An Irish tech entrepreneur and former professional poker player have set up a rapid-response medical supply route through the battlefields of Ukraine to the beleaguered city of Kharkiv.
Former rally drivers and truck drivers bravely run the gauntlet of Russian bombs and shells with vital medical supplies and body bags thanks to the ingenuity of Story Tracks app founder Fergal Nealon and owner of Sligo Casino, Mark Walsh.
Their drivers go where large organizations cannot go until the humanitarian corridors are officially open.
The two men from Sligo traveled to Poland last week originally on a mission to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
However, once their aid was channeled, they soon realized there was more they could do.
One of their Polish contacts, a CCO of a game company had shot down tools and started bringing refugees further into Poland early in the war, but then wanted to bring medical supplies back to Ukraine.
Thanks to him, Nealon and Walsh made crucial contact.
“I entered into a WhatsApp group chat with the head of Kharkiv’s health department and he sent us their medical needs on a daily basis, such as medicine and bandages, body bags,” Mr Nealon told the.
After emptying their suitcases of Irish donations, the men began scouring all the pharmacies they could find in Lodz along the Polish-Ukrainian border for supplies for war victims in Kharkiv.
Once they filled up their van, Nealon and Walsh, along with Clonmel native Dean Hogan, realized they would have to drive through Ukraine themselves.
“We had to cross the border because our drivers couldn’t come to us because of conscription, they can’t leave Ukraine,” Nealon said.
A strange scene met them.
“It was like an abandoned petrol station in the west of Ireland. They [the Ukrainian drivers] blinked for us to come. One of them is a truck driver and rally driver.
“They then drove non-stop for 40 hours taking turns at the wheel to get the goods to Kharkiv,” Nealon said.
Mr Nealon said the supply runs will continue as long as the drugs can be bought.
“We are able to quickly respond to medical demands from this day and get them through side channels and through the rubble to the battlefields,” he added.
Once the supplies were handed over, the three men crawled for six hours 500 meters to the Polish border where a very different scene awaited them.
“It was calm, but it was minus 4 degrees, it was snowing. We were in the luxury of a hot van, but there were elderly people, women and children waiting to be treated,” he said.
The men visited the refugee center where they distributed toys to young children and newspapers to older teenagers.
“What really struck us was how stoic and polite everyone was, even the kids when we were handing out the toys, there was no whining,” Nealon said.
He said most older teenagers have excellent English.
“One of the girls wrote a note to my six-year-old daughter, who is being framed,” he added.
Nealon and Walsh, with help from Sheila Scanlon of the Sligo Food Bank, as well as former Unicef logistics professional Peter Marron and others, set up Rapid Response Ukraine to continue to provide medical supplies in Kharkiv.
“We all have our ducks in a row in terms of governance. We’ve gotten to the point where when the donations come in, we know the drivers and pharmacists to source and transport from, we’ve established and verified the supply chain,” he said.
Nealon hopes the leaks will be temporary – once the humanitarian corridors open, the men will focus on getting refugees to Ireland.
“If you had told me a few weeks ago that we would have set up this supply chain, I would not have believed you. But this is war,” Nealon said.