THERE have been narrow escapes from exploding bombs, awful scenes of despair, warm smiles and children’s laughter.
And at the heart of a decade spent helping some of Ukraine’s most desperate children, has been the generosity of spirit and determination to make a difference from ordinary – and extraordinary Hibs supporters.
This month marks ten years since a small group of Easter Road faithful made the journey to Eastern Europe to watch Tony Mowbray’s Hibs side take on Dnipropetrovsk in the Uefa Cup.
The result of the match is almost superfluous. For what the game inspired was much bigger – a link between Edinburgh and Dnipropetrovsk’s needy children that stretches across borders and which has helped hundreds of deprived young people for ten years.
Since that match in September 2005, tens of thousands of pounds have poured into Dnipro Kids, the charity launched soon after the final whistle, which has gone on to change lives at home and abroad.
Most of the money has come from the wallets and purses of Hibs fans, determined to continue to help the orphaned and needy children of the struggling Ukrainian city.
Reaching such a significant milestone was the last thing alarms business boss Steven Carr was thinking of ten years ago when he and fellow fans began planning their journey to Ukraine to watch what turned out to be a 5-1 defeat.
“Once the Uefa draw had been made and we knew who we were playing, we started to think about what we could take out there with us,” recalls Steven, who is chairman of Dnipro Kids.
“I got in touch with someone in the city to find out if they could take us to a place that would benefit from some things while we were there. Once that was organised, we started to collect whatever we could.”
Steven and friend Mark Strachan set about organising a haul of items to take with them on their journey – bits and pieces from cases of Irn-Bru to warm clothes and football tops.
Money poured in from fans at a pre-match collection at Easter Road and businesses chipped in by donating items.
By the time their chartered flight touched down in Dnipropetrovsk, it was loaded with more than a dozen extra bags destined to help children at a TB recuperation centre in the city.
Arriving at the Predniprovsk Tuberculosis Children Centre on the outskirts of the city turned out to be a life-changing moment.
Children were supposed to remain within its walls for only six months while they recovered from illness. But many had been abandoned by parents either too poor or unable to cope.
Without the loving arms of a family and only a basic education system, the children’s futures were bleak. Their surroundings were depressing too.
“It was like a prison,” recalls Steven, 49, who has now made 17 trips to Dnipropetrovsk .
“Most of the children were taken there in the early stages of TB but it was quite a shock to see it was a typical ex-Soviet kind of centre, with concrete buildings, steel doors, concrete walls and concrete floors.
“I kept thinking ‘how could this be allowed to happen?’.”
The fans were overwhelmed by the grateful response from the children. “They couldn’t believe the toys and games we had for them,” he recalls.
They used money raised by fans to buy items on a ‘wish list’, including winter boots for children who had been wearing only thin slippers to run about outside.
One item was a lawn mower for the centre’s gardener. “He had been cutting the grass with a scythe,” recalls Steven. “When we gave him the lawn mower, he was in tears.”
The fans returned home determined not to break the link with the city, and set about planning another trip and the launch of Dnipro Kids charity.
As news of what they had found in Dnipropetrovsk spread, fans offered money, support and donations to help gather enough for a second trip.
Within a year, Dnipro Kids had raised more than £20,000 for the Predniprovsk Tuberculosis Children Centre, as well as a local pregnancy crisis centre and the smaller Odinkovka orphanage.
Soon they would be assisting children at a further two orphanages, returning time and again to deliver birthday gifts and take them on special fun days out, supplying clothes and boots and, of course, football kit in Easter Road colours supplied by the club.
But one trip in 2012 nearly ended in tragedy. Steven was with colleague Jackie Beer at a shopping centre in the city when a bomb exploded just 400 yards away. Just an hour earlier, they had been at the precise spot. “The bomb had been left at a bin at a tram stop. I walked past it at 9am and by 10am there had been an explosion,” he recalls.
The bomb was among a series of attacks that left 29 people injured in a single day. And it left Steven and Jackie shaken by what could have been.
“We were lucky,” recalls dad-of-two Steven. “We were about to take the kids out skating and came out to find the city in shutdown, roads blocked and the military running around.”
Ukraine has been at the centre of increasing conflict in recent years, but despite it all Steven insists he’s never felt unsafe. But while he dreams of taking daughter Caitlin, 13, to see the work Dnipro Kids has done, he’s holding off until she and brother Liam, nine, are older.
Instead focus closer to home is on an open evening with Ukrainian food and beer at the Ukrainian Club, 14 Royal Terrace, on Friday evening. And later, the big fundraising event in the charity’s calendar, the annual dinner at Easter Road.
The charity is also raising funds to provide medical supplies to one of their key Ukrainian helpers, Ira Polyashova, 56, who is fighting terminal pancreatic cancer.
So ten years on Steve, who lives with partner Sharon Purves, says there are no plans to stop now. “We have seen changes in that time,” he adds, “and some things have improved. But there is still plenty for us to do. “We’re not stopping yet.”
n Find out more at www.dniprokids.com. To sponsor a child, go to www.dniprokids/sponsorship To donate to help Ira Polyashove, visit www. justgiving.com/dnipro-ira