Article and photos by Tony Mangia
On February 24, 2022, Vladimir Putin deployed ground forces and unleashed a barrage of missile attacks on an always apprehensive, but peaceful Ukraine. This unprovoked military assault changed the course of Ukrainian lives in an instant. Putin’s man-made storm of firepower and terror was enough to mobilize the Ukraine military and at the same time, generate a whole new faction of unheralded volunteers and grassroots activists into fighting a war from behind the scenes with little funding or resources. It was a movement born out of pride, as well as survival, in cities from Lviv to Kharkiv and wherever Ukrainian cries were heard.
|A child's stuffed toy lies outside bombed |
apartment buildings in Zaporizhzhya.
Spurred into action, many Ukrainians began sacrificing their incomes, time with their families and sometimes their lives in order to battle the indiscriminate and brutal Russian invasion and save fellow compatriots in need. Significant cogs in a supplemental machine addressing needs which the government and military sometimes can’t fill. Ukrainians who took it upon themselves to fight back in their own courageous ways.
This is an introduction to some of these unsung and resourceful Ukrainians you may never hear about — the activists, volunteers, fundraisers, suppliers, journalists, inventors, innovators, specialists and humanitarians who fight the war behind front lines and keep supply lines flowing and hope alive. I met these crusaders in Odesa and Zaporizhzhya — Ukraine cities besieged by the war — and would like to share some of their stories.
I had my first introduction to the reality of the war in Ukraine when I stepped off the bus from Moldova and the low-pitched groan of bomb sirens greeted me at the same time as my Ukrainian host, Vadym.
The wailing snapped me from the weariness of a 20-hour flight itinerary to Chisinau followed by a six-hour bus ride to Odesa. A highway route slowed down by three checkpoints (where soldiers took each passenger’s passport to a kiosk for verification). One while leaving Moldova and two entering Ukraine.
Vadym saw me glance up at the sky like I was expecting something to fall and shook my hand. He assured me we were in no danger in pretty good English.
“This is normal for us,” he smiled.
Looking around, it seemed like most Ukrainians felt the same way and went about their everyday business despite the ominous warning reverberating in the cool evening air.
Introduction to Ukraine
An immigration lawyer by trade, Vadym now finds himself teaching high school-aged students at at Odesa University during the war.
“Not too many people migrating to Ukraine right now,” he darkly joked before telling me about classes held in bomb shelters after sirens interrupted his lectures. He mostly does zoom classes now.
We drove to the city center for dinner and a stroll. Curfew was 11 pm until 5 am in Odesa and many of the streets were already darkened because of area blackouts or voluntary shutoffs, although some businesses in the city center were still open. Pockets of mostly young adults congregated outside clubs and restaurants and I didn’t observe many children. The only McDonald’s was boarded up and shut down. Barricades of sand bags and hedgehogs (those vehicle deterrents that look like giant jacks from the child’s game) surrounded by soldiers blocking streets to government, military or other strategic areas were commonplace. The usually bustling waterfront was essentially shut off to the public at large—including the famous Potemkin Stairs.
The next morning Vadym led me to a bombed out beach hotel — a whole three-story section blown away to its cement slab — not far from his dacha (summer home) where I was staying. The resort inn sat underneath a probable target which the misfired drones had been aimed —a hilltop military base that was struck earlier in the war.
|Half of Odesa resort hotel is all that's left after|
Russian drone strike.
We then drove to a nearby apartment complex where Vadym showed me a section of a residential building — built upon a onetime Soviet-era military base closed decades ago — that was ripped apart by a drone strike. Two innocent civilians were killed in that attack — including a man just sitting in his car. Vadym said that Russia might have mistakenly targeted the building because its poor and dated intel still had it labeled as a military installation, but quickly added that he, and most Ukrainians, believe it was a deliberate attack on non-military citizens.
|Russian bombs killed two innocent civilians at a residential|
apartment complex — decades ago it was a Soviet military base.
We later walked the sidewalk along the Black Sea resort where signs warned bathers about drifting detached mines (strategically anchored in the water by the Ukrainian navy as a defense when Russia set its sights on Odesa— an important port city) floating dangerously close to the beaches. People still walked in the sand and a few foolhardily swam in the cold autumn water where, sadly, a few tourists were blown up by one of the deadly spiny orbs. Most people just frequented the kiosks selling hot dogs, coffee and flavored horilka (Ukrainian vodka) that were still open.
|Sign warns beachgoers of deadly stray mines off Odesa shoreline.|
While checking out a group of motor scooters on the walk back to the car, Vadym tells me that the police have instructed motorcyclists to stop and shut off their engines when the sirens blare because they sound so much like the low-flying and noisier Iranian drones that Russia has been using to destroy Ukrainian cities. The similar buzzing could start confusion and panic. I would, over the next few days, notice that few of the bikers obeyed that rule.
|Iranian drones launched by Russians sound like motorcycle engines.|
One day we went to a local organic market filled with local cheeses, meats, fish and produce. Vadym explained that most of the seafood was freshwater during the war because boats couldn’t fish the Black Sea with that maze of Ukrainian mines making navigation dangerous. He was a regular at the market and knew most of the vendors by name. I watched Vadym contently go from stand to stand purchasing all of the ingredients for a real homemade borscht he would prepare that night.
“Borscht is a true Ukrainian dish,” he proudly announced.
Vadym’s beet-based soup was a delicious nightcap with its dollop of sour cream and garlic, crusty bread and sea salt on the side — especially with the temperatures dropping.
|"Borscht is a true Ukrainian dish"|
The next day, Vadym introduced me to a Crimean restaurant where we enjoyed yantyk (a sort of flattened giant pierogi) and local beers for lunch. It was Halloween and I saw a few spooky decorations and and a couple of costumed people through the restaurant’s window. There were no children trick or treating.
Sirens went on and off intermittently that night into the morning.
