British heroes of Ukraine: The former MP who helped evacuate 20,000 people

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British heroes of Ukraine: The former MP who helped evacuate 20,000 people

Brooks Newmark recalls the horrors of the war in a broad interview with Jewish News to mark the conflict's first anniversary, saying the UK helped 'rally' the West around Ukraine

Former British MP, Brooks Newmark, helping evacuate Ukrainian refugees. Credit: Brooks Newmark.
Former British MP, Brooks Newmark, helping evacuate Ukrainian refugees. Credit: Brooks Newmark.

As Brooks Newmark prepared for an interview with Jewish News on the anniversary of the war in Ukraine, the former MP sent a text saying an “early wake-up call” from Putin in the form of missiles had struck the city of Zaporzhzhia where he was staying. 

“My room was definitively shaking. A little nerve wracking while it was going on. But all quiet now,” Newmark said.

64-year-old Newmark, a Jewish Tory who previously served as MP from 2005-2015, has been spending almost a year in Ukraine, helping evacuate over 20,000 people from war-torn cities via his charity, Angels for Ukraine.

Newmark said he felt an “urge” to offer his help when the war in Ukraine broke out. One of the reasons was the destruction he had witnessed by President Assad and Russia in Syria, and how the West could have done more to help the moderates.

Former British MP Brooks Newmark helping evacuate Ukrainian women and children from villages around Izyum in Kharkiv in May. Credit: Brooks Newmark.

Another part of Newmark felt it was his duty to offer Ukrainians help in a time of need, in the same way that “a lot of people stuck their neck out for the Jews in WWII, such as Oscar Schindler and Sir Nicholas Winton, people whom my mother always talked about and admired.”

“But I didn’t imagine I would still be here a year later, or that I would have managed to help evacuate the number of people I did,” Newmark said.

His journey began on the Polish side of the border in early march last year, when he decided to team up with his friend from Latvia who was using a bus to evacuate people fleeing Ukraine. Not long after, he decided to continue his work inside Ukraine.

“My friend got me three buses from Lithuania that we used to evacuate people from Kiev and Lviv, which were under attack. And because we were doing it for free, we got very busy very quickly,” he said.

Newmark said that evacuating women and children from the war zones were among the most imminent issues. His organisation quickly began working with local authorities and local bus drivers, whom he said he would “never put in danger.”

The rescue efforts were therefore constantly changing depending on which part of the country had experienced the latest assaults that left civilians in need of evacuation.

When asked which experiences had left a particular mark on him, Newmark recalled a few incidents. The first was seeing a shoe appear from a mass grave in Bucha, a Kiev suburb, where over 400 civilians were massacred.

Shoe sticking from the mud off a mass grave outside Kiev, where more than 400 civilians were massacred. Credit: Brooks Newmark.

“There was something about seeing that shoe sticking out that just really moved me,” Newmark said.

The former Tory MP recalled a different incident near the city of Izium in eastern Ukraine, where his organisation had gone to help evacuate some 40 women and children.

“I remember seeing this woman crying inconsolably. She told me she had witnessed her daughter blow up in a bombing as she was talking to her on (on FaceTime). That story just really resonated with me,” Newmark said.

There was also the story of a woman in her late 50’s and her wheelchair bound mother whom the Russian soldiers had prevented from reaching the border by car, forcing them to walk 15km.

The first six months of the war were incredibly intense, Newmark recalled, but around September the situation seemed to calm down a bit. His organisation then started evacuating people with severe trauma wounds, getting them to the Polish border from where they were airlifted to Germany.

A mom and daughter evacuated from Russian controlled area near Pechenihy in July. This was part of a huge operation where Brooks Newmark helped evacuate 1090 women and children in one day. Credit: Brooks Newmark.

Most recently, Angels for Ukraine signed an agreement with the Ukrainian ministry of health, allowing the charity to evacuate wounded soldiers as well.

Looking back at the UK’s efforts, Newmark said he thinks the British government is incredibly unified, and that Boris Johnson in particular helped mobilise international efforts to stand by Ukraine.

“I think a huge amount of credit has to go to Boris Johnson for getting off the mark quickly, and rallying the West around Ukraine,” Newmark said.

“But it also shows how unprepared NATO is for a more traditional type of warfare. We have been too slow in giving the Ukrainians what they need. It’s always just enough to keep the Russians at bay but we need to give them what they need now to win this war,” he said.

When asked how long he intends to stay in Ukraine, Newmark said he “keeps setting a deadline” for himself but that he keeps “breaking it.”

“If there’s stuff to do, you can’t just leave.”

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