For over 25-years retired Drumahoe fireman Wills Lynch has been bringing much needed aid, along with the Christian Gospel, to some of Europe’s poorest inhabitants.
Wills first started travelling to Romania shortly after the fall of the country’s communist leader Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989 triggered a period of political and economic instability that hit the country’s poor more severely than most.
The big-hearted Londonderry man’s returned every year since, gradually expanding the reach of his humanitarian and evangelical mission into Moldova and the Ukraine over the decades.
Whilst Wills has witnessed many changes over the years the one constant, he says, has been the grinding poverty he’s encountered on every trip east.
On Friday, April 28, an ‘Evening of Gospel Praise’ will take place in Glendermott Presbyterian Church Hall at 8pm, in order to raise funds for the children of Romania, Moldova and the Ukraine.
Ahead of the concert, which will feature special guests including Joseph and Sandra Kennoway, Living Praise, Heavenly Sunshine, Martin Moore and the New Dawn Quartet with James Strange, the Sentinel caught up with Wills to talk about his most recent trips to Eastern Europe. He explains that last year he encountered everything from devastating floods, which washed some poor unfortunates to their deaths while they slept in central Romania, to refugees, displaced on account of the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine, to people simply enduring the worst poverty imaginable in 21st century Europe.
“I was out a number of times last year, back and forward, in Romania, Moldova and Ukraine,” he said.
“I was out in spring, summer and winter and I visited several villages for the first time.
“In Romania I visited one village that was hit by the floods in the summer time. There was severe flooding, thunder and lightning and so on, and then down came the wash from the mountains the day after.
“There was a lot of houses taken away, cars, bridges, and lives lost. It was out on the road to Cluj.
“A few people lost their lives. There was one lady who was about 80 and she was in her bed and the flood took the whole house, only the foundations were left. So we were able to help those people affected by floods in that area.”
Wills then travelled around the northern and eastern parts of Romania not far from the border with Moldova.
He says the peripheral and rural character of dthat area means it suffers incredible levels of deprivation.
“We went to some orphanages in different parts up in the north of Romania.
“We were around Botoșani, Iași and Pașcani. In some of the villages there the houses were very, very poor with asbestos on the roofs and windows that had nothing but plastic bags on them.
“We went to one place that was very bad. It was like going through a clay field. There were no lights, no electric, no toilets, no water, no sewers, no nothing. Very, very, very basic. The people there were very glad of our help.
“To get there you had to go away over the mountains on dirt tracks and then you would come to it. They were very glad to see us.
“They asked us to come back and help them because it’s very rare people ever come out to help them in that area.
“It’s also all horses and carts and the odd tractor. I went there in December and it was freezing.
“And there was a wee boy in his bare feet and they were just like blue blocks of ice.
“We gave them a lot of food and blankets and really good coats we got from here. They were very appreciative of it.
“It’s a bleak wilderness. They have very, very little.”
Wills says there’s little evidence Romania’s recent entry into the European Union has made any difference to the lives of the people living in the rural hills of the country.
In Bucharest, Constanța, Timișoara and Cluj, there have been improvements certainly, but out in the country? Forget about it.
“The European Union has helped them in the towns and cities and down in the south in Bucharest,” says Wills.
“It’s in good condition down there and you’re dead on if you’ve got a job but there’s not very much employment in the rural areas. It’s more or less work on the farm and try and do a bit yourself.
“It’s about subsistence farming and doing what you can with the pigs and the hens. There’s no good lifestyle for the people there.”
Wills says he crossed over the border into Moldova and travelled to Orhei just north of the capital Chisinau.
There he met a senior health official who was also greatly appreciative of the aid being brought from Londonderry, Tyrone and Donegal and specifically asked Wills if he could target specific areas of need.
“I went into Moldova and visited a couple of new villages there also.
“I met a senior health minister on the north side and he asked me to go in to this one area where there were a lot of poor people.
“He thanked us for what we were doing but he said he had another 180 houses that were very poor and he said it would be really good if we could help in that particular area.”
Wills also tells an extraordinary experience, also in Orhei, which he can only put down to divine providence.
“We had a fire truck. I was looking to get this one out. I had my eye on it for a long time on the internet and I had been trying to purchase it but I could never get in contact with the people who owned it.
“I think it was from the West Sussex fire brigade and this charity that sends them out all over the world had it. But I wanted it to go to this particular place in Moldova, Orhei.
“I tried and tried and then I just gave up but then I went out to Moldova and went up to Orhei and visited a friend of mine.
“My friend said he knew someone who worked in the local fire station and we’ll go up and see him.
“So we went up to see him and what was sitting there only the fire engine I had an eye on up in England. This charity in England could have sent it anywhere in the world where fire trucks are needed but they sent it to the place where I needed it to go! And I had no contact with them whatsoever! It was a miracle! I never met them or contacted them or anything.”
Wills also travelled further north into the Ukraine where he visited poor villages, orphanages, mental institutions and impromptu refugee camps, which have been set up to accommodate those fleeing the war in Eastern Ukraine.
He said it was particularly harrowing to see the pathetic condition the people forced from their homes from the Donbass and Crimea have been reduced to.
“The refugees had to flee from the war torn area of Ukraine. When I visited they were being housed in a basement and had to put up partitions for rooms. All they had was a couple of mattresses and they lifted them up at night-time and threw them on the floor.
“They had no money, nothing. They were just left with what they had when they fled from that area.
“It’s heartbreaking, when you only have one toilet in the place and everyone is using it.
“The fighting’s still going there. They reckon up to 15,000 have died, maybe as many as 20,000.
“They are still lifting presents and donations in the shops, leaving bags outside if you want to give something to the soldiers, for Christmas. The locals just gift wrap it and put it in a bag.
“It was sad to see them. Because all they had was what they ran from there homes with. They had no clothes. No wardrobes. They were just living in this basement.
“If you just think of it happening here. If there was a disaster and all you had left was what you ran with.
“They were telling us, they left their farms, they left their animals, and they just ran for their lives. It was heartbreaking.”
Wills says none of the work being done on behalf of the unfortunate of Eastern Europe would be possible without the generosity of the people of the city and beyond.
As he’s always insisted: “All over this city people have put their hands in their pockets and helped me through the years and without their help I couldn’t do this.
“That’s not only here but as far away as Newtonstewart, Strabane, Donemana and right up as far as Maghera and Toomebridge and right around the whole area and in Donegal around Raphoe and that area people have helped.”