Glasgow student Umran Ali Javaid delivers a second-hand ambulance to a small hospital in the Ukraine preparing for new frontline casualties. Kenny Kemp reports.

“This is the new frontline line in the war,” murmured veteran surgeon Jojafat Bezpalko, a softly-spoken doctor with 40 years’ medical experience.

Dr Bezpalko is one of a team of physicians and clinicians in the ‘Tier Three’ regional hospital in the small Ukrainian town of Skalat, once part of Eastern Galicia, and on the road to the Black Sea.

This rural settlement, with its 16th century castle, is not a teeming urban centre such as Kviv, Odessa or Lviv, but one of hundreds of backwater communities in this vast country. Think of a pre-NHS Scottish cottage hospital serving a town in the Borders or Ayrshire.

The main building where Dr Bezpalko conducts his painstaking work, redressing wounds and undertaking minor surgery in the operating theatre was built in the time of the Tsars, and even Mikhail Bulgakov, the doctor and author of the acclaimed classic The White Guard, written in the 1920s, would recognise the high-ceilings, the ceramic heaters, and ornamented stairs and stained glass windows.

Dr Bezpalko, a friendly face in washed red scrubs and wearing a crucifix, had volunteered to serve with the medical staff at the front. His younger Tier Three medical colleagues are all expected to serve their tours of duty in the eastern battlegrounds. He was crestfallen when told by anaesthetist and hospital director, Dr Serhii Blyzniuk, he was too old.

I assure him that perhaps his experience and knowledge is more required for this under-strength hospital,

‘Da!’ he nods reluctantly.

Read more: Scotland's climate plan could be delayed after Sunak's net zero U-turn

This is the new frontline because it is where the long-term victims of Russia’s war with its neighbour are heading in their droves. Dr Blyzniuk says his hospital is increasingly treating those suffering the psychological shock caused by the shelling and destruction of homes and communities, those who have wounds that require hours of repeated dressing, and those who needed physiotherapist rehab.

“30% off the men are at the front, and many of the wounded are in military hospitals, but as they are released they require convalescence and long-term treatment. We are preparing for this. Yet we are already involved with the palliative care of our older citizens, many of whom have been displaced have moved here to this safer place,” he says.

The medics and staff in Skalat district hospital are determined that they will not overwhelmed.

The visit originated as the result of a humanitarian mission by Umran Ali Javaid, an extraordinary Scot with a Pakistani family background, who has become a seasoned voluntary aid worker.

A one-man band, who this week begin his MSc at Glasgow Caledonian University after graduating there with a first class honours in June, this was his fourth ambulance delivery to Ukraine, and a total of 40 to various trouble spots, including several vehicles for Syria, Turkey and Burma. It’s been a calling and an obsession since his first trip with George Galloway, the maverick politician, and Palestinian Aid to the Gaza Strip.

The Herald: Much needed supplies reach medicsMuch needed supplies reach medics (Image: Kenny Kemp)

Umran left Glasgow, drove overnight to Harwich, grabbed some sleep on the ferry to Rotterdam, then continued through Netherlands, Germany, Poland to Krakow, where I had flown in from Edinburgh on a Friday afternoon flight. The EasyJet flight was packed with Scots all heading to stag parties and the arranged coach trips to Auschwitz and the salt mines.

Just after 9pm, I joined the ambulance, a Vauxhall Movano with a purring Renault diesel engine. It has taken Umran several months of planning to source the ambulance, built in 2005 and with 117,000 miles on the clock, from former firefighter Tony Barker of Site Rescue in Leeds. He has ensured it is fully operational, even with a siren, blue lights and oxygen tubing, and that the correct export paperwork for this large charitable donation is in place.

“I work on my own because it is easier and quicker to deliver the vehicles and supplies. I’m now well known at various borders, although that has not always been the case, and I’ve been questioned for several hours in some places. For larger humanitarian organisations, there is a great deal of bureaucracy and logistical hoops to jump through before getting through,” he says.

Our journey from Kraków took another nine hours via a special pre-arranged Polish-Ukrainian checkpoint, arriving in the glimmer of dawn at 6am to the outskirts of Lviv. After a brief spot to meet the incredible Andrii, a former Ukrainian swim champion and a Border guard official, and his partner, Natali, who was seven months pregnant, the ambulance is off again.

Read more: Amazing Hotels: Life Beyond the Lobby visits Glenapp Castle

The couple had been the Ukrainian conduits and through word of mouth learned about Umran’s mercy missions. They contacted him at his home in Maryhill, where he lives with Ted, his husky, to ask if he could provide an ambulance for the hospital in Skalat.

Like so many hospitals across Ukraine, their ambulance fleet of eight had been decimated as they were directed for military hospital use near the frontline. Vehicles near the front have a short lifespan and ambulances have been targeted by Russian drones.

Following Andrii and Natali in their hybrid Toyota, we head towards the city of Ternopil, a two-hour drive from Lviv, which the previous evening had faced a missile attack and air raids.

On our journey, through this fertile country with its ripening fields of corn, apple and pear trees heavy with fruit, and through neat villages where locals are toiling in the afternoon sunshine in their vegetable patches, we came across a couple from Lincolnshire, Joe and Sophie Durso, who were delivering medical aid to the frontline. They are on their way to Gherson, a place that has been devastated by the war. Joe, a former firefighter and trained medic, had been diagnosed with cancer before the war, and simply wanted to help. This was the couple’s eighth round trip supported by local donations.

We arrived in Skalat at 2:30pm driving past the 16th century castle, and up the main street towards the town council office. Colour photos of eleven young men, like players from a local football team, are on the boards in the main street. Each face represents a locals who had been killed in the battle for their country. A  new picture and a funeral is being prepared as we passed.

