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Ukraine Report #8: Humanitarian Aid with Amed Khan

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Ukraine Report #8: Humanitarian Aid with Amed Khan

Amed Khan is an activist, philanthropist and humanitarian who worked with the International Rescue Committee after the Rwandan genocide. He's evacuated refugees from Afghanistan and helped them resettle safely, and he's now focused on Ukraine, helping to lead evacuation efforts there and deliver medical supplies.

Amed Khan:

You know, in this case, there is a nation invading another nation. And I think it's incumbent on all of us with means, to do everything we possibly can to support the victim in this case, and in any other case as well.

Ken Harbaugh:

I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

As the invasion of Ukraine unfolds, we want to provide timely insights from the experts. So we've launched a series of special unedited episodes, separate from our normal content.

My guest today, Amed Khan is an activist, philanthropist and humanitarian who worked with the International Rescue Committee after the Rwandan genocide. He's evacuated refugees from Afghanistan and helped them resettle safely. And he's now focused on Ukraine, helping to lead evacuation efforts there and deliver medical supplies.

Amed, welcome to Burn the Boats.

Amed Khan:

Hey Ken, how are you? Thanks for having me on.

Ken Harbaugh:

You bet. You have seen and done a lot in your years on the front lines of humanitarian crises around the world. How does Ukraine compare?

Amed Khan:

Ukraine is just awful. There are very few words to describe it and I'm failing to do so. The ferocity of the destruction is something that I haven't seen before, and the speed of everything that's happening. So, we're literally not even three months in, and let's say six million people are outside the country already. And another seven to eight million people are displaced internally. These numbers are just almost unbelievable.

Ken Harbaugh:

You just used that phrase, the ferocity of the destruction, and you're a person who's been to Aleppo. I mean, you've seen Putin's handiwork elsewhere. I've been talking to military strategists and tacticians about the strategic use of terror in Ukraine. But you have observed this pattern close up. I guess I'm asking an historical question. I mean, how has this become part of the doctrine of one of the most powerful militaries on earth, to target the most defenseless, the most vulnerable to achieve their political ends?

Amed Khan:

I don't know that it's anything new in the study of sort of Russian warfare. They did very similar things in Grozny, in Chechnya. Previously, they had done similar things in Georgia. They had done similar things in Crimea, this time and previously, and of course, World War II, and then back to the Russian Empires. So obviously different technology and different abilities, force capabilities, but I don't know that it's anything new.

You did mention Aleppo. I'd have to pull up old conversations I've had or any sort of podcast I did, but I think it was a lot of deja vu for me because I feel like I've said sort of this stuff before. But I think if anything could be worse than Aleppo, that this might be. Because we were talking about Aleppo, and now there's Bryansk, there's Bucha, there's Irpin, there's Mariupol, which there are no words for. And on and on and on. Sort of hitting food storage, hitting fuel storage, hitting railroad tracks, hitting train stations, hitting cargo rails, hospitals, cemeteries, schools, kindergartens, playgrounds. It's really just awful.

Ken Harbaugh:

You at one point tried to put into words, your impressions, your experience of seeing Mariupol, or talking to folks who had fled it. I'm thinking about one conversation in particular you related with an elderly woman named Olga. Can you share with us some of what real Ukrainians are experiencing at the hands of the Russian invaders in places like Mariupol?

Amed Khan:

It's kind of tough because when they start to telling you their stories, you kind of break down, even though you've sort of seen it and heard it before. But it just never becomes normal. So essentially it's just their lives are just completely ruined. For example, Mariupol, you raised the evacuations. The first town that they would come into is a city called Zaporizhzhia, just a couple hours north. But it's actually not a two or three hour journey, it's more like a two or three day journey because they run into 20 to 30 Russian checkpoints along the way. They also come under fire along the way. So if you look at the parking lot of the first welcome center in Zaporizhzhia, you'll find a bunch of private cars with bullet holes in every window and along the back the bumper. And you ask the person who was driving, "How did you maintain your calm?" And, she most likely, most often, would say, "I had no other choice. I had three or four other people in my car that I was responsible for evacuating, and I just had to keep going forward." So you don't really know how to internalize what they're going through and you don't even know if they'll ever recover. But what you're impressed by is their strength.

