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Ukraine Journal #3
Volunteerism in wartime Ukraine

By Peter Lippman
October 2023

While I was staying at the no-star Hotel Minimum in Kyiv, I regularly dined at the friendly Café Chicot, around the corner. On my last night in town, a friend of the owner was curious about my work in the country. He asked, "What are you doing in Ukraine?" Since I was doing more than one thing, my explanation was a bit slow to get off the ground. He interrupted, asking, "Are you a volunteer?" I said yes. Once that was clarified, the man paid for my dinner.

Volunteerism in the service of a society in distress can take many forms. A broad outline would include everything from helping to rebuild bombed houses, to preparing food for the front, all the way to fighting at the front. I would even include some aspects of the work of non-governmental organizations. All of these things require a commitment; this is implicit if one is going to experience discomfort in an unfamiliar land at war.

There are people and organizations that help more, and others that help less, or not at all. I witnessed this for some decades in the aftermath of the Bosnian war, observing everything from sincere, unregistered grassroots groups to "phantom" NGOs that only existed to receive international donations, and then vanish.

From the look of it, volunteerism in the face of war is in a rudimentary stage in Ukraine, with many—probably countless—local organizations going it on their own. A few international NGOs and, of course, intergovernmental organizations (such as UN agencies) are on the scene, but not to anywhere near the extent I witnessed them in the immediate aftermath of the Bosnian war. Then, you could see the white NGO jeeps nearly everywhere.

On the other hand, individual international volunteers began arriving to Ukraine soon after the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion in February of 2022. They arrive with varying goals, but again, they come with commitment. There are domestic grassroots organizations with different degrees of cohesion, to some extent ready to receive the internationals. While the main goal of my four-week visit last October was research, I spent about a week's time volunteering with several organizations. It was a way to witness and to express solidarity.

Ants and bombs

In Kyiv, I spent a day in an outer neighborhood on the left bank of the Dnipro, chopping apples with 20-odd middle-aged women. Murashky ("Little Ants") is a private organization that prepares food packages for troops on the front line. Maksym, dressed in a military uniform, met me at the intersection of Ronald Reagan Street and Honore de Balzac Boulevard and guided me upstairs. There, I found a well-equipped kitchen with large work tables, drying ovens, stoves, and bags of donated food ready to be processed.

Women were involved in several tasks. Some were mixing ingredients to make dried soup mix, to be sent to the front in individual packages. Others were making ginger cookies, and many women were preparing apple pieces to be dried. I started out making slabs of cookie dough to be cut and shaped but was soon transferred to the apple section. There, I chopped and cored apples for the rest of the day.

Preparing cookies for the front

Mariya was directing the work, with help from Kalyna. Mariya told me she was from Donbas, and Kalyna was from Luhansk. All the women spoke Ukrainian or Russian, neither of which I know. To my luck, Lenka spoke Italian, having lived in Italy for 15 years. We managed to chat away in a mixture of Italian, Spanish, "Ukrainianized" Bosnian, and a wee bit of English. Lenka told me that it meant a lot that I came there from so far away. I said, "Thank you, but I can only help a small amount." She said, "We each do a little, and together it matters a lot."

Lenka told me that she had lived in Naples. I asked if she had a husband: "Morto." Children? No, "Io sono sola." In 1990, she had traveled with her husband to California to visit relatives. She remembered a lot of swimming pools. She told me that from the airplane, she saw a house, then a swimming pool, then a house, then another swimming pool, and so on. She asked me if I had a swimming pool, and was shocked when I said no.

Lenka lamented the "catastrophe" of the war, as she called it, saying that she couldn't understand the minds of the people who came to Ukraine to do such crimes. She told me she hated the Russians. She remembered 9/11, and asked me where Bin Ladin was killed. I said "Pakistan." She asked me if the Mossad killed him. I said, "No, the Americans did." She asked, "Can't they kill Putin?" I said it was complicated. Lenka told me that the Russians should be killed; first Putin, then all the rest of them. I did not muster the words to argue.

