Osnat Lubrani knows first-hand the horrors of war. As UN Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine, she has witnessed the dramatic changes since the Russian invasion and rapidly mounting needs as the war tears lives apart across the country.

“What is keeping me awake at night is the horror of knowing that it hasn't ended yet and that there are more people alive today that are very likely to be dead tomorrow.”

At least 15.7 million Ukrainians are now in urgent need of humanitarian aid, with the UN working to expand existing programs and establish new life-saving operations. Yet access to some of the most vulnerable is proving extremely problematic. In this episode, Osnat Lubrani reflects on the frustrating battle to reach them, what it feels like to receive distressing cries for help, and what gives her hope when all seems lost.




Transcript and Multimedia




Osnat Lubrani 00:00


I think what is keeping me awake at night is the horror, the horror, of knowing that it hasn't ended yet. And that there are more people that are alive today and are very likely to be dead tomorrow.


Melissa Fleming 00:18


From the United Nations, I'm Melissa Fleming. Welcome to Awake at Night. The war in Ukraine has brought death and suffering to millions of people. My colleague Osnat Lubrani has been working there since 2018 as the UN’s Resident Coordinator and also Humanitarian Coordinator. She was mostly focused on development issues and making a lot of progress. And then the war came. And it’s really hard to imagine the trauma that she’s seen there. Her job these days is all about trying to get aid and supplies to people in desperate need. We are recording this interview about six weeks since the Russian invasion in Ukraine. These weeks must have seemed like a nightmare for you. Osnat, you've witnessed many things since the war began. And we will get to that in more detail later. But is there one incident or one person that you just can't forget?


Osnat Lubrani 01:41


You know, in this situation, those who are caught in the city. There is no difference between the haves and the have-nots. People that have money cannot get to the cash, cannot get to the cash machine. The difficulties somehow equalize all differences between the people and they're all under the same terrible stress. We need to remember… We hear a lot about the terrible damage, the deaths that are happening because of the fighting. Because of bombs and bullets. But what maybe we don't know about is that many of the deaths are caused because people don't get basic access to the medicines that they need in order to survive. And so that's where our humanitarian assistance is trying to scale up and ensure that we get in, and we bring those life-saving medicines and other vital assistance to people. Water is another challenge in parts of Ukraine where water infrastructure has been heavily damaged. And in Donetsk and Luhansk, I speak to UN staff who tell me that there’s water rationing of barely two hours a day. All of a sudden people like… You know being at threat of death because of inability to have any food or water. I mean because they cannot get it or it’s too unsafe to go out to get it. That’s the situation that people are in right now.   


Melissa Fleming 03:11


I mean, you've travelled since the war began to the places that you had access to around at least the periphery of some of the hardest hit places. Can you describe what you've seen?


Osnat Lubrani 03:23


The big challenge in Ukraine right now is that you cannot… The transportation is not there. The air transportation. This is a huge, huge country. It's the country the size of France. So, for me to get from Lviv to Dnipro takes a day and a half of driving. A full day and a half of driving and there is no other way to get there. So, what is very important for me is that we are positioned closer to where the needs are. And right now, we are increasing our presence in Dnipro, which is more to the east. And it's a city from where we can position humanitarian convoys to support up to nine oblasts that are near… that are the most affected with the besieged cities. It was very important for me to be there, to visit Zaporizhzhya, which is another city that is closer to Mariupol that everybody has heard about that is being so heavily affected. And it's the one where the people that are able to get out of Mariupol. This is their first port of call.


Melissa Fleming 04:36


You went there, and you're so close to Mariupol. The UN has trucks, truckloads of supplies, that could save the lives of people who are really entrapped. And who, as you mentioned, don't have medicine, or don't have any water. How did it make you feel, to have all of that life-saving material and not be able to access the city?