The next day, Kateryna, my contact in Zaporizhzhya, informed me via WhatsApp that there had been a major missile attack that morning and that she heard lots of explosions around Zaporizhhya.
We later found out the volley of explosive projectiles was the largest Russian bomb attack since October 10 and meant to disrupt the Monday morning commutes. The wide-ranging outage crippled electric grids and the internet all over central Ukraine.
Power resumed later on and it didn’t delay my 18-hour overnight train to Zaporizhzhya leaving that afternoon. The trains are capable of running on steam power if the electricity is out.
I met Kateryna last spring in a Romanian train station while interviewing Ukrainian refugees making their way back to their homeland despite the war raging on. The strong will and determination I sensed during the fifteen minutes I spoke to her and her friend, Tania, before they hopped a bus out of Suceava across the border at Siret and back to Ukraine, intrigued me right away. I felt Kateryna had a lot more to say and I told her I would follow up on her journey back and their fight against Putin and his invasion.
To me, at the time, Kateryna seemed confounded, and a little suspicious, that a random American stranger at a train station would take such interest in the plight of Ukraine and its people. And, after we parted ways at that Romanian train station, I was sure Kateryna believed she would never hear from me again.
But I didn’t forget and Kateryna would become my central contact and enthusiastically introduce me to other guides when I did physically arrive in Ukraine five months later.
Five long months of teaching, networking and rallying Ukrainians during bombings, blackouts and personal sacrifices on her part. Five months of watching Ukraine hold their own from the sidelines through filtered news reports for me.
|Activist and instructor Kateryna.|
When Kateryna met me at the Zaporizhzhya 1 train station, I’m sure she still had reservations about my aims and probably never thought I would follow up on my journalistic objective. The thought of an American actually showing up in Ukraine during a war after only a quick encounter and a few months of correspondence on Facebook was, to say the least, out of the ordinary.
Over the months, that spark of emotion I saw in her green eyes last May had now transformed into a altruistic crusade against Putin and Russian oppression since then. A glow that has turned into a fire.
A lawyer by trade, Kateryna had tired of the legal red tape and haggling and became an anti-Russia activist, fundraiser and consultant. She was born and raised in Zaporizhhya and her pride for her hometown was evident right away. So much, that Kateryna even insisted, after I suggested paying for a taxi to my hotel, on taking one of the new trollies she wanted to show off.
The Teatralny Hotel was a stately hotel —one of the nicest in Zaporizhhya — and more than I expected. It’s marble staircase in the lobby was barely tread theses days. The only time I knew of any other guests was when the late night bomb sirens sounded and from my room, I could hear hallway chatter and people clomping down the stairs to the basement. I, myself, would get used to the nighttime wails and just roll over back to sleep. It was the price of paying the war-bargain rate of twenty-five dollars US a night — and feeling guilty about it.
Kateryna seemed to know a lot of people as we walked through the city center. She showed me the charred fronts of residential buildings — their windows blown out and pulled back walls revealing the inside of people’s homes — results of the Russian bomb barrage on September 29 — only blocks from the hotel. Workers were still cleaning up the site.
|Bombed buildings in city center of Zaporizhzhya.|
As we walked the old world streets, a convoy of four ambulances streamed towards the local military hospital, their distinctive European sirens breaking the serene quiet.
“If there is more than one ambulance,” bemoaned Kateryna, “It means they are probably carrying wounded soldiers.”
We were only about 15 miles from the front lines.
Diverting from the sobering reminders of war, I took Kateryna for lunch at a fashionable place she chose. It continually amazed me how life went on in Ukraine with the battlegrounds only miles away and the bombings routinely breaking up the conventionality of people's routines — not to mention the unbelievably low prices despite food supply shortages.
After the server placed a small folding chair next to the table for Kateryna’s handbag (I have never seen this before, but it is quite popular in most Zaporizhhya dining spots) we started with salads. I had dumplings along with a local beer. Over shots of a orange-colored berry tea made from sea-buckthorn tincture (native to Ukraine), I listened intently as Kateryna told me about her career as a “human systems architect, business strategist and advocate.”
She is involved in a number of NGOs, government organizations and consulting groups and it’s hard to list them all. Kateryna is also writing a book about human system architecture — a new science discipline which examines how human systems work by the same three rules of categorized restrictions: The rules of the human brain, the system rules and restrictions of the exact system.
Kateryna was the inspiration for my trip and now a common thread to all of the brave people I will meet during my ten days in Ukraine. I know she won’t stop training civil activists until Ukraine is victorious.
After lunch, she introduced me to Sergio.
I meet Sergio at the top of some storefront basement stairs, standing next to banana cartons now filled with food goods and clothing. He and another man are toting the boxes downstairs. Sergio, the director for the Agency of Development of Chernigivske Territory, has been working tireless with his group of volunteers in Zaporizhzhya supplying coats and most importantly (right now) blankets for IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) who will need warm clothing during the upcoming winter. Sergio stresses the need for simple amenities like blankets of any type.
|Sergio and some new children's coats his volunteers made.|
Surveying the room, I spot an an area where a few camouflaged vests and medical kits sit in a corner of the cramped basement. Sergio proudly says he has volunteers making these personal armor vests and backpacks for the front-line soldiers too.
Sergio humbly tells me he has been heading the group since the war started and has been receiving donated supplies from the United States and other countries. Standing proudly in front of piles of new blue and red children’s hooded down coats, boxes of boots and shelves of baby food, Sergio says his group has supplied winter attire for over 1500 IDPs, including 200 Ukrainian children, but are still a long way from completing their task.
“Every blanket helps,” he reminds me before I say goodbye.
Kateryna makes a phone call and excitedly says, “He’s in his store.”
And off we go to meet Max.
A music store isn’t exactly where you would think of finding the visualization and funding of wartime supplies, but, if anything, The Rock Shop might be a good front.