Maksym told me that Murashky was founded shortly after the war began. Volunteers were working in a school kitchen, and then they moved to the present space. They've had to build up their equipment stock, and they're always short of money. They could use more volunteers as well. If you are interested in helping out, look at their Facebook page here; a lot of content is translated into English. And if you'd like to make a donation, Murashky's PayPal address is here.

Women of Murashky processing apples

Another day, I found my way to the town of Hostomel to help local and international volunteers remove rubble and earth around the foundation of a bombed house, as I mentioned in my previous journal. This weekend activity was organized by the loosely coordinated group "Brave to Rebuild," which arranges volunteer actions in several parts of Ukraine. Volunteers communicate via an internet-based network; much of the traffic consists of disoriented internationals like myself asking each other how to join, how to find the required form to submit personal information, and how to arrive to the next activity.

Somehow, it works, but it was to some extent a reflection of the group's level of disorganization that I received contradictory messages telling me where to show up to join the group's bus to Hostomel. Those messages included landmarks that were no longer there and individuals who were no longer team leaders. Together, all this made finding the group of volunteers feel like a logistical improbability. But persistence and a bit of luck helped me succeed.

Among us 15-odd volunteers, there was one wheelbarrow and eight or nine shovels. We waited for a dump truck to arrive out front on the street that was formerly known as "Lenin Street," now changed to the easier "Svyatopokrovs'ka." As is so often the case, both the old and new street signs were still in place.

A volunteer from Utah, with an extra dose of common sense, ran to a hardware store and bought a half-dozen five-gallon buckets for us to use. As the dump truck arrived, we set to work moving rubble and excavating the foundation of Anton's house. Someone admonished us to be careful where we walked around, since there may be unexploded mines or bombs in the vicinity. There was a bomb crater in the back yard.

Clearing the rubble at a bombed house in Hostomel

Before the war, 90% of the residents of Hostomel were Ukrainian speakers. I was told that alongside the atrocities that had been committed in nearby Bucha, some 400 people went missing from Hostomel as well. I asked someone what "missing" meant. They just answered, "mass graves."

I worked with Oleh, a young political science student at the university in Kyiv. There was Zhenya, a local English teacher. I met Vovo (short for Volodymyr), from the same region where my grandmother was born. Many of the Ukrainians were IT students or practitioners. One was from Luhansk, now occupied by the Russians. He's been in Kyiv for nine years. His grandmother and step-sister are stranded in Luhansk. He can talk to them on the phone, but they can't really say anything.

One of the internationals had just come from Odessa, a lovely city on the Black Sea. The Russians had been attacking the city for months. This man said that the city is "okay"; you hear an air-raid siren every couple of days, but the attacks are mostly on the grain silos and the port, not right in town.

Among the internationals, there was a Brazilian woman who has been living in the US. There was Marti, from Finland. He's a lawyer and can earn money by advising younger lawyers remotely. He said he would like to stay in Ukraine, but he has to see how cold the winter is. I said, "Finland has cold winters." He responded that he hasn't been there in the winter lately, and last winter he was in western Europe.

There was Elias, an engineer from Sweden. He wants to stay in Ukraine too. Elias explained to me the difference between missiles and rockets, and their impact. I asked him how he knew all these things, and he said he had been in the Swedish military for 10 years, with the job of analyzing Russian munitions.

We filled up the dump truck, and someone brought several pizzas in boxes to share. By 4:00 p.m., our work was finished. I hoped we had made a dent in the project. Some of us were commenting how a jackhammer and a grader or Bobcat could have taken care of the job in a few hours. But those resources are in short supply. In any case, solidarity was built, and it was good.

