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Canadian who sold Leafs memorabilia to travel to war zone shares harrowing stories of life on Ukrainian front lines

Sitting in an apartment north of Toronto, Adam Oake calmly explains how he’s had to adjust his mind’s reaction to the sound of sudden loud noises since returning from the front lines of the Russian invasion in Ukraine.

“Being home, a car door slamming, or some loud noise, it’s a split-second reaction but you immediately think, ‘What is that?’ Because if I was in Ukraine and I heard something like that I would assume it was an explosion,” admits the 34-year-old.

CTV National News first spoke with Oake in August, after he’d left his life in Toronto to volunteer with an NGO in Ukraine. At the time, Oake shared that he “couldn’t sit on the couch knowing that there’s something I can do to help make a difference.”

A devout, lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan, he decided to liquidate his massive collection of Leafs memorabilia in an effort to raise money so he could travel into the war zone. His plan was to join the foreign legion, but when he arrived in Poland he was assigned to volunteer with a Norwegian crisis response organization called Paracrew. For the last five months, he’s been risking his life driving food and aid to an area where most organizations no longer go – within the hot zones, near the front lines in eastern and southern Ukraine.

Oake notes that as the war reaches its one-year anniversary and continues to escalate, smaller NGOs have pulled their teams out of Ukraine “because a lot of people aren’t willing or are unable to go to the places that need assistance.” That’s leaving organizations like his to traverse dangerous routes to deliver supplies to the hardest-hit areas, which has led to multiple close calls.

One such close call happened recently when he was in the city of Dnipro. Oake was fast asleep in a hotel room when he was suddenly jolted out of his bed as a “large missile hit the city just a couple blocks” from his hotel. Dnipro is the same city where a Russian missile strike hit an apartment building on Jan. 14, leaving dozens of civilians dead.

“I saw the flash of light outside my window” says Oake, who also admits there were times over the last nine months when he wondered if he’d wake up to a ceiling collapsing on top of him from an attack.

During one mission just north of the embattled city of Kupiansk, the four-wheel drive ambulance he was in became stuck in the mud. With artillery fire popping off nearby, a Ukrainian tank used a downed power line to pull him and his vehicle out of the mud.

Oake smiles while reflecting on the unique experience, while also admitting how dangerous the situation was.

“The entire time you’re there you’re a sitting duck, and obviously you’re now being pulled out by a tank, which is even more of a target,” says the Canadian aid worker.

A contractor by trade, when CTV National News first spoke with Oake, he was also assisting damaged Ukrainian homes in need of repair. That’s no longer the case.

“The further east or south you go toward the front lines, you really see that the war has ramped up over time,” he says.

Oake goes on to detail the destruction he’s witnessed.

“There’s next to nothing standing, most of the small villages, all the bigger towns, they’re gone. They’re pretty much wiped off the face of the earth.”

The Russian military’s assault on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has resulted in rolling blackouts, which means limited power and at times no heat.

“Nearly every morning at one point we would wake up freezing with no heat “ says Oake.

He and the volunteers at Paracrew built a fireplace out of two buckets. They’d gather around it to make a pot of coffee and find reprieve from the Ukrainian winter.

Oake himself no longer has a home to call his own. He’s currently living in his nephew’s apartment in the Greater Toronto Area. Near a dining room table, his pre-war life is stacked against the wall, packed in half a dozen boxes. He admits that not having a place of his own does weigh on him, but it’s a sacrifice he’s willing to make in order to help those in need in Ukraine.

When we first spoke Oake, he defended his volunteer work by saying: “There’s a lot of families that are in dire need and they don’t know where to turn. Put yourself in their shoes, imagine your home is destroyed and you’re put in a shelter with bombs constantly going off.”

Now, he says: “Being able to meet and live amongst Ukrainian people for nearly nine months really opens your eyes to how incredible and how resilient Ukrainian people can be.”

Oake also shares that he “now knows people who I can call good friends from Ukraine, I’d really like to get back there and help their country as much as possible.”

And that’s where his focus remains today. When asked if he’s fearful that he might not make it home following a second journey into Ukraine, if he makes the journey back to the front lines, Oake admits that “it’s a possibility” but that it’s a “reasonable risk worth taking.”

He goes on to pose the question, “If people like me aren’t willing to go there and help, then who will go and help these people in need?”

Oake plans to fly back to Ukraine on March 13. The duration of his stay will depend on public and private donations that he says have chilled as the winter and the war grinds on.

SourceCTV News


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