A German travel agent turned Ukraine aid worker | DW Travel | DW | 14.03.2022

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A German travel agent turned Ukraine aid worker

Marten Lange-Siebenthaler used to make a living organizing holiday trips to Ukraine. When the war broke out, he switched to sending humanitarian aid, rather than tourists, to the country.

Marten Lange-Siebenthaler looking straight into the camera.

Marten Lange-Siebenthaler delivered a first batch of aid mere days into the war

Marten Lange-Siebenthaler runs Dreizackreisen, a Berlin-based travel agency specialized in eastern and southeastern Europe as well as the Baltic states. The company has been organizing trips to Ukraine since 2006. The country has been hugely popular with his clients.

Ever since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine on February 24, however, Ukraine holidays have been out of the question.

Lange-Siebenthaler, who maintains close ties to Ukraine, has now switched to sending humanitarian aid rather than tourists to the war-stricken country. He delivered a first load of goods in the early days of the war.  

DW: What exactly are you doing to help people in Ukraine?

Marten Lange-Siebenthaler: We have contacts in Ukraine and learned from them what is most needed in various different towns. We are trying to meet these specific demands. Our approach is different to that of large aid agencies, who do important work. Our approach is to find out what items are needed where and then supply them.

What are the things most needed in Ukraine?

Our first delivery to Ukraine was tinned food, outdoor equipment such as tents, camping mattresses, sleeping bags as well as power banks and flashlights.

Medicine, dressing material, tranexamic acid [to halt heavy bleeding] and so on are in dire need. We are currently organizing medical equipment for ambulances. We are seeing regular vans being converted to ambulances, which is why we are currently looking for defibrillators, ECG monitors and such devices.

Two people sort humanitarian aid for Ukraine near Berlin

Sorting through aid for Ukraine at Marten's home near Berlin

You launched your first aid delivery to Ukraine just a few days into the war. Tell us about your experience.

We rented a Mercedes Sprinter van. My friend and I left for Poland, reaching the southeastern city of Chelm at 3 a.m., where we rested for four hours before continuing to the Dolhobyczow border crossing at 7 a.m.

During our journey, we contacted a friend, who ordinarily works as a Ukraine tour guide for us, to coordinate the handover. It's a highly organized affair on the border: Polish officials guided us to the Ukrainian checkpoint, who then sent us to a lane leading to a parking lot on Ukrainian soil. Our Ukrainian partners joined us there and we were able to swiftly unload our humanitarian aid.

And then you returned right away to Germany?

Yes, though we wanted to keep an eye out for anyone who might want to join us for the return journey. It was not easy finding people behind the border. We talked to several people who told us about a place in a nearby town that helps refugees travel to safety.

A member of the Polish armed forces there put us in touch with two women and a child looking for a ride. We dropped them off in Wroclaw [a city in southwestern Poland]. Authorities took down the personal details of all refugees and those transporting them; we had the impression everything was professionally organized.

A van with its door open and stacks of aid inside

The aid is brought in a small van directly to the border

Are you planning to get more aid to Ukraine? If so, which items will you deliver and when will you send them? 

We launched a fundraiser on Betterplace.org to buy a standbypowergenerator for a hospital in Brody, a city in western Ukraine. We got the funds together pretty quickly. Now, we are organizing how to transport the generator to Ukraine in the coming days.

We have decided to continue our fundraiser in light of the overwhelming support we have seen. With so many more items needed, we are now collecting €10,000 ($11,000) to buy medical products and equipment. We have already collected half this sum. We will organize a separate transport for these items.

How have the developments in Ukraine affected you emotionally?

Seeing women and children cross the border carrying just two or three small bags of personal belongings, knowing they are heading into an uncertain future — that is really saddening. And so is learning from friends and acquaintances in eastern, southern and central Ukraine who have had to flee. Hearing their stories and the suffering they are experiencing does not leave you cold. Following the news in Ukrainian media, provided you speak the language — all of this is unsettling. So yes, seeing what is happening in Ukraine has affected me very deeply. 

This interview was conducted in German by Marco Müller.