So I think the stories have been told about gender-based violence, actions against civilians from snipers or close range, and dead bodies strewn across the streets. These are all things that all the citizens of Mariupol and other cities like Mariupol, the villages around Mariupol as well, have experienced firsthand and witnessed. The local Red Cross chapters are inundated with people that they've rescued from villages and towns that have come under fire, and being sort of witnessed to those stories. It's much the same.

Amed Khan:

Three days ago I was in a Red Cross chapter in Mykolaiv, and they had just brought in a woman and her child. The woman's two brothers were killed by shrapnel planting their field. And while they were telling the story, I was kind of just picturing two guys going out doing their spring planting as they do in rural Ukraine, and their life just ending just like that. But the sister of the two brothers had to keep it together to get her child out. These are the kind of things that are just sort of overwhelming

Ken Harbaugh:

You stand apart from a lot of humanitarians and certainly a lot of humanitarian organizations in that you pick sides and you have not been ambivalent at all about who the aggressor here is and who the victim is. Does that complicate your work? Does that motivate it? Why do you bring such a clarity of thought to something like this?

Amed Khan:

Well, I think we as individuals, it's our responsibility to do so. So I represent me, maybe my family, and sort of my private foundation and perhaps my friends who join me on these missions. So it's very clear to me in these situations that they're generally battles of, not to sound simplistic or biblical, but they are literally battles between good and evil. And it's very easy for me to make that distinction. In this case, there is a nation invading another nation, and I think it's incumbent on all of us with means to do everything we possibly can to support the victim in this case, and in any other case as well,

Ken Harbaugh:

You say everything we possibly can. The other thing that distinguishes you is you go that extra mile. I'm not sure how much we can talk about this, but you don't draw the line at non-lethal aid. You have also done some things to empower the Ukrainians to defend themselves. How much can you share with us about your efforts there?

Amed Khan:

Well, essentially as a humanitarian, it's very clear. Your first goal is to prevent war. So when you fail with that, you want to stop the war, and you want to stop the war as quickly as possible. So you come to a conclusion, how do you stop the war? And in this case, I think I was of the opinion that the Russians would not. The Russian government responds to power and would not negotiate unless they felt that there was something pushing back at them. So I've advocated for Ukraine to be armed as much as it possibly can be from the beginning for that purpose, for the ‘how do you stop the war?’ Because that should be everyone's sort of immediate goal. Number one, prevent the war. If you don't, if you fail, then you must stop the war. Then what does it take to stop the war?

So I had worked with the Ukrainian military actually doing evacuations in Afghanistan in August. So I have a lot of good friends in the Ukrainian military since then, and keep close touch and ask them, what do you need, and what can I help with? And is there anything? You know, it's kind of an interesting thing. I have a lot of sort of close contacts in the Ukrainian government. So there are people from all sorts of backgrounds who are sort of just evangelizing for Ukraine to have the ability to defend itself. So I think that's how I got into that.

Ken Harbaugh:

What do you say to those who just want to end the war at all costs, and think that Ukraine capitulating or conceding its own territory, if that expedites the end of the conflict, they should do that? What do you say to those who don't want Ukraine to fight, thinking that will end the suffering?

Amed Khan:

Yeah, I think that they don't know Ukrainians. So if I had a bunch of Ukrainians telling me that's what they wanted, then I would support them in that. But I've been to all corners of Ukraine since 2005, almost every year, and I've spent the large majority of this current war inside Ukraine, working with Ukrainians, meeting Ukrainians that I've never known before. And I've yet to meet one that thinks they should capitulate. So I think that's where my interest in supporting them comes from. So that's sort of a misunderstanding of who Ukrainians are.

And then number two, the reality is they would be wiped off the face of the earth if they did do that. The Russians came to Ukraine on the 24th with the intention of deposing and probably murdering the president, the elected president of the country. And they had a list of a few hundred other people, Mayor of Vitali Klitschko of Kyiv. His brother Wladimir Klitschko is a good friend of mine, former heavyweight champion. They were all on sort of assassination lists. So there's no sort of goodwill on the part of the attacker. There's a kind of internet meme in Ukraine that says if Ukraine ceases to fight, it'll cease to exist. That's the belief of the Ukrainian people, and I think it's more than a theory. It's been proven out.

