‘Nobody can go through war and be who they were before’: Castlegar woman reflects on 18 months in Ukraine

April Huggett is supporting civilians and troops on the front lines of the Russian-Ukrainian war
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On May 16, April Huggett was delivering supplies in Siversk, Ukraine when she heard the ominous sound of drones overhead. She sought cover inside a home, waiting to see what would happen. A short time later, explosions could be heard as a missile struck an apartment building two blocks away.

The scene was a far cry from Huggett’s life in the peaceful town of Castlegar, B.C. prior to 2022.

Before the war Siversk had a population of about 12,000 people, now less than 800 people inhabit the town that is only about ten kilometres from the front lines of the Ukranian-Russian conflict.

Stores are closed, infrastructure is destroyed and the residents must depend on visits from volunteers for their food, medical aid and drinking water.

Huggett is one of those volunteers.

The 35-year-old mother of three is the founder of Planet of People (PoP), a non-profit registered in both Canada and Ukraine. She started the agency in 2022 after feeling a pressing need to do something to help those suffering from the war.

With the exception of a short visit home in early 2023, she has spent the last 18 months in the midst of the devastation of war.

Huggett started her Ukranian work focusing on delivering humanitarian supplies in the Bakhmut region, but has now pivoted to a stronger focus on military aid.

“I’ve seen Bakhmut destroyed … and many of the people I knew died,” Huggett told Castlegar News in a Zoom interview. “I just realized that if we do not support the military, this humanitarian crisis will not stop. It will be a perpetual cycle.

“There is no power, no infrastructure, the people are starving, they are being hit by missiles. But, there is nothing we can do until the military has the equipment they need to push the Russians out of here.”

So Huggett is on a mission to support the Ukrainian defenders however she can.

“Soldiers call us every day and ask for help and often say they don’t have anywhere else to turn,” said Huggett.

“We can often fundraise on a Tuesday, get the money on a Wednesday and deliver the needed items the next day,” explains Huggett regarding her in-the-moment approach to meeting needs.

“A week can mean a difference between life and death out here.”

Delivering those items often takes Hugget into areas where most people wouldn’t travel.

Most of Huggett’s fundraising efforts are done through Planet of People’s website UAUnitedForFreedom.com and her X account @DefactoHumanity, which has over 35,000 followers.

PoP has raised funds for a wide variety of items from medical supplies that cost a few dollars to a pair of drones that cost $40,000.

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Castlegar’s April Huggett poses with two drones purchased through Planet of People’s fundraising efforts for Ukrainian defenders. Photo: Submitted

Huggett’s current fundraising campaign is focused on a wish list she created based on frequent requests of the things she would buy with $100,000. Fundraising for the list is currently at $27,000 and purchases and deliveries have already started.

Huggett says that although other countries are providing equipment essential to fighting the war, small things are often missing on the ground.

“They need those little things, like tablets, to be able to coordinate attacks; signal repeaters to communicate between teams, anti-drone equipment, protective equipment, first aid equipment.

“It can be something very small like not having the right power output that could change your position on the front line.”

Huggett has also recently secured piles of tourniquets, nasal tubes, burn bandages and chest seals that are now headed for the front lines.

She says basic medical supplies are among the most frequently requested items.

“If you don’t have the proper first aid kit, you can’t save your life or the person beside you,” says Huggett.

The wish list also includes helmets, ceramic plates (shields), thermal imagers, generators, power inverters and batteries.

Since its beginning, PoP has tried to purchase as much as it can from Ukrainian suppliers with the hope that it can help the Ukrainian economy survive the war.

Huggett has also found that Ukranian suppliers often offer discounts since they are truly invested in the cause, helping to stretch the organization’s dollars as far as possible.

But Huggett hasn’t completely put aside the humanitarian work. She is currently helping with two projects — an animal rescue and care program and delivering drinking water.

Huggett and other volunteers travel more than three hours from Donbas to Siversk several times a week to deliver 4,500 litres of clean drinking water to the remaining civilians.

With many animals on the loose, and sterilization services for pets not operating, Huggett says the animal population in the war zone is completely out of control.

Her team is providing a variety of pet services including relocating animals, delivering medications and transporting pets to receive veterinary care and sterilizations.

As the Russians continue to advance towards Siversk, the volunteers are also evacuating pets ahead of the impending battles.

While in the area, Huggett helps with whatever she can, evacuating people in need of medical care, lending a helping hand and on instances like the May 16 missile attack, helping to search for survivors.

Being in the war zone has changed Huggett. She says she will never be the same.

“Emotionally it is hard. You go through a lot of grief at the beginning and then you almost have to dehumanize yourself a bit to take a step back. I don’t associate as much with soldiers outside of the work because there is a strong understanding that they could die, and a lot will.”

Just three weeks ago a colleague/friend of Huggett was killed by rocket fire.

“Nobody can go through war and be who they were before.”

Huggett says her values have also changed.

“I used to be very materialistic … I used to enjoy doing a lot of different things that I do not think I will ever enjoy again in the same capacity. Those things mean nothing to me now.”

She says living for a year and a half with just the things that will fit into a backpack has really put into perspective what is actually important, and what is not.

“I constantly say it is not about the way you die, but the way you live.”

Right now, Huggett is living in the shadow of cluster bombs and artillery fire.

She says she has gradually become desensitized to the fear of being in a war zone and concerns for her personal safety.

“I feel better being in it and working hard and trying to make a difference here,” said Huggett. “I don’t think about my safety as much and I just focus on the work.

“Recently, I’m talking to a woman about sterilizing her cats and there is gunfire in the background, and explosions and we are all just carrying on like it’s normal and keep talking. Because, what else can you do?”

Next month, Huggett is planning an overdue visit home.

She says she deeply misses her children. Now five, 10 and 13 years old, they are being cared for by their fathers and grandparents.

“I am so grateful that they have such wonderful fathers and grandparents,” said Huggett. “They are well adjusted, blooming, and doing well in school. I couldn’t do what I am doing now if I was worried about them.”

But her children are part of the reason that after a few weeks at home she will once again board a plane and head back to the front lines of the war in Ukraine.

“There is so much riding on this, its not just about Ukraine,” explained Huggett.

“There are dictators watching what happens here and that is what motivates me to stay strong for my children. This directly affects their future.

“If Russia wins here, we have places like China that will look towards to Taiwan, there is North Korea, Iran — if they lose here in Ukraine, what is going to stop all of those other countries?

“There is so much riding on this for the future of democracy and the freedom of our children.”

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Betsy Kline

About the Author: Betsy Kline

After spending several years as a freelance writer for the Castlegar News, Betsy joined the editorial staff as a reporter in March of 2015. In 2020, she moved into the editor's position.
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