Picture the scene in downtown Dnipro, a post-Second World War 'Rocket City', where the first Sputnik satellites were built. I was sipping a Russian beer standing in the city square in the shadow of a towering edifice of Lenin. I tried, with little success, to connect with my emails, social media, texts, anybody...
Typically, just as the Capital Kyiv's McDonalds is the most sought after fast food outlet, the branch here in the city centre had swarms of young things hanging about outside feeling the Western vibes. The rest of the one million or so inhabitants were elsewhere. That was 2005 when a UEFA Europa League tie was staged and I was one of several hundred Scottish football fans, many kilted, who made the journey from Edinburgh.
The American fast food giant is closed now. Whether it ever opens again is doubtful. There are deeply upsetting reports and pictures of explosions and death in this city following the Russian invasion, such is its strategic eastwards warzone location. Hankering back to that innocent time: the soccer match where a coming together of folks was in sharp contrast to what is occurring now. The merry band of Scots were more than willing to embrace the occasion. As were the locals who gave us a huge welcome.
Okay, we were escorted in and out of the FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk Stadium Meteor by militia. Equipped with, as it turned out, a rather friendly pack of Alsatian hounds straining at the leash. I was never that sure if one taking a liking to me was just licking the salt off my hand, or sizing me up for its next bowl of borscht.
Yes, it was a foreign land as such, but the experience was quite exhilarating. Yet it was plain to see that the local economy wasn't in great shape. Since that trip, the Hibernian FC supporters have annually donated food parcels and other help to local families under the Dnipro Kids banner. It's not uncommon for football clubs to do likewise. Such an act of kindness takes on a more fundamental role as the days, weeks and months are about to pass by. Just how to physically get such shipments out there, at first, appeared impossible but is actually happening as I write.
Several Scottish clubs have responded to the Ukraine emergency. Hibs fans raised £50,000 through the Hanlon-Stevenson Foundation (HSF); Hearts FC donated matchday programme sales from their game with Aberdeen; St Johnstone raffled off a signed Mariupol-born Sergei Baltacha shirt with all proceeds going to Dnipro Kids; the Celtic Foundation pledged support to the crisis, with the club charity donating £10,000 to help the Scottish Refugee Council (SRC) support people fleeing from Russia's invasion; and Rangers' players, management and directors are making a £72,000 Ukraine donation, added to the £15,000 made by the club's charity foundation.
Scots engineer Stevie Carr founded the Dnipro Kids charity and serves as its chair. He has travelled to Medyka, on the Poland-Ukraine border, where he is helping to co-ordinate efforts to evacuate around 70 children, between the ages of six and 17, from the orphanage in Dnipro, arranging transport and accommodation for them. He told STV: 'It's very emotional. It would be fantastic for them to come over the border and to meet them here'. He added that it was also very frustrating as they cannot give them an end-game, but would do everything to get them to a safe place.
SRC chief executive Sabir Zazai says Scotland has distributed time and time again its commitment to solidarity and sanctuary for refugees seeking protection. He called for a 'structured resettlement programme' that properly funds local authorities and communities to deal with emergency situations like Ukraine. He arrived in the UK as an asylum seeker in 1999, fleeing the conflict in Afghanistan, and dispersed to Coventry where he lived and became involved in local community initiatives. He was appointed as SRC chief in September 2017. Welcoming the UK Government's simplified visa programme announcement, if it helps people reach safety faster, he claimed there was simply no time for visas 'when you are fleeing a war zone'.
The council has stated it fails to understand why UK policymakers continued to drag their feet in the midst of such urgent and obvious suffering. Ireland brought in a full visa waiver scheme in tandem with 27 European Union countries, pledging to offer three years temporary protection to people fleeing Ukraine, with no visas required.
The UK Government failed to respect the UN Refugee Convention and offer safety to people of all nationalities who are forced to flee. Instead, it continued to push through its Nationality and Borders Bill, meaning an individual fleeing this and other conflicts, not eligible for a visa waiver, or who reaches the UK off their own back, would be criminalised. The House of Lords has voted to remove many of the bill's most harmful clauses. MPs are being called on to follow suit when it returns to the Commons to significantly amend it to meet moral and practical needs of today's unstable world. The SRC noted that, in stark contrast: 'Scotland wants to offer a warm welcome to people fleeing the Ukraine conflict'.
Thinking back to that beer in Lenin Square... Don't expect similar food aid on its way from Putin and his cronies to this beleaguered part of Ukraine, or the rest of the country. Just more bombs.
Former Reuters, Sunday Times, The Scotsman and Glasgow Herald business and finance correspondent, Bill Magee is a columnist writing tech-based articles for Daily Business, Institute of Directors, Edinburgh Chamber and occasionally The Times' 'Thunderer'