In ConversationSociety

“You have to be prepared to die. Every day. That’s how you live.”

30. April 2024

Since the annexation of Crimea, Linda Mai has dedicated her life to the Blue-Gelb Cross aid organisation she founded. In an interview with DIMENSIONS, the chairwoman of the German-Ukrainian Association talks about her work, the will to resist and the emotional experience of the last aid transport to her war-torn homeland.
(Image: Deutsch-Ukrainischer Verein e. V.)

Linda Mai,

born 1975, grew up in a small village in the west of the Ukraine and moved to Germany 20 years ago. Together with her late husband, the Cologne resident-by-choice founded the non-profit association “Blau-Gelbes Kreis e.V. / Deutsch-Ukrainischer Verein” in 2014. The qualified pharmacist says: “I didn’t look for this mission, it has found me. Now, this is my life.“ Since 2014, Linda Mai has also been involved in “Holidays without war”, a programme for Ukrainian orphans and injured people, enabling them to spend a short time in Germany. As chairwoman of the association, she coordinates all aid deliveries and distributes them on the ground, including close to the front line.

Blau-Gelbes Kreuz e. V.

is a non-profit German-Ukrainian association based in Cologne with branches in Duesseldorf, Bonn, Aachen and other cities in Germany, which has been supporting the development of a free, democratic Ukraine since 2014 and providing aid for the victims of the war, especially children, internal refugees, injured people and other people in great need from the regions affected by the war.

Since the outbreak of war in the Ukraine in February 2022, the association has been realising a wide range of measures to help Ukrainians and their country. To this end, the association has delivered tonnes of humanitarian aid supplies to the Ukraine, including ambulances, medical equipment, backpacks and care packages for expectant mothers

Help now and donate

Blau-Gelbes Kreuz Deutsch-Ukrainischer Verein e.V.
Kreissparkasse Köln
IBAN: DE78 3705 0299 0000 4763 46

In addition to monetary and material donations, Blau-Gelbes Kreuz e.V. is always grateful for helping hands. Further information about the association can be found here.

You brought us this beautifully painted Gepard cartridge case today as a gift for the company’s recent backpack donation to Ukrainian children. It was manufactured by us and fired in the Ukraine. What does this cartridge mean to you?
Yes, the cartridge has indeed been beautifully painted by an artist. But for the people in the Ukraine, a cartridge like this has a special relevance, because it saves lives. I was in Eastern Ukraine at the end of January, beginning of February, and distributed aid supplies in various cities. The destruction is unimaginable and beyond human comprehension. That was before Avdiivka fell

The Gepard is an effective defence system against drones. Almost all drones are shot down by it. We keep having so many drone attacks on different cities: Kyiv, Odessa, Kherson. Especially, the multi-storey buildings that are hit. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Rheinmetall employees in, particular in the ammunition production. Without your work, we would no longer be able to defend ourselves effectively. The Ukrainians talk very differently about the things as we talk about here in Germany. It’s always just about how many people were being killed today, and how their relatives at the frontline are doing.

A spontaneous but special visit to the company headquarters in Duesseldorf. The Chairwoman of the German-Ukrainian Association, Linda Mai, visited Rheinmetall AG on 20 March 2024. Here to see in the interview with David Ginster.
In return for a donation from the Executive Board she presented a special gift to the company’s press department: an artistically painted Gepard cartridge.

So they only talk about the war?
All the time! I’ve been working in the warehouse where we have packed the aid supplies in Cologne for two years now. Of course, this is far more noticeable for me here in Germany.

What was recently delivered to the Ukraine by your association?
Mainly medical backpacks, ambulances and power generators. However, we are shifting the transport of medical goods to standard commercial vehicles, as the Russian army firstly fires on vehicles that are actually protected by international law. They have realised that this is the way to cause the biggest damage.

In the foyer, you told us how the air-raid sirens were constantly triggered. How did you experience this locally?
Adults no longer react at all. But children always have to go to the shelters. I had to go to the cellars at least once a day. But there are often up to eleven air-raid alarms daily.The children then always start singing. They are given a fixed “partner” on the stairs. The aim is that the so called “panic partner” is a classmate who is relatively confident in dealing with the alarm. Of course, many children are also traumatised. The adults then illuminate the dark corridors in the cellar with their mobile phones. You can smell these musty, damp rooms, and I didn’t even realise that my tears were running down my face. The children had prepared everything downstairs and bypassed the time during the air-raid siren by drawing. The pictures, the children were drawing were incredible. I’ve never seen anything like them.

Picture of a fourth-grader from Czernowitz (Irina K.)

You brought us pictures from the Ukraine a few days ago. Here in the press office at Rheinmetall, we were also very moved by what we saw on the pictures.
Yes, I mean how old are you in fourth grade? 10 or 11 years old? Children should be drawing completely different things at that age. More and more tanks are drawn with German and Ukrainian flags. The bombs that fall are always in Russian colours. I was particularly moved by a picture of a child who had drawn itself. The child looks out of the window onto a battlefield with tanks and burning houses. But behind it is a dream landscape in which the child is running across green meadows with his parents.

