.

Allen: Really incredible. Now, I would be curious to know, since you were over there at the very beginning when really the war began and then have just come back now, what were some of the differences that you saw from the first time you were there when the war first broke out to now?

Donaldson: Yeah, that’s a great question. The first time I was there in Lviv, people were, I would say, totally on edge, exhausted, weary. And you had a lot of refugees that had moved from their parts of the country hoping that it would be safe there.

Many of them moved toward the Polish border and then into Poland, but many are trying to return to their cities or to other cities that are safe.

I would say that, as you mentioned earlier, they’re trying to live a normal life as much as possible now versus previously.

An example of that is that we were visiting a refugee center in Moldova. Moldova is the poorest European nation and yet it’s taken in thousands, thousands upon thousands of refugees. We’re at this church safe house center and we hear this party that’s happening down the hall, and we walk down there and the refugee families are all meeting.

This mom, this wonderful mom named Ella, she was putting on a party for her son Edward, but she was also putting on a party for everybody there.

I interviewed her and I asked her what’s it like to have this party in another country. She said, “We want our children to not have to worry about the war. We want things to be as normal as possible. If we can provide some joy, then we’re going to do it.”

She had just a beautiful countenance and I said to her, “Thank you, Ella, for making all of us happy, all of us.”

We have this on video. You’ll see it on our website, cityserve.us. Powerful, absolutely powerful.

There’s just so many stories like that of people that have an innate joy. I believe that’s the joy of the lord who is their strength. They’re lifting each other up and they’re filling rooms and cities where they have every reason to feel like a victim. Instead, they are victorious. I’m seeing that throughout the country.

Allen: So incredible to hear you say that and to hear the stories of the people that are choosing, like you say, to be powerful in the midst of such a challenging situation. Just absolutely incredible.

For you personally, when you’re in your hotel and you’re hearing sirens go off, what’s running through your head? Did you feel scared for your own life as you were there?

Donaldson: I’ve been in war-torn countries before. I was in Northern Israel during the Lebanese battle and had missiles flying every direction.

On one hand, it is scary. I mean, is this it? Am I going to die here? But at the same time, I believe that the safest place is in the will of God. If God sends you to a place to serve, I believe he will protect you. So I had a great peace about it.

I think more than the missiles, it was the snipers. So for example, my balcony, it’s a little balcony that oversees Liberty Square, and to the right of my balcony, the room next to me, a guy was killed by a sniper.

So obviously, you just don’t know when a sniper is going to start shooting and from where, like the car that we were in. You’re especially on edge as it relates to the snipers, but I had a peace.

That was my third trip. I had a peace. And when you’re with these leaders, with these people who are so brave, so courageous, so uplifting, how could I be scared?

Allen: What do the people of Ukraine need right now?

Donaldson: Well, first of all, prayer that this war will end and secondly, I think prayer for safety.

Secondly, we got to continue to purchase and station these vehicles, vans and sprinter vehicles, strategically so that we can move people out of harm’s way, evacuate them, but then rush in emergency food and supplies as I mentioned. So we got to continue to expand that fleet.

The safe houses that are there in Poland, Moldova, Romania, we’re going to continue to support them with food and other supplies.

As you know, there are literally millions of refugees that have poured into Poland and Warsaw in particular, stretching its infrastructure. We have right now another million meals that will be going in next week into the Odesa region.

So we’re grateful for the donors who provided the meals and also the distribution, but we need vehicles to move that around more.

Then as I mentioned, I think the housing is a big deal. As you would imagine, this has gone on since February, so the refugees have been in these church safe houses where they don’t have privacy, there’s very little normality. And so, by providing these C-train mobile homes for just $25,000, they can have somewhat of a normal life.

We need to purchase a lot more of those. We know exactly where they need to go and because they’re mobile, we’ll be able to move them around. For example, if the Russians return to Bucha, we would be able to move those homes out of there to a safe place out of harm’s way.

Those are the greatest needs right now.

Allen: For those listening who think, “I want to be a part of meeting those needs. I’d love to partner with CityServe,” how can they do that?

Donaldson: Just simply go to our website, cityserve.us. Cityserve.us and you’ll see right now the whole first page is devoted to Ukraine and it’s really simply to give through our website.

Allen: Excellent. Well, Dave, we really thank you for the work that you’re doing and the work that CityServe is doing and we really appreciate your time on the show today and encourage all of our listeners to check out the work of CityServe and how you-all are making an impact not only in Ukraine, but really all over the world. So thank you for your time today.

Donaldson: Thank you. My joy.

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