A West St. Paul woman said her Christian group's humanitarian mission to Ukraine recently encountered a deeply embedded problem in that part of the world: corruption.
Airport customs inspectors in Kiev, Ukraine, seized all the donated medicines that her group, Volunteers in Medical Missions (www.vimm.org), brought with it to give to poor people.
"They confiscated our medications, all of them, every drop," said Lisa Prytula, a nurse with United Hospital in St. Paul, who returned earlier this month from a two-week trip in the former Soviet republic of 48 million people. It was her second relief mission to the Eastern European nation.
Prytula estimated the cash value of the loss at $3,000 in over-the-counter and prescription drugs, including antibiotics. Despite the confiscation, the group members carried on with their mission of serving poor villagers near Chernobyl. They spent several thousand dollars in a combination of personal and donated cash.
Prytula, who speaks Ukrainian fluently and is the daughter of Ukrainian emigres, said customs agents never gave a legal basis for taking the drugs. And after hours of talking with a changing cast of rude officials who gave shifting rationales, Prytula never learned who was in charge.
But she found out what it would have taken to get the drugs back: a cash bribe, something her delegation of seven refused to pay.
"They wanted money," Prytula said. "We weren't willing to pay the bribes and support the corruption that is breaking the backs of people. That wasn't an option."
In her talks with the Boryspil International Airport agents, Prytula learned they were not fans of Americans or Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, the Western-oriented politician who led last year's Orange Revolution.
Those peaceful street protests overturned the results of a rigged election that would have brought to power Viktor Yanukovich, the hand-picked successor of the scandal-plagued former president Leonid Kuchma.
"There was mockery," Prytula said. "They said, 'You Americans really like Yushchenko. We don't need your American doctors and nurses coming here helping us.' We were definitely targeted as Americans."
"They get away with whatever they want," she said. "They're really out of control."
Attempts to reach a spokesperson in the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., or the Ukrainian Consulate in Chicago were unsuccessful Thursday.
But the lasting consequence is that the Seneca, S.C.-based Volunteers in Medical Missions won't go back to Ukraine.
"We want to be good stewards of the resources we have," said the organization's executive director, Larry Secrest. In Ukraine, he said, the group was "following the same procedure we have followed previously, for about five or six years. We were blindsided on this one."
What makes it appear to be a simple case of brazen corruption is the refusal of government officials to return the seized medicine when the delegation left the nation, Secrest said.
Rather than invest much effort in protest, Secrest said, volunteers' time and money are better spent in nations where the needs are greater and the welcome is better. The decision is understandable, Prytula said, but it still "breaks my heart."
She said the delegation's lead doctor, Carl Jones, had wanted a permanent relationship with one of the poorly equipped village clinics near Chernobyl, site of the 1986 nuclear reactor explosion.
After leaving the airport, Prytula said, the rest of the trip was uneventful. But, even though the Ukrainian national capital of Kiev is doing relatively well, rural villagers remain mired in poverty.
Her experience made her disenchanted with the Yushchenko administration.
"The people said to me, 'I don't see any difference in my quality of life.' Nothing has changed in the poor villages. Gas was three times more expensive. Food was more expensive. The standards of living haven't improved," Prytula said. "I think it was pathetic that nothing has happened in nearly a year."
But Prytula remains interested in providing charitable medical help. Volunteers in Medical Missions works in India, Africa and Latin America and makes many trips each year.
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