So in the towns, like Kherson that have been taken over by the Russians, they've removed signs, street signs let's say that were in Ukrainian, or English even because there are plenty of English signs, and replaced them with Russian signs. Essentially what you're seeing is that most likely the country would just not exist. And then what? Does that mean they're finished? I don't think so.

Ken Harbaugh:

You've had a chance to meet with President Zelenskyy. Is that right?

Amed Khan:

Yeah, that's right.

Ken Harbaugh:

What was your sense leaving that meeting of his ability to marshal that willingness to fight? He sees it as an existential battle for the next thousand years of Ukrainian history. Right?

Amed Khan:

Yeah. I haven't seen him since August. That's when I first got in touch with them, when I was looking for help with the evacuation of Afghans and the Ukrainians stepped forward. But he was very clear back then, and I've been trying to sort of help them get their message out, that they were worried about a Russian invasion, back then. He clearly had his finger on the pulse of the Ukrainian people, and he had his finger on the pulse of what was happening. So I had no doubt that when the time came, and I did believe that it would come, unfortunately, despite our best efforts to try and get world support behind preventing this from happening, that he would rise to the occasion. I'm in daily contact almost with his chief of staff and national security advisor, Andriy Yermak, and they just have always been very clear: We need the world's help to make sure they understand that we are under this threat. We are worried it's going to happen.

Well, they tried their best. It didn't succeed. The Russians did invade, and they have held steadfast since then. I can't say I was surprised by any of it, because from the moment I met them, I just felt that these are strong, strong leaders who represent their people, and understand their people, and will be able to sort of marshal the support within the country and around the world.

Ken Harbaugh:

Why do you think the political and military leadership in the West got that same analysis so wrong in thinking that the Ukrainians would buckle? That they had at most a few weeks? I mean, if saw the spirit of the Ukrainians from those meetings with Zelenskyy and his senior staff, and from your time in Ukraine, why didn't our political military establishment, our state department, see the same thing, and do what it could earlier to aid in their defense?

Amed Khan:

Yeah. I don't think they teach the stuff at Yale is my short answer.

Ken Harbaugh:

Ouch.

Amed Khan:

I was a Big 10 guy. Generally we can figure out what's going on on the ground. Right? Like, I think a lot of policymakers just don't really have much real world experience, and clearly our human intelligence operations aren't what they used to be. It's probably a reliance on technology and mathematics and other stuff.

So, yeah, it was clear to me they weren't going anywhere and they wouldn't be defeated. I mean, the reality is the Ukrainian army was probably pretty weak in 2015 when Yanukovych was deposed. Obviously they sort of had a Russian plant as the president. Right? And since then there's been a lot of work done. And it's actually been done with the great assistance of the United States and the Department of Defense. I would guess I know over 200 or 250 Ukrainian officers, soldiers, medics that have been trained by the US, and in the US. So that's happened since 2015.

So I'm not quite sure why we didn't know that the people we trained were really good, because we should. And again, I mentioned this Afghanistan operation. I went into Kabul with Ukrainian special forces. This is the day after the airport bombing, so US military was inside the gates of the airport. And they walked right into Kabul to do evacuations. Fearless, stared down the Taliban, loaded up the passengers, put them on the plane, and we flew to Islamabad. And then we flew back to Kyiv. I was with 50 to 75 special operations soldiers. And after you've seen that kind of bravery and that sort of effort in the face of really, really tough and dangerous conditions, I literally never had any doubts about that. And I think that was August 28th or 29th. Since then, I'm just like these are not people to be messed with.

Ken Harbaugh:

How does that compare to the performance of the Russian military in Ukraine? I assume you haven't come into direct contact with Russian forces. But I imagine you have seen evidence of their lack of professionalism. You've certainly seen their handiwork. It's kind of a truism in war that the insecure army is the one that resorts to terror tactics. How do you compare the capabilities and professionalism of the Ukrainians to the Russians that they're up against?