Osnat Lubrani 05:05


Melissa, I try not to get into that too much and move forward because it's just too heartbreaking. I mean, I had like two experiences with all of the materials positioned to go. And it's very complicated to do all of the preparations to get tonnes and tonnes of materials in convoys ready to go with all of the notification so that all of the sides are ready, informed and notified. And I was ready to leave from Zaporizhzhya to Mariupol. And another time was to leave from Kryvyi Rih which we were positioned to go into Kherson. And the most difficult, difficult, moment for me was that we had to be in touch with partners there that were waiting for us, that were ready to risk their lives in order to unload the trucks and distribute it to the people in need. And they were telling us how much they're waiting for us. And then in the end, we couldn't get there. I mean, it's just… it is… it feels. You know, there are no words to describe it. But we are not giving up. We're not giving up. The people are still there. The needs are still there. And we have a commitment to continue to try to get to those cities that are the most in need.


Melissa Fleming 06:38


It must be [inaudible]…must be just incredibly devastating for you. But even more so its people unable to leave. But there have been some who did manage to leave. Have you been able to speak to any of them?


Osnat Lubrani 06:57


My colleagues have been in touch. We also had UN staff that have been caught up and were not able to leave. So, it hits very, very closely. And I know that the fact that you're not even able to connect. I mean, people have not been able to call people. And some of them are still unreachable. So, there's some that we don't know what is happening to them. 


Melissa Fleming 07:26


There's just been such terrible suffering. So many people have lost family members or have had family members, or they themselves have been forced to flee. Unprecedented in our times in Europe. Displacement and people living in basements underground. I mean, what have you witnessed yourself from this kind of suffering?


Osnat Lubrani 07:52


I think I again want to go back to the fact of what keeps me going. So, I was in Vinnitsa on my way back from Dnipro. You know, this sort of like the point where you have to spend the night before going back to Lviv because…And it's a very important.... It's a place where we have now an important UN hub that will, you know, deliver to Kyiv and into other areas. And I arrived in Vinnitsa. And yes, there were the sirens every now and then. But there was the park and all of a sudden you saw… You know, I was there and there was a piano in the middle of the park, and somebody was playing. And there were children in the park. So, wherever it's possible people are still kind of like clinging to some sort of modicum of normalcy. And I think that that somehow it sort of infuses me with some hope there are still parts of Ukraine that are fully functioning alongside the terrible tragedies. And there is this great solidarity among the people. A lot of generosity and a lot of commitment to, you know, provide support and assistance that's coming from the citizens themselves. People self-organizing, volunteering. The number of volunteers in the National Red Cross is, you know, ballooned. So, I want to be hopeful. And at the same time, I'm very insistent and desperate to really get to the people that are most in need. I just got a heartbreaking letter from Kherson saying, ‘We're missing insulin. We need these supplies, you know, basic, you know, medicines. Please can you come’. And it's the issue of access. The issue of, you know, humanity. Of being you know, just civilian life. Children, sick people, elderly that are caught in this nightmare. I mean, it's so unjust, and it has to stop. It really has to stop.


Melissa Fleming 10:10


You must wake up in the middle of the night sometimes. And like, what is it that is keeping you awake at night?


Osnat Lubrani 10:17


I think what is keeping me awake at night, is the… you know, it's the horror, the horror, of knowing that it hasn't ended yet. And that there are more people that are alive today and are very likely to be dead tomorrow. I mean, that is a horror. And I think we should all feel terrible about that. And we should all be outraged about that. And the fact that there is no political solution is just… Which is what, you know, needs to happen, and must happen. That is what keeps me awake at night.


Melissa Fleming 10:59


When you think about… I mean, you just lived through the sudden transition from peace into war. I mean, there was conflict happening in one part of the country, but as… Where you were living it was peaceful. There was development. There was progress. In very simple terms, what happens when war hits in terms of how people react? What falls apart?


Osnat Lubrani 11:29


I fear that human nature is such that emotions are so raw. It's sort of, you know, people break up. But in my lifetime, I've come across other examples where people whose lives have been decimated by loss of sons, daughters have chosen to say no to continuation and looked to bring an end to conflict. You know, for me, I've been over the past years… I've been going to oversee humanitarian projects on both sides of the contact line. I've visited schools and kindergartens and social institutions that cater to, you know, vulnerable groups, to IDPs, to children with disabilities, with you know, challenges. And amazing people that run these institutions and are so committed. And basically, they have a shared history no matter on which side they're on.  So that's always sort of what strikes me. That it could be easy to stop and start something better and fresh and with a different approach.