Kateryna introduces me to the owner of the store, Max, and two of his employees, Dima and Ivan. The three of them are packing chocolates and individually wrapped cookies decorated with frosted flowers — in the blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag — that will be sent to soldiers on the front lines. They offer me one of the oversized cookies, which I sheepishly accept on the premise that I will eat the now symbolic confection “when Ukraine wins the war.” Making the honor twice as sweet.
That’s gets a laugh and thumbs up from everyone.
As I looks around the store, I mention the wide selection of ukuleles among the other musical instruments, speakers and keyboards.
“A lot of soldiers come in here,” says Dima in his Yale hoody. “They sit in corner and strum a ukulele or guitar to themselves.”
“It adds a touch of normalcy after weeks on the front lines,” adds Max.
Sending sweets and keeping up spirits within the troops are not Max’s only contribution to the war effort. On the side, he has been helping develop, test and fund —with his own money — the technology for a drone-like surveillance camera which can fly up to an altitude of two miles and travel a distance over 30 miles. Reconnaissance high technology that will be difficult for Russian tracking systems to locate and destroy. A real advantage for the Ukraine army.
Max tells me the trial runs have been good and prototypes almost ready for production.
Before I bid farewell to The Rock Shop, Dima and Max show me some large caliber ammo and a twisted and rusted belt with a few rounds still stuck in their sleeves that I saw laying on the counter.
|Max and Dima show off some artillery from a blown up Russian tank|
a Ukrainian soldier brought in.
“One of our soldiers brought this in as a thank you,” beams Dima. “It’s part of the machine-gun belt from a Russian tank his unit blew up.”
I could tell by Max and Dimas' grins that this was a thank you that meant a lot to these guys.
It was a sunny morning when Nataliia picked me up at the hotel, almost balmy compared to the usually chilly days of November in Zaporizhzhya. Our meeting was set up by Kateryna.
Nataliia is a media producer at a Zaporizhhya public access television station. Besides putting together interview programs and remote news coverage, Natalia produces radio and digital programming inside a state-of-the-art facility outside the city center. Stylishly dressed in a sweater with a fake fur vest, Nataliia suggests a quick lesson about Ukraine’s history would be a good way to start the day. I agree.
So we began our morning on historic Khortytsya Island a short bridge crossing away. The strategically located island has a grand view of the Dnipro Hydroelectric plant and dam which seemed to me a prime target of Russian aggression. After all, the occupied Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant is only around 30 miles from where we stood. They haven’t.
“I think Russia feels like they will take Zaporizhzhya and will need this dam for their own use,” Nataliia reasoned. “But they will never take our city.”
We toured Ostriv Khortytsya the island’s grand wooden fort — a former Cossack stronghold — built centuries ago and renovated many times since. Nataliia explained, no stressed, that Cossacks were all Ukrainian and not Russian after I made the faux pas of calling them by the latter.
“Ukraine was here first,” she scolds me with a stern nod.
|Panoramic view of dam from Khortytsya Island. Ostriv Khortysya |
lords over the landscape.
We drove back to the city and into a heartbreaking scene — whole rows of six-story residential buildings laid to waste by Russian missiles. They lay there like carcasses on giant skeletons.
Three buildings were destroyed and twelve innocent people were killed in the October 10 bombardment, according to Nataliia.
|Ukraine authorities show Nataliia the bombed out remains|
of apartment compound in Zaporizhzhya.
Police and military patrol the ravaged area as some residents go about what has now become a normal routine.
I break away from Nataliia talking with some soldiers and walk by rusted, burned out cars, twisted bars of a playground equipment and remnants of families’ lives left behind in the wreckage of open bedrooms and personal effects. The charred, blown out walls of an apartment revealed a man’s suit hanging in a closet. A child’s stuffed animal lay alone in the foreground of one building. I can only imagine children’s cries filling the air during the attack.
|Building compound and parking lot completely|
wiped out by Russian drone attacks.
The families still residing in the shrapnel-freckled buildings stay because many have no where else to go — others on principle. Ironically, many of these families are refugees who came here for safety after fleeing Mariupol when the war began.
We drive to a nearby neighborhood that was recently leveled during another Russian attack. As we drive up a pock-marked dirt road, it's a scene out of an apocalypse-themed video game. But this is not make believe.
|A surreal landscape greets anyone driving into this bomb-leveled|
Nataliia slowly pulls into the area. We drive past a surreal landscape of people still cleaning up from the assault — some carrying or wheeling bundles of possessions down the muddy road. Faint hammering noises come from an adjacent lot where people's wardrobes hang from trees like aberrant war decorations. A wooden cross and photo mark the spot where a family of three was killed by the September 10 attack. Fresh flowers, colorful scarves and pieces of fruit are among other simple tributes arranged at the base of the grim memorial which rests on a cement slab where their home once stood.
|A simple memorial is all that remains of a home where a |
family of three died from a Russian attack.
I solemnly walk the area taking notes and photos, trying to be as unintrusive as anyone could be transversing terrain leveled by missiles. We get back to the car and start driving away.
Suddenly, we are accosted by a lanky young man who seemed to come out of nowhere — literally.
Presumably a neighbor who was cleaning up the rubble around his own house, he holds a brick threateningly in his hand. The rage in his eyes accentuated by the dark smears of dirt on his face. I did not understand what he was saying, but oddly made out the word “cell phone” as he raised the brick towards the windshield. I instinctively pulled my iPhone further into the car while Nataliia instructed me to show my press credential.
“He is angry we are taking photos,” she says.
There is a quick exchange between Nataliia and the man before a wide smile breaks across his face and he lowers his arm holding the brick. Oddly, I am mostly concerned about her windshield getting broken.
“You are an American doing a story about the damage the Russian bombs are doing,” Nataliia tells me she told him.