That evening, the internationals put together a plan to go out to dinner, to a place called "Squat 17B," after the address, on an alley named "Skvot" across the street from Shevchenko Park. There was a pleasant atmosphere, with visitors from other work projects, including three Germans, two French Canadians, two Swedes, one Parisian, and more. Marti from Finland and Elias from Sweden were chatting in Swedish, and they explained to me that it's common for Finns to learn Swedish as a second language.

I tried to get up and leave at about 9:00, but the Brazilian woman admonished me, "NO. You are staying with us. I have a van coming to take us to the next place soon." So I stayed, and when the van came, I sneaked away and went back home. The scene of internationals enjoying themselves abroad reminded me of what I saw 20 years ago in Nablus during the second Intifada where, just as now in Ukraine, young internationals were finding ways to combine solidarity action with their natural urge to relax.

* * *

I met with Willie before the Hostomel activity, and again afterwards. I had connected with him on line via the Brave to Rebuild network. He came from the Midwest, hoping to stay in Ukraine for a long time. He showed me a couple of tattoos on his wrist. One was the Ukrainian flag. I said, “That’s a commitment.” Willie said that he felt committed to the Ukrainian cause. He had donated some money but didn’t feel like that was enough. So he came to Kyiv to find ways to contribute. He was now working on getting a long-term residency visa, as the tourist visa only lasts 90 days.

On the subject of security, Willie said that no one pays any attention to the air-raid sirens in Kyiv. He noted that the neighborhood west of the Maidan was the safest place in the city, because that's where the presidential compound is. Therefore, the security is good there, as the army shoots down any drone bombers that may come around. You're safe from the bombers, he said, but the falling debris can be dangerous.

When I met with Willie after the Hostomel activity, he told me that he had worked at the same location on a subsequent weekend. As it happened, his group finished what had looked like the endless task of excavating Anton's foundation. Later, Willie went to work in Kherson with a Brave to Rebuild group; he told me that “the Russians are right across the river and there’s some bombing.” He went to help shovel mud, as there were mountains of it from the flood, after the Kakhovka dam was bombed during the summer.

A conversation with Scott

I had the chance to talk with Scott, who is starting a local service NGO. I met him via his helpful presence in volunteer communications. Scott's involvement with that sphere had grown because he had been in Ukraine longer than the average volunteer, and he saw a certain amount of chaos in group operations. He had a few criticisms to share with me on that score.

For example, Scott wondered why Dobrobat, a prominent and relatively well-organized volunteer network, was sending internationals to Kherson, "to move mud under fire," as he put it. He also wished that volunteers would plan to stay in country for longer than a week, so that they could make a solid contribution to whatever effort they were involved in. "There are substantive things you can do," he said. "If you're willing to go to Chernihiv, there is a very active organization: Phoenix, and they have full-time construction work."

Scott also expressed exasperation at prospective volunteers who wrote asking, "Do I need to buy body armor to go to Kyiv?" He said, "If you're thinking about body armor, you won't need it in Kyiv. And if you're going to the front, you're talking to the wrong group." Scott mentioned people he knew who had gone to the extreme margin of volunteerism, joining the group of international volunteers called the International Legion for the Defense of Ukraine or, more simply, the Legion. One of them was working on de-mining, and another had been injured in combat, and was now working in delivery.

Scott spoke of a garage where mechanics from abroad were fixing the vehicles of international volunteers, and there are many small, independent delivery organizations bringing useful materials into the country. Most of the domestic volunteer groups he was familiar with are "ad hoc," not registered. Scott mentioned seeing Red Cross vehicles in Kyiv, but their staff are allowed to move around only within a small radius, because of the organization's policy on liability considerations.

There is a telephone application, covering all of Ukraine, that announces whenever there is an air-raid alert. You can set it to provide alerts pertaining to whichever region you are in. It will sound off whenever there is a perceived danger. And you can check to see how many alerts there have been on a given day. I found it not so useful, other than for its nuisance value. The best tactic is to watch what other people are doing when there's an alarm. And I had been told that if you're in Kharkiv, near the border with Russia, and there is truly a missile coming in, it will be fired from so close that you won't really have time to escape.