Melissa Fleming 13:08


When you think about war, what does it make you…? Like, what are the words that come out of your mouth?


Osnat Lubrani 13:14


I hate it. I hate it. You know, it's something that I, you know… I was based in the Pacific for a long time, and I dealt with disasters that are natural disasters. And that is a real problem for many people. It brings loss of life and devastation. And it's becoming worse because of manmade impact that is affecting climate change, and in turn, turning these disasters into much more severe ones. But still, when I was humanitarian coordinator for these disasters, in the end, the people… You know, you sort of you fall back, you fall down, you suffer, and then you come back again. And people have lived with these things for centuries. And they somehow… They know how to be resilient to that. I remember I was in Vanuatu and this one partner of ours that supported us in the humanitarian [inaudible]. He told me, he says, ‘You know, when all of the houses were shattered, my grandmother's house was the only one that stood intact because she was… Her house was built with this weaving technique that is long forgotten, because we've always lived with cyclones. And she'd still preserve that old tradition of the weaving that is resilient to no matter what cyclone or hurricane’. The fact that here we are dealing with such sophisticated arms and these missiles that are targeting multistorey houses of people living in apartments, and it's just… That is, I find unconscionable, and it's more difficult to deal with these conflicts that are so avoidable. They're avoidable. And we know that they can, and they should, and it's not happening. 


Melissa Fleming 15:22


I believe you have a special relationship to Ukraine from your family heritage.


Osnat Lubrani 15:30


So, my family heritage… Not in Ukraine, it's more in Poland. Very close. But in Ukraine, there is a very important Jewish history and Jewish community. So, it is very, you know… Somehow, it's also personal.


Melissa Fleming 15:55


Indeed, many survivors of the Holocaust, both from Ukraine and from Poland, went to Israel where you grew up.


Osnat Lubrani 16:04


Yes. And there was… I just want to bring us back to last autumn when there was this very important anniversary of the Babyn Yar massacre, which is also in Kyiv. And it was such an important commemoration of an atrocity that happened on Ukrainian soil. And to think that, you know, this was commemorating things that happened decades and decades ago. And now we're living this. It does resonate with chapters in Ukraine's history that we thought would never, ever return.


Melissa Fleming 16:48


And that monument was also bombed.


Osnat Lubrani 16:52


Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.


Melissa Fleming 16:55


How did that make you feel?


Osnat Lubrani 16:58


Scared. I think very scared. Because I think what is happening right now in Ukraine tells us that it is now urgent more than ever to revisit and revive the compact that was made after the most terrible atrocity that happened in World War Two - of the genocide of millions of Jews and other people. And I think we need to renew that compact, which gave birth to the United Nations that is now, you know, also under duress, given the situation that we're in. But I am more than ever… believe that we need this strong multilateral commitment more than ever before. It needs to be strengthened. It needs to be revived. It needs to be nurtured and watered and grown. And I think it's important for all Member States to think about it. Because the impact of this conflict is going to have regional and global impacts on everyone. And I know, sometimes it's a bit… It is also inevitably distracting from the attention that is needed to other conflicts, and with all of the repercussions. I think it really… It has to bring us all together. I'm hopeful that the Ukraine crisis will bring all of the Member States together to really do something together about not letting this unravel - the precious value and role of multilateralism that the UN represents.


Melissa Fleming 18:49


What drives you personally, to do this job? I mean, I know you came to Ukraine in 2018 to do a different job. But you have been extremely passionate since the start of this war.