Suddenly I am not the morbid gawker he despised and chased down a minute ago, but, which in a sense, most journalists are. It also reminds me — going against all journalistic instincts — to not overstep emotional boundaries in these situations
The man and I shake hands before pulling away. His look of fury in his eyes will be a reminder of the Ukrainian ethos I will see in many others.
|There is nothing left of this bombed neighborhood.|
The office building that houses Nataliia’s production studios is much larger than I imagined. It has that yellowish, function-only architecture of a Communist embassy you see in the movies. A style of design that is still prevalent throughout Ukraine and leftover from the Soviet era. Inside, the cluttered office where Nataliia works from had breaking news nerve center all over it. Among the piled up equipment and clothing I spot a helmet and a camouflaged flak jacket with Velcro PRESS patch attached on front.
Nataliia’s assistant and reporter bounds into the room. Margarita's cheerful disposition is instantly welcomed and matches the giant Mickey Mouse patch on her jeans and the large fox face printed on her hoodie. She will show me around the studios.
We go inside a typical-looking talk show set, climb old metal stairs above the lights and look down at the quaint two-seat arrangement. Margarita tells me she interviews local artists, business people and others with human interest stories to tell on her talk show when not on a news assignment. Now, more than ever, programming like that helps keep the Ukrainian cultural identity alive.
Most of the programs’ viewers come from YouTube and Internet, Margarita explains as he shows me a couple of clips from her show and on-site reporting duties. I hardly recognize Margarita, in a blazer and with her hair down. She appears much more grown up and determined than the exuberant young woman leading me around this maze of stairs and hallways in her hoodie.
I follow Margarita through rooms lined with metal shelves of old, boxy television monitors, dinosaur-sized studio cameras and clunky video reel editing machines — leftovers from a bygone age and kept in storage. It’s a pretty cool stash and the nostalgic possibilities of this bygone equipment fascinates me. I am taken back to a time of splicing together one-inch video recording cassettes and welding bulky camera equipment with suitcase-sized battery packs on the reporter’s backs. I wonder if at one time, the Soviet propaganda machine might have used this same equipment.
|The obsolete equipment from broadcasts past is still fascinating |
to look at and ponder what was maybe edited out back then.
Margarita shows me the computerized editing room they use now — a wall of hi-tech computer monitor screens— before she leads me to the bomb shelter in the basement.
This is a real bomb shelter designed in the original blueprints and likely during the Cold War. A thick steel door with two giant latches is securely hinged to 18-inch thick cement walls. It was used as a perverse kind of lounge for employees until its sparsely furnished rooms became real protection against Russian bombs on February 24, 2022.
|Margarita shows me a Cold War era bomb shelter in basement |
of media headquarters.
I say goodbye to Margarita and, after lunch of dumplings with Nataliia (There was the handbag stool again) we head over to see Sasha.
Inside of a converted church I meet Sasha. An earnest looking man whose salt and pepper hair belies his youthful face, Sasha also gives me the once-over before leading Nataliia and I down a hallway of crude plywood shelves stocked with various bags of grains and boxes of canned food and other supplies. The whirring of nearby sewing machines fills the air as people tend to various duties.
|Sasha — the manufacturer.|
“I use to have 500 volunteers here at the start of the war,” explains Sasha about his 24/7 manufacturing operation. “Now we have about 50.”
The shortage of help may have slightly cut down on production and shipping, but such is the cost of unpaid civilian manpower.
“They have regular jobs and have their own bills to pay,” he explains.
Sadly, it’s the basis of what many believe to be Putin’s ominous master plan — break down the the Ukrainian spirit, psyche and then economically force them into submission.
But the tireless fortitude and positive attitude I see in these volunteers tells me that Putin has underestimated the resilience of the Ukrainian people.
|A sewing room makes everything from sleeping bags to|
protective vests and portable stretchers to carry the wounded.
The sewing room is crowded with about a dozen machines stitching everything from sleeping bags and coats to stretchers for carrying the wounded and personal armor vests for soldiers and military dogs alike.
|Sasha shows off an armor-holding vest for a military dog.|
“We make the vests,” says Sasha, while proudly holding up a tubular dog vest. “The army and others supply the plates.”
Those plates are usually made of heavy steel, not the lightweight Kevlar used by the US military — and nine kilos of it in a fully padded man’s vest, according to Sasha.
“The steel can actually deflect higher caliber ammo than the Kevlar,” he tells me. “It’s worth the extra bulk.”
We descend down a labyrinth of hallways out to an alley flanked with rows of clotheslines filled with hanging tablecloths, shirts, sheets, curtains — and just about anything made of cloth you can think of — all dyed the sandy green hues of camouflage and drying in the sun. On nearby tables, women and men cut piles of the dried fabrics into strips and then string them into large sheets of netting which be used to hide everything from field operation outposts and medical tents to tanks and surpluses of ammo from prying Russian surveillance. An unsophisticated, yet cost saving tool of warfare made possible by volunteers and donations.
|Just about anything made of cloth is dyed, cut into strips |
and strung into camouflage netting.
Sasha shows me a cramped work area where they are making smallish, box-like, steel wood-burning heaters. And, with the brutal Ukraine winter bearing down, warmth will become an important necessity in occupied areas without electricity. Portable generators are desired, but are luxuries that need fuel and are an extra burden to transport.
A community lunch is being prepared in the alley where a large pot of stew is being served. A volunteer offers me a bowl while stirring the giant steaming cauldron. We already ate and I politely decline. There are more important mouths to feed here anyway.
|Lunch is served.|
This beehive of activity surrounds us as we say goodbye — the lunch line, supplies being stacked, stove construction and the drying of camo-netting — and reinforces the burgeoning confidence I have in Ukraine’s fight. It’s hard not to admire the resolve of the volunteers and, at the same time, what they are sacrificing.
It makes me speculate about the dangers too.
Wouldn’t a rudimentary manufacturing and supply center like this be a strategic target for Russians bomb attacks? I put forth my question to Sasha.
“I’ve heard we are on a few Russian hit lists,” he shrugs. “But it won’t deter us.”