Amed Khan:

Well, it's a bit different because obviously I worked closely with the Ukrainians and I know them. I have not met any Russians, but I have met their handiwork, as you said. So I was in Bucha, which is in suburb of Kyiv, two days after liberation. So I was at the mass graves, which are behind a church in Bucha. And I visited homes of people actually who stayed in Bucha during the period. And so what I witnessed was a clearly undisciplined army. Sort of, if you walked into somebody's house, what you saw was broken alcohol bottles everywhere, sort of vodka, beer or whatever. Well, you know, they would take whatever the person had in their house. They drank everything and then smashed the bottles. You know, I saw really crazy stuff. I saw a dog with his paws removed sort of nailed up against a fence. These are not things that a disciplined army does. One of the guys whose house they destroyed said, "It looks to me like they're in a war against our houses." That's aside from the most horrific things, which are the war against women and children, the sexual violence, rapes, gang rapes, murders of women and children. So from that perspective, they're like something more similar to ISIS than a state military.

And then the other thing you see regularly are missile strikes. I see them all the time, and they're apartment buildings, like I said. Sometimes they're just unknown targets. For example, three days ago just outside of Odessa, there was a missile strike on a field. And you're trying to figure out, “What were they attacking?” And someone came up with, "You know what? There was an air base here in the eighties, during the Soviet Union." So someone said, "Look, they may be using maps from the Soviet Union to choose their targets." So who knows, right? Like I have no insight from their side. But we have heard stories that actually sort of officers have complained. Russian officers are complaining that they're getting faulty intelligence for their targeting, but then they've been silenced by their superiors. I mean, this is just like sort of the scuttlebutt type stuff among Ukrainian troops, from people that have been captured, et cetera. So you just don't know. Is it incompetence? Is it a lack of discipline? What? But none of it sort of disguises the horror that is all wars. But this one, perhaps, another level.

Ken Harbaugh:

Do you think the full weight of this horror, and of the incompetence and lack of discipline that is contributing to it, will eventually be made known to the Russian public? It goes without saying that superficially right now, the Russian public supports the war. Can that last?

Amed Khan:

It's tough because they've been running this really intense propaganda operation for years and years and years. So at this point, there are thousands of sort of social media influencers. And if you watch any of the major Russian media networks, essentially it's we went to Ukraine to de-Nazify the Ukrainians and reclaim our land. It's just an alternate universe of information. And so it's really going to be a lot of work by someone or someones to undo all that.

I mean, as you know, one of the great independent polling institutions in Russia has the numbers somewhere around between 80 and 85% of support for the war, whatever that means. So you're trying to figure out if that's nationalism, or the propaganda at work. But whatever it is, it's scary.

Ken Harbaugh:

When it comes to the aftermath, all wars end of course. But I think accountability is going to be especially important in this one. Do you hold any hope that we will have the receipts, as it were, for the war crimes being committed? Will we be able to make pariahs internationally of those who ordered them? How thorough is the preservation of this record of indiscriminate slaughter and the targeting of civilians? Do you think there's enough there?

Amed Khan:

It's a major priority of the Zelenskyy administration actually.

Ken Harbaugh:

Great.

Amed Khan:

So they have some excellent people working on it. The local prosecutors general in each vicinity are on it. There are investigators that are on it. They do interviews daily. I think you probably saw that they've already begun to bring up Russian soldiers on charges. So it'll be incumbent on all of us, you, all of us, to keep this going until there is accountability. Because if there isn't then this just goes on and on. From the Russian side, I do know some Russians and I was told recently that an event that had an impact on Putin was the US invasion of Iraq. For him personally thinking like they'll just come and get me. And then there was really no accountability on that. Right?

So that's always a Russian propaganda answer. What they do is this thing called What About-ism. But the reality is if we are representing a rules-based order then we have to follow that rules-based order, or it makes it easier for others to violate it. So we'd like to think, and it's actually one of my areas of focus, is the investigations to hold those war criminals accountable. And I think it'll be incumbent on the world community to do the same. I think the Ukrainians will be on it indefinitely. And then it's the rest of the world. You're just not sure how it comes out, because of course there's a reliance on Russian oil and gas, and other sort of commercial interests on the part of the Europeans. So hopefully they can't buy their way out of that.

