Until last month he’d never driven anything bigger than a family car. Now Cambridge resident Vitalii Burnus is preparing to drive a fourth ambulance to Ukraine to donate to hospitals treating the war wounded.
When his phone pinged on a dull day back in early March, Vitalii Burnus found himself looking at a message from a friend. “I saw that a group in Denmark were taking ambulances to Ukraine. That’s the moment when something took hold in my head,” he recalls.
Vitalii, 37, and his wife Nataliia, 36, are Ukrainians. They have lived in Cambridge since 2013 with a short break in their homeland to comply with UK visa regulations. Both are highly qualified clinical scientists. They have four children, the youngest just a year old.
The Russian invasion of their homeland hit them hard. “It was totally unreal, a horrible and completely new feeling. We were safely here in Cambridge but our hearts were in Ukraine,” says Nataliia.
“The night before the war started on 24 February, I had a terrible nightmare. In my dream I was at my grandmother’s house in the countryside near Kharkiv and I was walking round pools of blood.”
Nataliia woke that morning to find Vitalii reading the news. “His face was white with shock. From that moment, everything changed and we knew we had to help. I felt that my grandparents were calling me, that our country needed us.”
The couple’s response was immediate. That evening they and their family attended a demonstration organised by Cambridge University Ukrainian Society. “We cried together and stood together, trying to work out ways of supporting Ukraine,” says Nataliia.
Less than two weeks after spotting his friend’s message alerting him to the Danish mission, Vitalii was driving an ambulance over the Severn Bridge en route for Ukraine, some 1,500 miles away. In the space of a few days, Vitalii and Nataliia, backed by a growing circle of friends and supporters, had raised £8,000 and purchased a second-hand vehicle from a company in South Wales. “I’d never been to South Wales before, and I most definitely didn’t know how to pronounce Merthyr Tydfil. Plus, I’d never driven anything bigger than a family car,” says Vitalii. “After watching the news as my country was shelled, people killed and cities destroyed, it felt good to be doing something positive and practical. Nataliia and I decided to call our trip the Route of Hope.”
As well as purchasing an ambulance to donate to a military hospital in Kyiv, the couple and their supporters raised more than £14,000 to buy medical supplies, protective items and medical equipment. Vitalii picked these items up at stopping points in London, Berlin and Warsaw. While Vitalii navigated the motorways across Eastern Europe, back in Cambridge Nataliia and Sergii Burnus, Vitalii’s brother, looked after the complex logistics and documentation entailed in crossing several borders in a vehicle piled high with supplies.
Three days after leaving South Wales, Vitalii arrived in Korzowa-Krakovets on the Poland-Ukraine border and handed everything over to a Ukrainian military doctor. A friend with a car who had accompanied him from Warsaw drove him back to the Polish capital so he could fly home.
Just before Easter, Vitalii and his friend Anatolii Pavlovskiy did the same trip all over again, each driving an ambulance crammed with supplies. Once again, the vehicles and their contents were handed over to Ukrainian military hospitals whose need for first aid supplies and transport for wounded servicemen is acute.
“An anonymous donor paid for these two ambulances,” says Nataliia. “We don’t know who this person is. But we are incredibly grateful. I wanted to make a cake as a thank-you present but I got a message that any celebration would have to wait till the war was over.”
Vitalii’s line manager at the international pharmaceutical company where he works describes him as a man of action. True to form, he is already planning his third trip. This time he will deliver a left-handdrive ambulance specially equipped to transport badly injured people.
“I’ll carry on taking ambulances to Ukraine as long as there is need for them and as long as our budget allows,” he says. Tucked into his passport will be the card made for him by a 14-year-old Cambridge girl called Georgina, one of countless well-wishers.
Vitalii stresses that couldn’t do any of these trips without Nataliia and the staunch support of family and friends. Close Ukrainian friends include Anatolii who has also lived and worked in Cambridge for several years. “The moment I heard about Vitalii’s project I was determined to support him. I raised £3,000 to help fund the first ambulance trip with a Ukrainian wine tasting event,” says Anatolii. “I’d never driven a right-hand vehicle in Europe before, let alone all the way to Ukraine. But I’d definitely do it all again.”
For Nataliia, the sense of support she and her family feel from those around them is a huge source of hope and strength. “Putin’s war on Ukraine is terrible,” she says. “But amid the terror and destruction there are so many sparks of human kindness and generosity.”