The sun was setting, but there was still one last stop on the day’s itinerary — the Library Fest — and a chance to observe something as simple as Ukrainians who keep their culture and lifestyles flourishing.
We arrive at a public library — the bottom floors of a residential apartment building —and it has already begun. Kateryna shows up too.
The Library Fest was a nice respite from some of the atrocities I had seen earlier in the day. I was honored to be around the librarians who were keeping reading and educational centers open for children and adults even at a time of war and, oftentimes, without heat or lights. Tonight it was a celebration of that spirit and real force — namely books.
There was cake and champagne mixed with quiet conversation and a violinist serenading a few dozen partygoers, setting a classical mood. Women wore dresses and, even in it’s unpretentious simplicity, the festival was an event.
|The Library Fest was a nice respite from |
the horrors of war.
As I sipped the sweet bubbly from a paper cup and browsed the shelves (The Edgar Allen Poe section surprised me), I wondered to myself what history books would be saying about this war in a year …or in a hundred?
|My appreciated hosts: Kateryna and Nataliia take a break|
from their busy schedules.
Throughout that night there were more sirens and the sporadic muted booms of what I presumed to be Ukrainian surface-to-air anti-missiles being fired. Muffled voices amidst doors opening and shutting in the hallway led me to believe some hotel guests were heading down the stairs to the basement for shelter. Instead, I turned the TV on and just waited it out.
Denys would be picking me up Saturday morning in front of the hotel.
There is already a preconceived respect for Denys even before I meet the man. The praise from Kateryna about his good work as a volunteer and the amazing saga about his journey to Zaporizhhya from occupied Kherson precedes our meeting. It is just the beginning of his fascinating story.
I will call Denys a volunteer only in the sense of him giving up his income and his lifestyle, like many other Ukrainians, to help others without compensation. But Denys is actually more of an organizer, delegator and mentor to other volunteers.
|Denys getting report of new IDPs arriving soon.|
Denys closed his electronics store in Kherson when Russia occupied the city last winter. Russian troops captured the strategic capital city after the Battle of Kherson ended on March 2, 2022. The heavily damaged Kherson was the first Ukraine city to fall to Russia and nearly half of its residents fled. It was an evacuation borne of the dire conditions and prospects for survival under the continuing Russian rocket attacks. Denys stayed behind to help the Ukrainians who refused or could not leave
We start our morning with a drive down Soborny Avenue — the main road through Zaporizhzhya. Sandbag barricades and hedgehogs protect government buildings while soldiers are posted on empty streets. A bombed food kiosk has been haphazardly put back together — shrapnel has left a steel door and nearby garbage receptacle full of gaping holes as a reminder of the blitz.
|Shrapnel leaves gaping holes in steel door of food kiosk|
on main street in Zaporizhzhya.
As we drive towards another apartment complex that lay waste to Russian bombs, Denys recounts, with stunning detail, his escape from occupied Kherson — a dangerous trek still being made by others escaping the terror of the Russian army. It’s a treacherous excursion and unsystematic process that that doesn’t guarantee either freedom or your life.
Denys said that after months of volunteering in Kherson, he made the choice to go to Zaporizhzhya in September where he could do more. He had been working relentlessly with refugees and Ukrainians fleeing occupied cities like Kherson — a major shipbuilding center— on the southeast region where some of the fiercest fighting has been ongoing.
“There are no bridges crossing the Dnipro River leading to Zaporizhzhya,” Denys says. “It was destroyed by Ukraine army to deter the Russians from further advancement.”
A strategy which has hindered civilians trying to leave the city as well.
Before Kherson was liberated in November, Denys loaded up his small SUV with supplies and a companion, his St. Bernard named Rudy, and headed northeast on a who-knew-how-long journey. It would eventually take four days.
|Denys' St. Bernard, Rudy, was an unwitting partner during his harrowing|
journey out of Kherson. Photo courtesy of Denys.
They crossed the Dnipro via ferry and slept in the car. The knocks at strangers’ doors looking for shelter went unanswered by the residents inside fearing he was a Russian soldier in disguise. The curfews make refugees an open target and the escape only more perilous.
The slow-moving journey would include 28 checkpoints manned by cruel and possibly psychopathic Russian soldiers. An exhausting trip that culminated with the hope of passage at the main checkpoint in Vasylivka, where the Federal Security Service (A Russian authority) could deny anyone permission to continue with a discriminating glance or empty outreached hand.
Fingerprints and permission papers were checked intermittently. Ukrainians needed this authorization for even a chance getting through at Vasylivka and can get it only by telegram. It is not done by Internet. A shakedown was a good possibility too. Russian soldiers can look a written checkpoint list and, in a whim, just turn you back at any juncture for any reason.
The roads are is disarray from bombings and no maintenance. Other challenges on the three hundred kilometer route are fuel, breakdowns and artillery fire. Denys heard stories about refugees being denied further travel for arbitrary reasons like their looks or not turning over enough money or property. Legitimate travel documents can be confiscated or ignored for any reason before you get turned back. You are at the mercy of the Russian thugs, he says.
Another option is taking a chance on the more ragged “gray zone” — a mostly dirt that runs through unoccupied territory. It’s muddy path littered by cars already abandoned in the mire and sometimes just as much a lost cause.
I am still calculating all of the risks taken by Denys during his own liberation from occupied Kherson when we arrive at an autumn-colored tree lined street outside some old apartment buildings in the city. The other side of these buildings paint a less serene image. Russia bombs slammed this area on October 9 killing many civilians.
|What was once a bustling complex of family units is now |
nothing but exposed family walls.
Workers on a cherry-picker rise from the rubble below the gutted six-story residential buildings. Some paintings and family photographs crookedly hang on the different hued walls. A violent and perverse opening revealing the personal lives of these families to strangers. Clothing and furniture dangle from torn apart floors. I look at a playground just 50-feet from the damage and wonder how long before I become complacent from looking at so many obliterated buildings, ruined lives and the people at war. My initial outrage at the carnage is sometimes tempered by the excuse of a camera lens. Right now I am truly insensed by Putin’s bombs and his desecration of human lives.
|Whole sections of residential buildings are blown away|
by Russian missile and drone attacks.