Ken Harbaugh:

President Zelenskyy recently released a video in which he summarized the conflict as a war of worldviews. I cannot think of a better example of that than what you just described, where Ukrainian prosecutors are bringing up Russian soldiers on war crimes charges using the international legal mechanisms available, at the same time that their oppressor, the Russian invader, is flouting every international norm, every international legal standard, and razing villages across Ukraine. What an unbelievable contrast.

Amed Khan:

Yeah. You know, Ukraine is a special country and Ukrainians are special people. That's been my attraction to the country since I first went there. Sort of freedom-loving people who want to just live their lives peacefully. Essentially all the things that we hold dear as Americans. Really, I think that they're the highest level of individuals' personal liberty. These are things that they obviously are fighting to the death and risking their lives for. I think that's why the Biden registration has been so strong, and the American public has been behind them because they can sort of feel that from a distance.

But, I can tell you from my personal experience, you really feel an affinity for them, many in ways that are beyond the rest of the Europeans in terms of their beliefs and what they're willing to do for those beliefs. It sort of mirrors American revolutionaries. It's really, really just really impressive. They draw the contrast between them and the Russians, but there even may be a contrast between them and the rest of Europe. I mean, really, Europe has the values and the European union mandate has these values. But it's really Ukrainians that are fighting for those values, and risking their lives, and often giving up their lives for those values.

Ken Harbaugh:

By implication, they are fighting for those values, not just in Ukraine but around the world. I mean, there are freedom-loving people everywhere who are looking at what is happening in Ukraine and wondering what's next, from the Baltics to Taiwan. What do you think the stakes are for the rest of the world in how this conflict ends?

Amed Khan:

Yeah. I think the contrast between sort of a liberal society, democracy, representative republic, and authoritarianism is very clear. And there may be an alliance of authoritarians growing pretty rapidly. So the defeat of perhaps the world's most powerful authoritarian, or second most, or however you want to rank them, would be great for freedom-loving people, I think. But it looks like it's going to be with us for ages because the way sort of authoritarianism has taken hold around the world.

Ken Harbaugh:

You recently wrote, and we'll wrap with this. "Ukraine can defeat Putin, but only with our help, otherwise he will destroy the entire country city by city." What else can we do? What should Americans be doing?

Amed Khan:

Well, I think private philanthropists and activists just need to advocate and keep the government pushing to be sort of filling the needs that Ukraine identifies. We just all need to be there for them. Philanthropists can be actually filling in holes that the governments can't do. They can fund, for example, there are a lot of ex-US military in the country doing trainings. They can fund some of those organizations that are doing great work. There are other sorts of American and European NGOs that are doing combat medic training and combat medic work, actually, which is, which is great, sort of going into difficult places.

But I think it's just constantly advocating and remembering what's at stake here. I think all of us are vested in this war and we just have to keep the pressure on. I think the administration had this sort of incremental look at this, but I think they're in the right place now. That just has to continue, and the energy on the part of the people, the American people, and philanthropists, and advocates, and activists should also continue.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, thanks so much Amed for joining us. You're headed back soon, right?

Amed Khan:

Yeah. There are two Ukrainian American doctors that someone introduced me to that have been getting donated medicine from hospitals around the United States, and they needed help with a cargo plane. So I said, yeah. I'm good at these charters now that I did them in Afghanistan, so I'll help out with that. So we're working on that and hopefully we'll be headed back with that plane full of much-needed medicine late next week or early the week after.

Ken Harbaugh:

Well, good luck. Please keep us posted, and we'll check in with you. Thanks.

Amed Khan:

Thanks so much, Ken. I appreciate it.

Ken Harbaugh:

Thanks for listening to Burn the Boats.

If you have any feedback, please email the team at [email protected] We're always looking to improve the show.

For updates and more, follow us on Twitter @team_harbaugh. And if you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to rate and review.

Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to Evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Ross. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.

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