By Callie Hietala
George Metz, a Henry County native, bought a plane ticket for Germany where he will head Thursday. Upon arrival, Metz will spend time driving back and forth between Germany and Ukraine, transporting volunteers to the conflict zone and helping refugees to safety.
Metz, who works with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)—or Doctors Without Borders—spent time in the country, which is now under attack by Russian forces, and managed a team of about 20 as part of his work with MSF.
Metz is now based in the Washington, D.C. area and was visiting his father’s farm in Henry County when news first broke of the Russian invasion.
When asked about his time in Ukraine, Metz remembers the women who left their purses unattended in a Kyiv café.
While working at a table there, he said he witnessed two young women both get up to go to the restroom, leaving their purses and phones behind at their table, completely unattended. “They were gone for 4 or 5 minutes,” he recalled.
That simple gesture struck him so strongly that he photographed it.
The moment symbolizes for Metz the spirit of the people of Kyiv, a people and a city that is currently under attack.
“They didn’t even think twice, because people living there have this pride and this honor and it shows through in everything they do,” Metz said.
He still has friends and colleagues in several cities in Ukraine who, he said, have been sending him regular updates as the hostilities continue.
On Friday, Feb. 25, the day after Russia’s assault on the country began, Metz said the border crossing near the Ukrainian city of Lviv was backed up 14 kilometers.
“Many of my friends can’t even get out of Kyiv,” he wrote in a message, “because of the situation with the trains and Blabla Car (the car sharing service most widely used in Ukraine).”
“They are staying in basements, bomb shelters, and subways. The next train to Lviv that has tickets (available) is 2 days from now and it looks like Kyiv will be overtaken by then,” he wrote.
As of early March 2, five days since Metz sent that message, the capital city remained under Ukrainian control.
On Saturday, Feb. 26, Metz wrote that one of his friends made their way to the Turkish embassy and was awaiting a way out of the country. Another “forced their way onto a train heading south as buying a ticket was impossible and the trains are full of people getting out of Kyiv.”
Each train car, made to hold 4 people, had 10 in it, he said.
“They have arrested Russian saboteurs in Vinnytsia and Kyiv” who were “communicating information back to Russia and creating problems,” the message continued.
Metz wrote that he “spoke with our NYC (New York City) office, trying to reach out to Brussels to ensure that 2 of our MSF National staff members have the legal documents to possess 2 cars that are at the Poland border,” having arrived there “after driving hundreds of miles to evacuate our international staff from a tuberculosis project in Zhytomyr. They must now drive back on those same roads which may or may not have Russian tanks/troops waiting for them,” he wrote. He later said that part of the team opted to stay in Ukraine.
On March 1, Metz wrote that everyone who is sending him information from inside the country remained safe, and that the drivers of the two cars had returned safely to Zhytomyr.
“MSF is figuring out the best strategy on how to use existing facilities in Dontesk, Kyiv and Zhytomyr to set up field hospitals and provide services during this new conflict,” he said, and later clarified that, if the organization does set up a hospital or organize a crew to enter the conflict zone, “it will be to treat both Ukrainians and Russians because it’s the right thing to do.”
The MSF, he said, is committed to neutrality. “A patient is a patient, a human being is a human being. We treat everyone, and that commitment is what allows us to get into places no one else wants to go or can go.”
In a phone call Tuesday night, Metz said he had purchased a plane ticket to Germany and would be leaving Thursday morning to drive back and forth between Germany and Ukraine, bringing volunteers into Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees back to Germany.
He said some people are giving him envelopes of cash to deliver to friends and family in the country.
“I just talked to someone within the last two hours living in the southeast, and the troops just arrived in her village yesterday,” he said. She had delayed leaving the country, indecisive because of concerns about her elderly father. Now, he said, she will likely not be able to leave at all.
“None of the local banks are working,” he said, and those that are still open have run out of money because people are withdrawing it as quickly as possible, not knowing when, or if, they will have another opportunity.
In Ukraine, money is largely useless because “they don’t have the ability to buy anything.” Supply lines have been completely shut down, he said. Beyond that, there is a fear of leaving the basements, subways, and shelters people are in for fear of what they will find outside. Even then, “when you get to the store, will the store be open? If the store’s open, did someone just bring them new products?”
“It’s very strange,” Metz mused. “A lot of times, we think about bombing” occurring in underdeveloped countries. The places his friends live, however, and the cities he knows from his time in Ukraine, “these places are just as modern as any other city in Eastern Europe. Kyiv is an incredible city. It’s one of my favorite cities in the world and it’s so strange to think about it being bombed like this and ripped apart.”
“The food is so good,” he recalled, and a wide variety of various cuisines is readily available. The quality of education in Kyiv was second-to-none, he said, and students enjoyed a focus on the arts and music, which he described as a big part of life in the capital city.
Now, that same, vibrant city, the city where once two young women felt safe enough to leave their purses and phones unattended, is possibly one of the least safe places in the world.
“It was such a beautiful place and a beautiful people, and I feel so lucky, so fortunate” to have been there,” he said.
Metz said those who want to help with the ongoing conflict can make a donation to MSF and direct it specifically to efforts in Ukraine, at www.msf.org/donate.