THE WAR in East Ukraine has been raging since mid-2014, where armed groups of separatists, supported by, and loyal to, Russia, took up arms against a newly-installed Ukrainian government.
By 2015, what was dubbed an ‘Anti-Terrorist Operation’ the previous year, became a fully-blown armed conflict – with reliable evidence suggesting that the separatist forces were being trained, armed and supported by Russian armed forces.
Russian tanks and special forces helped the separatists gain control of roughly half of the Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts, proclaiming them ‘People’s Republics’, issuing their own passports and holding, widely-criticised, referenda that would declare their ‘independence’ from Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government, reeling from the bloody democratic revolution in the capital, Kyiv, was in complete disarray. The previous regime, led by Viktor Yanukovych, was found to have been stealing from every facet of Ukrainian society – including the armed forces.
With the army plundered by the previous regime and the new government nearly broke, a new phenomenon emerged: the civil society volunteer – or, in Ukrainian, simply just ‘volunteer’.
With an armed force numbering over 250,000 and up to two million internally-displaced people, it is hard to find anyone who hasn’t been personally affected by the conflict in some way.
Fuelled by the patriotism of the Maidan revolution, and a new-found civic pride, hordes of volunteers gave up their ‘normal’ lives and dedicated themselves to buying, gathering and delivering supplies for the front lines.
From food and uniforms, to donated sniper scopes and night vision technology – there is little the volunteers wouldn’t deliver to the front line – whatever the soldiers need, the volunteers will do their best to deliver it.
Echoing the rest of the Ukrainian nation’s fatigue with the war, the volunteers have not been immune – and only roughly 10-20 percent remain from those who began in 2014.
They are tired, they are shell-shocked and they are beginning to run out of money – yet, those who remain are still as determined, despite these difficulties.
Riding along with the volunteers as they delivered supplies to the front lines, it is not hard to get a sense of their determination and the motivation behind what they do. There is an internal conflict and a raw emotion the reveals that they, too, have been affected by the horrors of war.
Mother-of-two, Natalya Prilutskaya, is one such volunteer, who has been travelling to and from the front line from her home in Kyiv’s left-bank suburbs for over three years.
Natalya, whose brother-in-law was killed by enemy sniper fire in the early days of the war, sold two restaurants and concentrated all her efforts on helping the Ukrainian armed forces.
She said: “I had two restaurants of my own that I ran for 15 years, I had staff – but I sold them [the restaurants], thinking that while there was a war on, no one would be going out.
“Like many others at the time, we couldn’t just sit there and do nothing – the early days of the war were so bad, the soldiers had barely anything.”
Natalya and her fellow volunteers have a vast network, helped by social media, where they relay the soldiers’ requests to their friends and colleagues.
She explained: “One position may need a generator, or other building materials if they’ve been hit by a shell or a (rocket-propelled) mine. Recently, a position near the airport was destroyed and we completely rebuilt it – using things like advertising banners and anything else we could salvage.”
Natalya says that the volunteers’ purpose has changed over the last year – while they still focus on delivering items, they see themselves as delivering a morale boost and as a psychological support network for the soldiers.
She says: “These soldiers are the light of our nation – but there’s no support for them, mentally. All they’ve known is war for 3 years, some have seen the bloodiest battles for them all – the airport, Debaltsevo and Ilovaisk.
“These are our heroes and they now trust us – it’s our job re-charge them, to warm their hearts and feed their souls.”
Away from the front lines, the volunteers do have to contend with their own conflicts. By her own admission, Natalya says feels guilty about leaving her two children at home; but is torn between them and her adopted children on the front.
Natalya’s story is not unique – a chance encounter with another volunteer, Liudmilla Bobrovska, on the edge of the industrial town of Avdiivka, scene of heavy fighting in February 2017, showed exactly how.
She said: “We sold our large house – it had two kitchens – and moved to a 45-metre-square apartment, using the money to help the army. My son is serving, and my grandson is about to join – the whole family moved.”
With any conflict, there is humour and song among the grim reality of war, and this is no exception. Yuliya Zubrova, also from Kyiv, regularly travels with Natalya performing under her own nom-de-guerre of ‘Banderivna’ – an homage to the 1940s nationalist figure, Stepan Bandera.
A trained musician, Yuliya uses her experiences on the front lines to inspire her songs, which she is often found to be writing while on the road. At any moment, she can be seen scribbling on the many scraps of paper she keeps by her side.
She said: “I try and capture the spirit of the front – I come here and perform concerts for the soldiers and I want to sing things they can relate to.”
The psychological effects of visits from the volunteers is clear, with every passing checkpoint and block-post, the smiles on the soldiers’ faces radiate in response to Natalya’s beaming face as she shouts greeting through the window of the battered Fiat Scudo we travel in – lighting up the grey concrete that surrounds them.
Song: Yuliya Zubrova Subs: Sofia Fedeczko Video: Stefan Jajecznyk
Similarly, the volunteers focus some of their efforts on the few remaining civilians living among the soldiers on the contact lines.
One such story is that of a woman in her 80s, known as ‘Baba Raiya’, who I met for the first time, in the village of Opytne at the edge of Donetsk airport, last year.
She had nothing, her home was nearly destroyed – she had little food and no water or electricity. She was one of the last people left in the town, she had no one.
Over the last year, the volunteers and soldiers from the Ukrainian armed forces have bought her goats, chickens and have helped her to re-plant her garden.
Reunited this year, I saw how she now grows food and collects eggs from her chickens and helps feed the army she was so reliant on, just 12 months prior.
Away from the front lines in the country’s capital, Kyiv, there are makeshift factories – set up in old office or residential spaces.
Groups of women sit diligently at sewing machines or tying camouflage to large nets hung up on stands in a small office room a minute’s walk from Kyiv’s Arsenal metro station – famously the deepest in the world.
The women, whose ages range from those in their 30s to those over 60, make camouflage nets for front line positions and ghillie suits for snipers using off-cuts from soldiers’ uniforms.
Many spend their entire day in the cramped room, while others arrive after a day at work and carry on the light, but repetitive, task until late in the evening.
Anastasia Korniychuk, one of the volunteers, explained: “Like many others, we couldn’t just sit and watch what was going on. It’s not easy work, but we all help each other along, and there is something social about coming here with my friends – there are 25 of us in total.
“I heard that the Queen of England helped during the war, so if it’s good enough for her, than it’s good enough for me.”
*all interviews were conducted in Ukrainian and have been translated