Scott declared that "without Google translator and Google maps, we would not be able to do anything." Many shopkeepers pull out their phones when they need to communicate with a foreigner. I asked Scott why, when I was looking for a spot that is less than a kilometer away, the Google map application told me that I was 20 kilometers away. He said that it has to do with the air-raid alarm system; that the mechanism "spoofs" the GPS to throw off the Russians. He said that then, it happens that "you can't get there from here."

As we were winding up our conversation, I said to Scott that I didn't really see the war finishing very soon. He answered, "I'll be here however long it is."

Chernihiv: success in spite of logistics

Having gotten in touch with the people at Charity Fund Phoenix-UA, I decided to take a few days off to go do some work in Chernihiv. I hoped that I would be able to do something more skilled than wielding a shovel.

Remains of the Hotel Ukraine, Chernihiv

The first thing I saw when I got off the bus from Kyiv was a large five-story building with a massive crater-like shape taken out of it. Somebody really wanted to do damage to that building. This turned out to be the Hotel Ukraine, where I was supposed to meet the people from Phoenix. I called their number and reached Richard, a volunteer from the US. He said, "Wait there, you'll hear our van approaching."

Sure enough, I heard the white van from a block away, sounding like a metal dumpster being dragged across concrete. Richard and the driver picked me up and brought me to meet the Phoenix crew: the foreman Valerii Rubkov (who is the founder of the organization), and the brothers Ruslan and Dima. Dima said to me in unaccented English, "I speak English very well," and that was the last English I heard from him during the rest of my stay.

We got to work soon; after a bit of lunch we drove to a partially rebuilt house where there was a pile of lumber in the back yard. We sorted out the lumber, bringing long boards and beams into the house. The pile of warped or cracked lumber left outside was as big as the amount we carried in.

Richard explained to me that the house had been severely damaged when a Russian plane was shot down and crashed into it. The couple who owned the house sought refuge abroad, but the wife, Yulia, returned to do aid work and to see that her house was restored. By the time of my visit, the house was a shell with all the rafters replaced on one side, waiting for the other half of the roof to be reframed. The house next door had survived the plane crash, but it had caught on fire and was quite damaged.

Yulia's partially rebuilt house

The contemporary style of house construction that I observed in Ukraine was very close to what I have seen in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where all of the walls are built from concrete cinderblocks or other masonry, and the only wooden component of framing is the roof rafters. The manner of destruction of such a house is the same as well: a bomb hits the roof; the rafters and then the rest of the interior burns; only the masonry hull is left, unless parts of it are hit by bombs as well.

Phoenix had rebuilt Yulia's house from the first floor up. The walls of the first floor were built, and then a crane set in place massive concrete slabs to create the second floor. The walls of that floor were in place as well, and we carried up a dozen rafters boards—full 2"x 6" (5cm x 10cm) and laid them on the top floor.

As we moved boards and beams into Yulia's house, Richard described to me some of the obstacles to doing humanitarian work in Ukraine. There are problems with money transfers and importation of goods; the government taxes donated construction materials. As in Bosnia, there are layers of leftover regulations and bureaucratic habits that may well go back to Byzantine times. Richard told me about a foreigner who wished to donate a much-needed brick-making machine, but red tape simply prevented him from doing so. Richard asked, "It's hard to be good. Why is it so hard to give?"

The next day I worked with the team on another house, one belonging to Iryna and her family. The house had been bombed with an artillery missile at the beginning of the war, and it was all but devastated. Phoenix decided to salvage it, even re-pouring the basement slab and part of the footings. I teamed up with Dima, and we spent the day cutting and installing 1"x4" sub-paneling for the inside of the exterior walls, which would later be covered with sheetrock.