As the ambulance turns down a pleasant orchard track leading to the hospital, we could see a gathering, which includes white-coated doctors, nurses and admin staff, all awaiting the ambulance’s arrival.

Our translator, Tetiana Morzevska, head of economy department, at Skalat city council, does the introduction, proudly representing the community. After an informal ceremony and the examination of the vehicle with its stretcher, automatic loading door, a box of medical supplies, and 48 Tunnock’s Caramel wafers, Dr Blyzniuk, aged 30, declares that he is delighted with the delivery.

He explains it will be used for local emergencies and for bring the elderly for appointments.

The Herald: Glaswegian Umran Ali, left, has become local heroGlaswegian Umran Ali, left, has become local hero (Image: Kenny Kemp)

He invites us in to see how his 130-year-old hospital building is still functioning.

He has been at the hospital for seven years and is the youngest hospital director in Ukraine. His hospital has 150 staff, 40 doctors, 50 nurses and the rest are assistants and technical staff.

Tetiana translates that a doctor earns the equivalent of £350 a month, while a nurse earns £240 per month, and a nursing assistant earns £142.

There is no doubting the endeavour and diligence in keeping this old hospital in a fit state. However, there is an obvious lack of modern hospital equipment, few proper hospital beds, and an X-ray suite gifted by American Medic Aid.

Our visit took us on a tour of the men’s and women’s ward, a visit to the laboratory, where a technician prepared a microscope slide where we were able to observe the cancerous platelets of a leukemia patient, a visit to meet the ophthalmologist, then across to a second building where there is a children’s ward and palliative care corridor for elderly Ukrainians.

We decline the opportunity to visit the isolation unit where a number of contagious patients recovering from COVID, which would require full masks and medical kit.

This was a warm Saturday afternoon and there were a mixture of patients.

One woman of 21-year-old was a refugee from the Eastern area of Bakhmut, an area of intense fighting, she had headed west to the relative security of Skalat. Before she became ill, she had opened a coffee shop in the town, which had been doing well.

A grinning 80-year-man, who had been a lorry driver, had undergone a gall bladder operation with Dr Bezpalko and Dr Blyzniuk the previous morning. He was up and walking around, following the entourage around the hospital. He was happy to join the excitement of the visit.

His obvious sadness at the death of so many young Ukrainians was etched on his face. His job had always been to protect and care for life.

A young boy of eight with stomach pains was receiving treatment watched by an anxious mum and grandad, while absent dad was serving at the front.

A female doctor in the endocrinology room, speaking via Tetiana’s translation, said even in Ukraine, where there is some of the best fruit and vegetables in the world, type two diabetes is on the rise, and young doctor in the physiotherapy room, who had recently returned from service in the frontline, admitted his apparatus, with two static cycling machines that would not look out of place in charity shop window, is in serious need of replacement.

Then we met Dr Bezpalko, who shows his consultation area with its autoclave for cleaning stainless steel instruments, and the drug dispensary with medicines, syringes and catheter neatly arranged in sterile packaging. All awaiting the next flood of wounded. One of his tasks is cleaning the wounds of convalescent patients injured by bombing and shelling.  After major surgery in Ukraine’s military and Tier One and Tier Two hospitals, they are brought to places that are local.

He said he had enough antibiotics and pain relief to satisfy the need for now. In his operating theatre, the machines were reliable old work horses which still did the job. If a wound has become gangrenous, he is ready to open up the patient, clean out the infection and re-stitch the skin. His obvious sadness at the death of so many young Ukrainians was etched on his face. His job had always been to protect and care for life.

Opposite the main block are the kitchens where the aroma of vegetable broth permeates the corridor, but behind the front doorway was a set of metal stairs leading to the basement. This is the air raid shelter.

The hospital staff are expected to move all the patients into this cramped shelter. It is extremely difficult to get bed-ridden patients down the steps. It is a claustrophobic space and unlikely to survive an nearby explosion. Yet a few days earlier, as the local sirens blared, the arduous task began, and everyone was taken underground.

Ms Morzevska explains that everyone is living in two parallel universes: one is the everyday world, such as going to work, shopping, visiting friends and family, and the other is dealing with a country forced into a war and watching and waiting for news.

She speaks solemnly of Mykhajlo Ivashkiv, a 33-year local council worker, one of the faces on the boards in the main street. He would talk optimistically about a peaceful life after the war and his plans to play his part in building a better country. An artillery shell exploded burying his whole platoon. They clamoured to escape but he died in the rubble.

In this town, like the rest of this region, with its beautiful onion-shaped churches, there is still a strong and devout Catholic and Orthodox Christian community of faith. Prayers and candles burn in each place for the young men.

The town of Skalat has known intense tragedy before. It housed a Jewish shtetl community in what was formerly Eastern Galicia, 12 miles from the pre-WW2 Russian border. The SS and Gestapo arrived in July 1941, and a pogrom resulted in the brutal deaths of hundreds of local Jews, with many peasant Ukrainians aiding the round-up of those then sent to concentration camps. It remains an indelible part of this region’s shame.

Glaswegian Umran Ali  has become local hero, given an official thanks from this grateful people of Skalat. He waved as he got into Andrii and Natali's car, back on the road past row upon row of ammunition trucks heading south, towards bustling Lviv, where thousands of young people are out enjoying the bars and restaurants in this historic city.

Next day, it was a 10-hour bus trip back to Krakow, including a three-hour wait at the border, before flying back to Glasgow. And to his university studies which begin this week.