That moment of reflection brought me back to an earlier conversation I had with Denys about the declining show of public support for Ukraine in the US. The early-in-the-war flag waving, wristbands and blue and yellow ribbons attached to Facebook profiles by Americans and the rest of the world seemed to subside considerably since last winter. The plight of Ukraine became a backstory with small factions even creating stories about Ukraine funding misappropriation. It seems, sometimes, that the once dominant Ukraine headlines get less press than a Kardashian wardrobe malfunction nowadays.
“Ukrainian war porn,” is what Denys calls it. “It’s exciting to outsiders for a while.”
|Blown off wall of apartment leaves a wardrobe closet exposed.|
I reinforce Denys that the United States still cares and supports Ukraine and attempt to relate my own similar, if not way less dire, experience as some sort of respective metaphor for that feeling of separation.
It was after Hurricane Ian, while cleaning up my Florida home during a two-week power outage, and right before my trip to Ukraine. when I was left without Internet, television or any other communication and —while looking out at the devastation left by Ian during that isolation— I found myself frequently questioning whether or not the rest of the country still knew or cared how bad it was in my city.
“Does anyone even remember us anymore,” I used ask myself without any way to know.
Now, here in Ukraine, looking at an old woman sitting on a charred, shrapnel-dotted park bench, I wondered if Ukrainians were thinking that the rest of the world had moved on from Ukraine’s grim situation and seeing the Ukrainian people’s optimism and resolve up this close sometimes made it hard to gauge.
“Hearing that the United States still cares from you means a lot,” said Denys.
Kind words which would linger with me long after we drove away from the wreckage.
|A children's playground was only feet away from|
Russian drone attack.
Denys’s business acumen comes in handy while volunteering at the refugee processing center on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhya. I notice his leadership skills right away. Volunteers race over with questions and updates. There would a small number of vehicles bring IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) for dispersion today, according to police communications.
|Denys tends to welcoming new Ukrainian refugees |
at Zaporizhzhya processing center.
It’s a far cry from months ago, when Kherson and other southeast oblasts were first occupied and thousands of IDPs made the hopeful journey to Zaporizhzhya — many facing an unknown destiny away from home.
The convoys of cars and small transport vans would line up a few times a day after they were escorted by Ukrainian police to the processing site, but not after they cleared that gamut of unorganized and menacing Russian checkpoints — ironically in the Ukrainians’ own country.
It must have a huge relief when they finally made the friendly Ukraine checkpoint and were only asked for their passports and treated like human beings again. Denys’s (and other volunteers) job is to assimilate these downtrodden families into their own, albeit different part, country, providing refuge either with family, friends or shelters.
“Most people who want to leave occupied territories have left,” says Denys. “We used to get dozens of vehicles lined up, but now only a few a day.”
Many of the sick and elderly stay behind, he adds.
|More Ukrainians arrive by transport van from Kherson.|
Later, a tired, but delighted family arrive in an old Soviet-made automobile — the mud-spattered green compact towing a small cargo trailer filled with sacks of clothing and other goods. The car and its occupants — a man, his wife, two children and an aunt — were equally disheveled after their journey.
“Gypsies,” I heard someone whisper.
|Woman arrives at Zaporizhzhya processing center|
after enduring months of bombings in Dnipro.
They just endured a 100 mile drive from Dnipro after suffering through months of war and bombings and only remained there because his ailing mother was paralyzed and wouldn’t take the trip. The man tells us she died last week. And, after the funeral, that the Russian military didn’t make this family’s somber trip any easier.
“The Ugly People,” the man labels them.
Two sisters and a friend from an oblast near the Sea of Azov arrived in a transport van with about 10 others. Denys and I helped them carry four giant bags of clothes to a taxi stand. They tell me the bus driver got everyone their permission documents for 28000 hryvnia — about $700 in US dollars. Basically bribe money.
The average monthly salary in Ukraine is about 6700 hryvnia.
|Ukrainian refugees arrive after paying nearly four months average salary|
for permission forms to travel through their own country.
One exasperated woman, with her infant child, lugs bags filled with baby supplies and food. Word is she needs to get to Odesa to be with family. Denys hops into action getting her processed and a speedy ride to the train station. The only train (an 18-hour overnight trip I will return home with) leaves in about 45 minutes. We race to the station and Denys buys her ticket — with his own money.
|We race towards the train station to get this young mother safe |
refuge with family in Odesa.
Returning to the processing center, Denys reminds an un-credentialed French photojournalist that some of the refugees don’t want their picture taken before introducing me to a burly, bearded man loading large medical bags into the trunk of a car emblazoned with a Red Cross logo on the front windshield. He wants to remain anonymous by name. I abide by his rules.
A walkie-talkie and scanner hang from his back pocket and side pouch, respectively. A patch on his jacket arm is emblazoned with an apt wartime motto — or medical creed if you will, Do No Harm and Do Know Harm encircling a crossed-swords logo. He peers through yellow-lensed safety glasses — just light enough for me to notice the seemingly suspicious look in his eyes. I show him my press credentials and Denys explains that I am interviewing volunteers.
He nods and breaks the ice by opening a red medical bag revealing braces, colored tapes and all sorts of bandages among other tools of his one-man, severe wound-treating line of medicine.
The Medic tells me he is a certified EMT volunteer who is always the first trauma medic at Russian rocket attacks — his specialty — and has seen the worst of what this war brings. A sort of lone wolf who takes it upon himself to help innocent civilians.
Being based in Zaporizhzhya, The Medic claims that he has tended to the wounded and seen the dead at almost every bombing site. He pridefully says he is the first first responder.