Iryna's house under restoration

The team has two mascot dogs, Rusty and Jessica, that attend all the projects. They keep busy at all times. You have the impression that they are trying to make themselves useful, whether they understand what is going on or not. I mentioned this to Richard, and he said, "Yes, they are like us."

As for the team of Valerii, Ruslan, and Dima, theirs was a very competent operation. You could see that they had much building experience and high standards, and they worked smoothly without the need of much talk. Ruslan has architectural training, and the crew has all the necessary, modern tools.

In the middle of the day, Iryna came over with a voluminous lunch: mashed potatoes, fish, meat, and some rare vegetables. She helped with various tasks on the house for the rest of the day. Valerii put her to work with a power planer, smoothing out some posts that were already in place.

It was a long day; after we left Iryna's house we drove the noisy van out into the countryside to pick up some corrugated ferro-cement roofing. Since we were heading north, toward the border with Belarus, we encountered a checkpoint. We had our identification documents ready to show, but the guards did not bother looking at them. I suspected that, with the old van and the crew of workers, they figured we could not possibly be involved in anything that was a threat to the State.

The local Caritas headquarters, located in a residential part of Chernihiv, was sharing rudimentary living quarters with Phoenix, so this took care of my room and board.

That night I sat in the kitchen and learned more about the town and the group from Valerii. The crewmembers of Phoenix met while working for a prominent volunteer organization in a town not far from Chernihiv. After some time, they realized that the organization was favoring the political elite, giving priority to repairing their houses and buildings before others. So they quit and started Phoenix. They are staunchly anti-corruption, which is an uphill battle here—as in any wartime situation.

Valerii told me that there had been bombing in and around Chernihiv for a couple of months at the beginning of the war. Then in April of 2022 the Russians unexpectedly pulled back. Since then the bombing has been random, and only occasional.

Phoenix provides its services free of charge, receiving no financial support from governmental agencies. The organization repairs houses both for those who can help with the repair work, and those who are unable to participate. I asked how the team supports itself, and Valerii said that people donate food and some supplies. There are material donations from private sponsors;  Richard and some other foreigners have also been good at fundraising.

I asked how it is, doing house restoration in a time of war. The group explained that the situation in the area around Chernihiv feels more stable than last year, and that it's better to try to make things more normal than to do nothing. It is an act of hope.

I asked what language people speak around Chernihiv. One of the men said, "Ukrainians know Russian and Ukrainian, but Russians only know Russian." As I've written earlier, people who always spoke Russian are, on the whole, now much more strongly identifying as Ukrainian and trying to switch to speaking Ukrainian. Dima said he likes the Ukrainian language, that it sounds like the song of a nightingale.

The next morning the crew engaged in what appeared to be a ritual struggle to get the van, a Russian Gazel, running so that we could go to work. The Gazel was entirely unwilling to start in the near-freezing weather. There were moments when we had eight people from the neighborhood—including a priest from Caritas—helping to push the vehicle. We tried pushing it forward, and pushing it in reverse. The van was only running on three out of four cylinders, but I suspected that this was only part of its problems. Somehow, each day we got the poor Gazel running—and it was more than handy, as it was capable of carrying the whole crew, two dogs, and a full load of materials. That Gazel could be a many-layered metaphor for the efforts to move Ukraine toward victory.

Someone on the team remarked about how much gas the van was using. I thought that since it was only running on three cylinders, it ought to use less gas. Apparently that's not the way these things work.

Phoenix crew installing framing at Iryna's house

We got to work; the team was assembling metal studs for the upstairs bathroom. Richard and I set off to retrieve loads of bricks from another project. We made three runs, stopping one time so that we could explore a bit around the central square of the town. There were pleasant parks and ancient, historic churches. In one park there were two rows of about 30 large placards remembering the fallen soldiers: Maksim Saenko, Viktor Loza, Ivan Oliynik, and many more.

