As the Ukrainian armed and territorial defense forces fiercely resist Russian invasion, so do ordinary civilians across the country. The bravery of Ukrainian people takes different forms: mass protest rallies with blue and yellow flags in the cities where Russian forces have already entered, such as Kherson and Melitopol; unarmed civilians blocking the roads and lying on the ground in front of Russian tanks; girls throwing Molotov cocktails at Russian military vehicles from car windows; and even women hitting enemy drones with jars of pickled tomatoes. In still-safe parts of Ukraine civilians are uniting to help Ukrainian soldiers and their fellow countrymen affected by the war.
In the Western Ukraine, the situation is relatively calm. Sirens alerting about possible airstrikes go off daily, urging people to head to the nearest bomb shelter, but the area has not yet been affected by fighting. Locals believe that Russians will have little appetite to invade the Western part of Ukraine, which has been traditionally opposed to any sort of Russian domination. Here, after World War Two, insurgency group who supported Ukraine’s independence fought the Soviet authorities well into the 1950s.
In Chernivtsi, some 600 km (372 miles) south-west from Kyiv and 40 km (25 miles) from the border with the E.U. and NATO member state Romania, the main impact of war is an influx of internally displaced people. Since the start of the invasion, at least 36,000 people arrived in the Chernivtsi region, which is the smallest in Ukraine, according to local authorities. Among them, 12,000 children.
“These are only those people who reached out to us asking for help with accommodation. But there are many more who arranged it on their own and who are not registered,” says Viktoriya Hatrych, director of communications department at the Chernivtsi regional military administration.
One of the internally displaced people unaccounted for is Maryna Makushchenko, a journalist and writer who lived in Horenka, on the outskirts of Kyiv. For two days, she and her family, including five-year-old daughter, had to hide in a bomb shelter as heavy fighting raged on, with Russian troops attempting to take over nearby Hostomel military airfield. “It was very cold in the shelter and we were shivering, but fortunately there were kind people around. They offered me and my kid hot tea from a thermos,” Maryna recalls.
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Finally, on the third day, the family managed to flee to Kyiv and spent the night in a friend’s apartment in the district of Nyvky, in the western part of the city. The area was subjected to heavy fighting, so Maryna decided to flee the capital. She managed to take an overcrowded train to Chernivtsi, the last one before a curfew lasting the weekend came into effect. She, her daughter and niece were briefly separated on a train station from Maryna’s husband and had to leave some bags behind as there was not enough space. Her husband managed to get on the train, where he spent the 17-hour journey on his feet, crammed in the corridor with other people while she, her daughter and niece shared a compartment, which is normally used for four people, with 7 other adults, 5 kids, three cats and a dog. In Chernivtsi, they found shelter with a friend. Many locals offered their houses for free to shelter the IDPs.
As elsewhere in western Ukraine, local authorities in Chernivtsi launched a hotline helping IDPs who didn’t have contacts in the city, and offered municipal property to coordinate the relief effort. A main point of coordination was opened in a local youth community center in downtown Chernivtsi. It provides assistance to those affected by war: internally displaced people, soldiers on the frontline and civilians, stranded in Ukraine’s war-torn regions, mainly Kyiv and Kharkiv. While the effort is coordinated by public servants, most of the work is being done by local volunteers.
“We couldn’t remain indifferent to what was happening in the country,” says Svitlana Oleksiychuk, director of the Chernivtsi youth community center. “In the morning of February 24, when the news of the Russian invasion broke out, there were just ten people who work in this office. But within hours, dozens of volunteers knocked on our door offering help.”
The rumor about a relief coordination center in Chernivtsi has quickly spread and residents of this 250,000-strong city started to bring all kinds of goods here to donate to IDPs, the army and those in need in the war zone. All over across the premises, boxes lie on the floor with food–cabbage, potatoes, carrots and other long-lasting staples. Other boxes are filled with medicines, badly needed at the frontline and at hospitals in areas under heavy Russian shelling, bags with warm clothes, blankets, pillows and diapers for internally displaced people and children.
The place is buzzing with volunteers: some help sorting clothes and linens, others are glued to their phones and laptops, registering requests for help, yet others load bags with aid to buses arriving here non-stop. When a siren alerting of a possible air raid goes off, all of them rush to a bomb shelter nearby, and then return to work when it’s called off.
Katya Diachynska, 23, is one of the volunteers. An English teacher in Chernivtsi, she used to come to the youth center for lectures and film screenings before the war. “When Russia invaded, this was the first place I rushed to, because I knew there would be people willing to help,” she said. Nadia Vaskivska, 25, is a university student in Kyiv; her parents live in Chernivtsi. She returned to her hometown due to war and is currently spending her days helping to sort clothes and bed linen.”‘People come here every day, offering help. They bring clothes, items for children, medicine, foodstuffs… A woman came the other day with bed linen which she said was her wedding gift. She decided to donate it to IDPs.”
A local resident, who only gave his name as Vova, said he came here after being told at the army recruitment office they had too many applications from volunteers willing to fight. “I went to the recruitment office with my friend on the second day of war. There were many people, so we had to wait in a line. At last, we were told they had enough volunteers for now and were only accepting those with military experience. They just registered our data and let us go,” Vova said. “So I came here. I am helping to load and carry goods. I am a photographer, but my conscience doesn’t let me take photos now. I’d rather carry stuff.”
The willingness of Chernivtsi residents to help—and the amount of goods they donated—was so big that several more locations had to be opened across the city. “Currently, we are focusing on providing support to Ukrainian soldiers, such as medicines, dry food, hygiene items,” says Tetyana Sadovnik, head of communications at the Chernivtsi youth community center. “Pharmacies here are still open and well stocked, while in Kyiv and Kharkiv there are shortages of drugs. We also send medicines to children’s hospitals in these regions.”
According to Sadovnik, most of the humanitarian assistance they receive is from local residents, but more and more buses carrying aid are coming in recent days from countries such as Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, and Spain.
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“The war will end very soon and we will organize movie screenings and cultural events once again here,” Tetyana says. “I told all these volunteers: don’t you dare to ignore our events in the future! All of you who are here now should come back to us once the war is over.”
It looks like literally everyone is engaged in a volunteer effort to help defend Ukraine, including young, old and people with disabilities. Volodymyra, 70, a retired pharmacist with 30 years of experience, has bruises on her hands from making the camouflage nets: she volunteers and other volunteers make for Ukrainian soldiers at another location in Chernivtsi. These nets help to hide the Ukrainian army positions from the enemy. Next to her, a 7-year-old girl, Mariyka Nyrkova, along with other women from her family, are making nets. Her father brought them to safety from the war-affected area of Ukraine, and then returned to fight against Russians.
In yet another location, a Chernivtsi NGO helping people with disabilities brought them together last week to make Molotov cocktails. “We are the same people as the others, and we want to be useful for Ukrainian society at this moment because we want peace,” says Lyubov Svyrydenko, head of Mriya (‘A Dream’), the NGO. “Our organization was established 28 years ago. Usually we organize events for people with disabilities to give them visibility. This was another chance to make us visible.”
Why Molotov cocktails? “We need them for civilian defense of the population, because the enemy is attacking on all fronts. We do hope there will be no war in Chernivtsi and we are very worried. But we will do all we can to stop the Russians.”
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