Saturday night brings more sirens that wake me from my sleep. I hear two more muffled reverberations a few minutes later. They sound closer than the other night. The sirens cease and start up again later.
A much colder climate grips Zaporizhzhya Sunday morning when Denys arrives at the hotel with Kateryna. I shiver at the chill and It’s hard not to imagine the misery of Ukrainians without heat or electricity in occupied zones. Respectfully, I don’t complain, but I do ask them both if they heard them explosions last night.
They look at each other and almost simultaneously and nonchalantly shrug, “I slept through it.”
So the attack could not be confirmed nor denied right now.
We drive through quiet streets to a small office complex donated to an expanding donation organization with the self-explanatory name, the Supporting Center For Citizens Of Temporarily Occupied Territory.
Valeriia and Asked started this NGO on February 26, 2022, two days after the occupation of the northeastern Ukraine city of Tokmak. They began raising funds for hygienic, medical and food supplies with most donations coming from European organizations after seeing the cruelty and devastation that the Russian invaders had unleashed upon their city and its residents.
I spot some filled UNICEF boxes in a corner. Valeriia is thankful for their assistance, but a little saddened that the worldwide organization can only supply them with so much.
“They are a large organization,” sighs the former field rep for a humanitarian group. “But they have so many other places in the world that need their help too.”
|Valeria and Asked are raising money for food, medical |
and hygienic supplies.
In the beginning, Valeriia and Askad’s grassroots movement was able to deliver civilian supplies with Russia’s permission until July when soldiers began demanding cash payoffs to allow access. That’s when they became more of an underground network of volunteers and transports, taking what could have been deadly chances. They flew under the radar for a couple of more weeks before risks hindered the operation and they moved to Zaporizhzhya for more room to work.
Askad tells me that they now have over 30 volunteers from occupied Tokmak, a home he cannot forget.
“I constantly dream about the liberation of Tokmak,” he says.
Meanwhile, at another table, Kateryna has downloaded some online audio tape surveillance of intercepted phones calls between Russian soldiers and their families for me to hear. She shows me the disturbing translated phone calls on her cell phone. I listen and get a sick feeling in my stomach as the vulgar sentences scroll across the screen.
|Kateryna shows us the translation of a disturbing intercepted |
conversation between a Russian tank soldier and his wife.
In one, a Russian soldier tells his wife that he watched three tank-men rape a sixteen-year-old Ukrainian girl.
“Good,” the wife gleefully responds. “I hope they rape many more.”
In another recording a Russian soldier in an occupied area tells a woman that he and others have resorted to killing and eating dogs.
“There is no food anywhere,” he whines. “And the army rations they give us are rotten and can’t be eaten.”
Next, we drive to a quiet cafe where we meet up with Rudolf.
We sit a a booth and I face Rudolf over a kettle of tea. He doesn’t speak any English, so Kateryna has to translate. I study Rudolf's eyes to help interpret his words. Rudolf seems determined for me to get the real meaning of his work and this war. This passion is evident despite the language hurdle. Our precisely planned meeting — right down to the minute Rudolf finished eating his breakfast before we could meet — seemed so clandestine, it wasn't hard to get a predetermined image of Rudolf as some sort of mercenary. In a sense, I guess he is.
Kateryna tells me Rudolf's team has covertly supplied jeeps (over 50), drones (50) and night vision goggles (50) to the front lines or wherever they are called for. A group of men who jumped into action right after the first Russian bomb hit Ukrainian soil. The occasional secretive transportation of wartime equipment via cars or trucks sounded like a movie plot — a middleman linking civilian-made supplies and the battlefields. I only wished time allowed me to make one of these excursions with him.
|Rudolf and one of the thousands of hedgehogs |
he and his crew have manufactured and supplied
to the Ukrainian effort against Russia.
Rudolf tells us that he and his crew have also manufactured over 1000 steel anti-tank hedgehogs and over 5000 smaller versions for automobiles and trucks — barriers that have become so ubiquitous in most Ukraine cities these days. Looking out of the cafe window, I spot a few rust-coated reminders of his handiwork. I suggest we take a few photographs of me and the giant hedgehogs. It surprises me when Rudolf insists we do some photos together. His good-naturedness belies the serious function he serves. I automatically feel a connection that will carry over to our Facebook friendship as well.
I am still not sure if Rudolf’s risky supply runs are authorized or not, but he doesn't hesitate when it comes to me learning his incredible story. Rudolf even said I could use his full name — something I have avoided with everyone in this article due to the possibility of Russian retaliation to my subjects or their families — a precarious journalist's choice I will stick with.
We bid a fond farewell with a shared respect before our group heads off to the Dream Hostel in Zaporizhzhya city center.
I meet Volodymyr inside the cozy lounge area of the 16-room, 83-bed hostel he has owned for six years. A white blue tooth hangs to the ear on the side of his shaved head. His smile says welcome without saying a word — a trait of any good hostel owner.
Volodymyr was one of the first businesspeople to jump into action and sacrifice his livelihood after the initial Russian bombs were launched on February 24, 2022. He immediately offered free rooms to disoriented IDPs suddenly seeking safety from the Russian onslaught. To make more rooms available, Volodymyr asked guests to vacate the premises if they could. Most foreigners were already headed out of Ukraine anyway.
|Owner Volodymyr stands besides one of the 83 beds at the Dream Hostel |
where over 12,000 bed spaces for IDPs were filled over a six month period.
In March, at the height of the mass exodus, Volodymyr says he turned away no one — mostly women and children — needing use of his services and hospitality. Cars filled with people and pets made the perilous 150-mile escape from Mariupol into Zaporizhzhya every day. Vehicles filled with frightened and confused children — usually under the care of one adult driver — would randomly show up. Food, facilities and a bed were some of the free comforts Volodymyr offered.
“We had nearly one hundred refugees here every night in March,” says a proud Volodymyr.” Over six months, We’ve filled over 12,000 bed spaces.”