Signs honoring fallen defenders of Chernihiv

There was also a statue, presumably of the national hero Bohdan Khmelnytsky, who led an uprising against the Polish rulers in 1648. In 1654 he made a deal in the town of Pereiaslav with the Muscovite power to join forces; a Russification trend in Ukraine has been in force most of the time since then. The statue was inscribed "Pereiaslav 1654." It's a sure bet that this was a creation of the Russifying power during the Soviet era, because the contemporary historiography of independent Ukraine does not look with favor on the Pereiaslav Agreement of 1654.

Statue commemorating Pereiaslav Agreement of 1654

A partly demolished concert hall dominates one side of the main square. The sides of the building, the landmark Drama Theater, are in perfect condition, but there is no roof. It had been bombed just two months before my arrival by one powerful missile. It was a pleasant Saturday afternoon, and people were just returning from church. No one inside the building was killed, but seven people—most of them driving cars nearby—were killed, including a six-year-old girl. It was reported that 144 people were injured, including 15 children and the same number of policemen. Windows were blown out on the other side of the square as well.

Other beautiful, historical old buildings in the center of town also have big holes in the roofs. I was told that after the Russians withdrew, people came out in large groups to help clear the rubble from the main concert hall. But later, when the economy revived and people got back to work, there was that much less volunteering.

As we walked around, a few youngsters, their hair dyed youngster colors, were sitting on a bench outside the concert hall. As if without a care in the world.

And one night as I was about to go to bed, an air-raid alarm went off in the city. I went to bed. I mentioned it this morning, and Valerii just brushed it off.

On my last day at work, the team moved to a big house that was being rebuilt to accommodate three families. Some of the menfolk worked with us. The owner's wife and mother set the lunch table with more food than all ten of us could eat. There was chicken, trout, potato dumplings with cabbage, sauerkraut, and a whole lot more. There were even vegetables. We took at least an hour with that lunch.

One of the owners of the house showed me the remnant of the bomb that had destroyed it. It was not a big thing, only about four inches in diameter.

Remnant of a bomb that destroyed one house

As we were working, a radio played hip-hop music for much of the day. At one point I asked Ruslan whether the language was Russian or Ukrainian. He looked at me and said, "It's English."

On the way home at the end of the day, we stopped to look at a lovely dark-green van to replace the Gazel. It was good at starting up, but a good bit more expensive than what Phoenix could afford, and perhaps not as robust as the old van. We moved on. More than a month later I received the good news that the Gazel had been replaced, much to everyone's relief.

The crew of Phoenix, together with helpers

But Phoenix needs more financial support—always. If you wish to donate to a small organization that I can guarantee as honest and effective, you can bypass financial complications by donating via PayPal to this account: Their Facebook page is here.


Overall, my impression of volunteer work in the four cities I visited in Ukraine is that it is a seat-of-the-pants, grassroots activity. It is heartening that there are so many everyday people from abroad, and so many more from within the country, who are ready to work on some level of recovery as the destruction is ongoing. In Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo I have seen the same thing: in the midst of war, ordinary people instinctively organized to take care of each other.

This is resistance at the grassroots level. The fact that it takes shape before the International Rescue Committee, Save the Children, Doctors Without Borders, and so many other international organizations show up is a natural manifestation of the political and economic response lag affecting those organizations.

Ordinary folks are trying to rescue Ukraine, well before the white jeeps swarm into the country. In Bosnia, they are called pozitivci, the people who try to do something positive in life. This is an act of hope, a natural thing. From my experience in Bosnia, I'm aware that, paradoxically, it is possible to be more hopeful in the middle of a war than in the aftermath. Today, people are still saying, "Of course, we will win." How conditions shape up after the end of Russia's aggression depends on what kind of resolution takes place. Then, we will know whether to continue to be hopeful or not.

Trauma vs. "normal life"; language shifts; the third answer
2 Nationalist history; grim monuments; new heroes

3 Volunteerism in wartime Ukraine


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