Osnat Lubrani 19:04


So, you know, I am, you know, what's called a bit of a third-culture kid in the sense that born in Jerusalem I grew up to Israeli family that were moving from country to country. And in the end, sort of always felt passionate and at home in the countries that were not my own. As much as I feel, you know, passionate about my own country. And I think that's something that sort of drives me. I have this memory of a colleague who was close to retirement when I was just starting my career in the United Nations, and I felt so passionate about it. And he said, ‘You know, after being so many years in the United Nations, where when people ask me where I'm from, I no longer say…’ You know, he was French. He said, ‘I don't say that I'm from France’. He says, ‘I'm from Romania, I'm from Rwanda’. You know, and I sort of feel a little bit like that. You know, because after a while, you…And I think it's important to feel solidarity with the country that you're in. I mean, it's still important to exercise your role as an international true to the values of the UN, and the principles of the UN, and sometimes have tough conversations. But that relationship of trust really grows out of being sympathetic and knowledgeable and in tune to the environment that you're living in. So, I feel part Ukrainian at this point.


Melissa Fleming 20:53


I believe that your father was a quite well-known diplomat. Did he instill some of these values in you?


Osnat Lubrani 21:04


Yes definitely. I think I am, in some ways, following his passion. He was always very much in tune with the people. And we didn't always agree on different things, but I think in terms of… I mean, his last posting as a foreign diplomat was in Tehran. And I still have a memory of how he foresaw what is going to happen. And he was very much in the mode of full understanding where it's coming from. You know, this revolution and this wanting change. And very much in solidarity with the Iranian people at the time. And so, I think that's something that I did inherit from him. In that sort of love for getting to know other cultures, other languages. And getting to realize that underneath it all human nature is very similar. I mean, when it comes to humour, when it comes to connecting with people. In the end, if you're open, then you can make connections across any divide - religion, culture, you name it. It's those things are sort of more like dressing. And yeah.


Melissa Fleming 22:35


Your family is still in Israel. And what do they think of what you're doing now?


Osnat Lubrani 22:43


They're worried. So, I don't… I only tell them about my travel to Kharkiv when they come back. When I get out. But I think very supportive. My mother is worried, but you know, supportive. As is the rest of my family. So, yeah, some of the little ones are a bit scared. But yeah.


Melissa Fleming 23:11


I'm sure they're worried and also proud. What do you draw strength from, Osnat?


Osnat Lubrani 23:19


I draw strength from the people that I meet. The partners that I just admire for their strength and their passion. And it's the people in Mariupol, in Kherson. You know, in Kyiv, or wherever they are that are keeping strong. My staff. Like I get a lot of inspiration from my staff. The UN is a bit like a bouquet. You know, and each… The mandates of the agencies I think are… I get a lot of inspiration from the values that are encompassed in these mandates. And in the things that unite us around the human rights agenda. It's the compass that brings us all in the same direction. And I sort of hold on to it very strongly and dearly. Because without that, I think not only is the [inaudible], the entire world is lost.


Melissa Fleming 24:17


And what would your personal hope be for the future of Ukraine?


Osnat Lubrani 24:26


My vision for Ukraine is that it is a strong country with independence, with identity that lives in peace with all of its neighbours. With all of its neighbours. It has very strong ties with each and every country that is bordering it. And I know that it doesn't only depend on Ukraine. But that is what I wish for Ukraine because its future depends on it. Finding a path to living in peace and in cooperation with all of the countries which it borders.


Melissa Fleming 25:12


Well, let's hope that this war ends soon, and that future is possible. Osnat, thank you so much for joining me on Awake at Night.


Osnat Lubrani 25:21


Thank you. Thank you, Melissa. My pleasure.


Melissa Fleming 25:27


Thank you for listening to Awake at Night. We'll be back soon with more incredible and inspiring stories from people working to do some good in this world at a time of global crisis. 


To find out more about the series and the extraordinary people featured, do visit un.org/awake-at-night. On Twitter, we’re @UN and I'm @melissafleming. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and please do take the time to review us. It helps more people find the show.


Thanks to my editor Bethany Bell, to Jen Thomas, Adam Paylor and the team at Purpose and to my colleagues at the UN: Roberta Politi, Katerina Kitidi, Geneva Damayanti, Tulin Battikhi, Bissera Kostova and the team at the UN studio. The original music for this podcast was written and performed by Nadine Shah and produced by Ben Hillier.