One frigid evening a battered car pulled up, filled with eight children still in pajamas and some without shoes crammed inside. The driver sadly recounted to Volodymyr that in their haste to escape the shelling in Mariupol, there was no time to prepare so she just gathered local children and fled the Russian missile strikes before undergoing a six hour drive in the bone-chilling temperatures.
“The car had no windows,” remembers Volodymyr with sadness. “The Russian shelling had blown them all out.”
Underneath a variety of keys individually strung from a hallway ceiling — a sort of goodbye ritual created by guests over the years — Volodymyr tells me about one refugee who handed him a large skeleton key from his home to add to the collection. It was a thank you as much as it was a realization.
“I have no use for this key,” the man forlornly told his host. “My home is gone.”
|Keys from guests left as gifts as a ritual hang from the ceiling. |
One key has special representation.
The mad rush to get women and children away from Russian attacks has slowed. Volodymyr says there are about 20 IDPs currently utilizing his pinewood bunk beds and only one foreigner from Australia who kind of stuck around.
“Our beds are always here though,” he says.
My last stop is at TopMedical, a pharmaceutical center where I meet an assemblage of three pharmacists and a doctor integrating their minds and experience into front-line life saving action.
A marvelous medical and pharmaceutical think tank headed by a pharmacist named Oleksandr.
This gathering of brilliant clinicians and practitioners is coming up with new ways to save lives in critical and, many times fatal situations on the battlefields. This includes developing a more portable way to stop most bleeding from body wounds caused by bullets, shrapnel or any other non-arterial hemorrhaging with easy to carry sponges and tourniquets.
|The doctors and pharmacists at Top Medical have gone|
far and above their normal duties by
re-inventing crucial medical supplies for soldiers wounded
on the front lines.
Inside a modest-sized laboratory, they show me the process of producing their hema-static sponge — a viable, pocket-sized pad which, when applied and pressed to the wound can stem the tide of blood until proper first aid can arrive.
The fabrication process is a time consuming procedure that takes the cracker-thin sponge through a soaking with their own blood-stemming agents, before being sanitized and put through a calculated heat-drying operation prior to being sealed in plastic. The incredibly innovative 3-inch by 4-inch swab can be stored almost anywhere. Mass production is still at its infancy
“We have already supplied over two thousand to the front-line soldiers,” beams the doctor. “We hope to expand this process soon.”
The group has also come up with a portable self-holding tourniquet that can essentially stem blood flow from limb wounds even neck trauma. This velcro and nylon strapped device — a refurbished version of a similar American style — is portable to be carried into battle.
We take a short drive to a donated office space where the group shows me boxes of stockpiled drugs and medical supplies ready to help the medical staffs at hospitals and the front lines as well. Antibiotics, bandages and just about any other medical supplies will be donated for the war cause.
|These boxes of donated pre-used first responder gear have come|
all the way from Oswego, New York.
And speaking of donations, I am told that this group receives regular donations of supplies from all over the world. I spot open boxes of second-hand first responder equipment. The boxes reveal bunker gear, helmets and tools in good condition. I can smell smoke on some of the fire gear — many with their previous first-responders’ names still on them. I look closely at the patches on the equipment. They were donated by the first responders in Oswego, New York.
Who knows how many Ukrainian soldiers’ lives will be saved by this group of braintrusts? That will be their reward.
Denys, Kateryna and I head out for an informal farewell dinner and drive to Pravoberejniy Park on the Dnipro River. The numbing wind makes us rush for the hilltop restaurant after taking in a quick view of the shoreline. The Mazepa is surprisingly empty as it is with so many other establishments in Ukraine. I can only imagine this fine dining space filled with diners, chatting and laughing, only eight months ago.
I had what became my staple here in Ukraine — borscht, dumplings and a local draft beer. Kateryna insisted I try the salo a traditional Ukrainian appetizer of cold slices of cured pork fatback. Served with dips like hot mustard, garlic or pickled onions, it is quite tasty. I imagine its slavic peasant roots came from eating whatever you could on an animal , like so many other cultures, especially during the frigid days of a Ukraine winter.
|Salo —a traditional Ukrainian appetizer.|
Tomorrow it would be farewell to Zaporizhzhya and another overnight train — this time back to Odesa before the bus back to Moldova.
When I returned to the United States, I got word that the Russians had retreated from Kherson in defeat or liberated the city — depending which side you are on. Ukrainian flags were raised and pro-Russia posters torn down. Denys was one of the first volunteers down there with a truckload of food, medicine, generators and good spirit.
|Denys bringing fuel and supplies to newly liberated Kherson.|
Photo courtesy of Denys.
A few days later, I heard the Russians ramped up their missile onslaught, hitting power plants and transportation hubs. Kateryna, Nataliia and Vadym were all with out power — some for days, even weeks, at a time. They still carried on.
Rudolf sent me an announcement that his crew made and delivered another one thousand anti-tank hedgehogs and numerous drones. They continue to transport must-have generators and other supplies as well.
|Rudolf and his crew deliver much needed |
generators to Kherson after liberation from Russia.
Photo courtesy of Rudolf.
This has become the norm in Ukraine — uneasy calm followed by extreme shelling of innocents and infrastructure, Russia hoping to break the optimistic Ukrainian spirit.
They won’t and I saw that firsthand.
I want to thank Kateryna, Nataliia, Denys and Vadym for their facilitation and guidance while I was in Ukraine. And a shout out to Victoriia for her help via social media communications. Lastly, a heartfelt thanks to all of the men and women who, during these difficult times, shared their lives with me and continue fighting the good fight.
These unsung volunteers need whatever donations you can spare to complete their unselfish, unheralded projects towards freedom and victory in so many ways. Again, I can vouch for their good work. Please help.
Sergio: PAYPAL: firstname.lastname@example.org
Sasha: PAYPAL: email@example.com
Valeriia: PAYPAL: firstname.lastname@example.org
Victoriia: PAYPAL: email@example.com