What is currently lacking most in the Ukraine?
I was never in favour of weapons before the war. But you simply can’t stop dictators in any other way. Weapons are the most important thing for us. And that’s what is lacking…
We are not only losing people and territories, but also hope. I have been to many hospitals behind the front line. Many young men are there with amputated limbs. They kept asking me “How many times are we supposed to prove that we can do it? We stopped the Russians with almost no weapons. And now, after two years, we have hardly any options left.” Entire sections of the front had to be abandoned due to the lack of ammunition. The mood was so good in December when the European Union opened accession talks. That has greatly changed since then.

Shortly a politician in Germany said that the conflict should be frozen so that it could be ended later. How was this perceived in the Ukraine?
(Mai throws her hands up in disbelief) Frozen? So, my opinion on this is quite clear, I must apologise, because after two years of war I have pretty much forfeited my diplomatic skills. What does “frozen” mean? The Russians annexed Crimea in 2014. They haven’t become any more peaceful. The West has continued to negotiate with Russia. And now Russia has realised: It’s working! And eight years later, we were truly invaded. What I think? It’s a huge mistake! There is no reason for the Russians to stop. Russia has broken all treaties in the past.

In 2012, a survey was commissioned in which people were asked whether they would be prepared to defend their country with an armed force. In Germany, only 16 percent of the population fit for military service said yes. In the Ukraine, however, the figure was an impressive 89 percent at the time. Has that changed today?
The will to resist is growing nonetheless. But how long do we want to wait until the Ukraine can defend itself? Until the last Ukrainian? The children who are now drawing pictures all want to be defenders. Naturally, there are people in every nation who leave and can’t imagine defending their country. However, many women also continue to volunteer.

The cheetah and the leopard in perfect harmony: In summer 2023, Rheinmetall donated €20,000 to fund satchels for Ukrainian children starting school.

Before the interview, you said: “Every Ukrainian knows how to build a Molotov cocktail.”
(Mai laughs) Yes, that’s right. Anyone can now make their own Molotov cocktail at home. People have pumped the petrol out of abandoned vehicles and built-up whole stocks of incendiary devices at home.

You can see that the will to fight against Russia is very strong throughout all age groups. To the point of absolute self-sacrifice. Someone once said to me: “Linda, don’t worry, they won’t be able to hold us.” Back then I replied: “Yes, but we don’t have enough weapons.” “But we have pitchforks! And everyone has a knife at home.” Every bomb which kills makes the Ukraine more resilient. That was my impression on the ground.

How safe did you feel near the front line?
When the ballistic missile comes, it comes. You don’t have much time to take cover. All local people say: “Hold your breath and count to 60, then exhale.” That’s all.
You have to be ready to die. Every day. That’s how you live.

How did you experience the people who lived in villages that were occupied by the Russians?
The people who lived under Russian occupation seemed to have lost the light in their eyes. The Russians were unable to take the town of Sumy because the resistance of the Ukrainian civilian population was too strong. They simply couldn’t get into the city with their vehicles. If we had had the weapons earlier, that the West has now supplied, we would have been able to repel the Russian forces much sooner. Although we are very grateful for the supplies, they arrived far too late in Eastern Ukraine.

It is not only people who lose their lives at the front lines, animals also lose their habitat. All that’s left of once proud forests are often mere tree stumps as silent witnesses of a brutal battle. The older animals have often fled or perished, but I have also noticed some interesting behaviour from younger animals. (Linda Mai proudly shows some videos on her mobile phone) Look at this, these are young wild boars, cats and dogs seeking the company of soldiers. But there are also ducks and other animals. Look at this, these are young wild boars, cats and dogs looking for comfort of soldiers. But there are also ducks and other animals.

(In the video, a small duck makes itself comfortable in a soldier’s beard. Two small cats snuggle up in a soldier’s green camouflage jacket on his stomach. Humans and animals are resting.) These animals have often lost their parents and, out of sheer desperation, seek help from humans; the very people whose war caused them to lose their habitat. This happens on both, the Ukrainian and Russian, sides. They follow the army because that is where they get food. Some leashed dogs unfortunately starved to death when the humans fled, but many free-roaming dogs are really fed up, with so many corpses lying everywhere.

How have the people changed generally?
People treat each other with greater kindness and appreciate the current moment more. On the other hand, very, very dark jokes are made about the Russians. That was different before the war, of course.

Finally, let’s return to the city of Chernivtsi in the west of the Ukraine. Rheinmetall recently donated € 20,000 for backpacks for Ukrainian children there. How do you perceive the Rheinmetall company in your association?
The pictures I sent back to you speak volumes. The children were the proudest I have ever seen. Rheinmetall has now achieved cult status in the Ukraine. I would like to express my most sincere gratitude once again on behalf of the children and the association.

What else would you like to say to the decision-makers in industry and politics?
We can save lives with our humanitarian aid, i.e. with our medical backpacks, but we can’t do what you do. If we had more of these [weapons], we wouldn’t have needed to provide so much humanitarian aid. We have to be able to defend ourselves. Not only the people, but also democracy. The political will must be visible. If the conflict is frozen, then we are all – also in Germany – in danger. Where should democracy supposed to further retreat to? That will set a precedent. Then we will have proved that it is worth waging wars. Then democracy may have lost completely.

Mrs Mai, thank you very much for the interview and stay safe on your life-saving journeys to the Ukraine!

Interview conducted by David Ginster.

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