On the Home Front, Ukrainians Work Hard Making Sniper Suits
Volunteers in Kiev come together as war rages in the east
Larisa Pancheva sifts through boxes of second-hand clothing at an improvised refugee center in downtown Kiev, looking for a garment her size. She once had the clothing she needed. But in July 2014, her family fled from the war in eastern Ukraine, leaving everything behind.
“We were rich people,” Pancheva said. “We had shops but everything was bombed. Everything is ruined. We have nothing here.”
Volunteers provide clothing for Pancheva and other Ukrainians who fled the fighting. Elsewhere in Kiev, volunteers are putting in long hours making camouflage netting for tanks and snipers.
It’s illustrative of the war bringing people together — many of whom have direct relatives serving in the army.
Pancheva, 46, looks through the clothing as her 11-year-old son sits patiently nearby. Back at their temporary home in the capital’s suburbs, Pancheva’s husband is immobile.
He’s unable to work after an explosion seriously injured him in their hometown of Gorlovka, located in Ukraine’s war-torn Donetsk Oblast.
The Panchevas joined the ranks of nearly a million Ukrainians displaced by the conflict between pro-Russian separatists and government forces.
They now live rent-free in an austere dacha — or summer home — of a Ukrainian expatriate who is letting them stay there. There’s no running water, and they rely on a wood stove to keep warm.
“We made our choice and we moved here,” Pancheva said. “We can’t fight our fate. We just have to pray to God now. I thank God that we are safe.”
Standing nearby, Lena Lebed nods in agreement. She operates the Frolovska Volunteer Center for people displaced from the country’s east and from Russian-controlled Crimea.
Russia invaded Crimea in February 2014 and annexed the peninsula the following month. The war in eastern Ukraine has flared ever since. Lebed says it is her duty to support fellow Ukrainians during the crisis.
“How can I not do something?” Lebed asks while walking around the center, which has an all-volunteer staff.
“When the war is in Ukraine, everyone must have their own front.”
Upbeat music plays on speakers throughout the center, and the mood is relaxed. Since it’s Easter weekend, celebrated from April 11–13 in Ukraine, the center is abnormally quiet. Usually, it’s packed with people seeking assistance.
“A lot of people” in Ukraine are becoming more conscious of the war, Lebed says. “The country is mobilizing.”
About 30 people volunteer at the center daily. They provide displaced people with clothing, supplies and food as well as services such as job placement and basic medical care.
The center doesn’t provide unlimited food. “If we provide food all the time, I think they won’t find a job,” Lebed explains. “We want to push them.”
“These people need to start a new life,” she adds.
Lebed distributed supplies from her home until the task overwhelmed her. Even now, she can’t keep up with the demand. The center still serves more than 25,000 refugees, and most come back once every week or two for goods and services.
Ukrainians living inside the country, businesses and Ukrainians living abroad donate supplies, but the center always needs more contributions to aid the continuous stream of uprooted people.
Lebed spends her days teaching at a local school. When classes are in session, she comes to the center after getting off of work every weekday evening. Throughout her school’s two-week vacation period, she’s been here all day, every day.
“Sometimes, I have time for my family,” she jokes.
“People come to thank us and they say, ‘Without you, we would die,’” Lebed says.
Preoccupied with the demands of war, the central Ukrainian government moves slowly when providing social services.
Elsewhere in Kiev, another group of about 50 volunteers work to fill a government shortfall.
With a techno remix of The X-Files theme song playing in the background, Rita Vladimirovna works on cargo nets meant to camouflage Ukrainian tanks and vehicles in the fight against the Russian-backed separatists.
Born in the then-Soviet Republic of Belarus, Vladimirovna goes to the Congress of Nationalist Ukrainians center in Kiev from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. every weekday to do what she can for her country.
“I feel it’s good for me to be here, because this crisis is tearing me apart,” Vladimirovna says, adding that watching the news agitates her. “I put my soul into this work.”
The 74-year-old retiree says she believes the conflict in Ukraine has the potential to become a world war. “I feel it inside me,” she tells us. “I don’t want this slaughter to go on.”
Raisa Afanasievna, another retiree, works quietly a few feet away as she makes ghillie suits to provide concealment for Ukrainian army snipers.
Afanasievna, 73, says she comes here because of the “disaster in our country.” She adds that she has a relative serving in the military, “just like everyone else.”
“The war feels close,” Afanasievna says. “It’s our territory. It’s our country. Our boys are suffering over there. Obviously, all of us want to help.”
Olga Grisyuk, a 36-year-old volunteer helping out with the cargo nets, is here for the same reason.
“I want the war to stop as soon as possible,” Grisyuk says. “I help here and do something for the Ukrainian army so that the war will end sooner.”
She has relatives in the eastern city of Mariupol, the latest flashpoint in the conflict. Grisyuk adds that she thinks about everyone affected — not just the people she personally knows.
“I hope the war will be finished soon,” she says.
Back at the refugee center, Pancheva doesn’t expect things to improve soon. “I see more war,” she says. “It will continue. It will not stop.”
But Lebed is more optimistic. “I think everything will be very good, very soon.”
“I think our country has truly become a country as a result of all this conflict,” Lebed says.
“We recognize that we have our own traditions, our own language, our own culture — not from our neighbor Russia,” she says. “Our country has a right to exist and have real independence.”
The war has unified the country — or at least this side of it. But what about Ukrainians who are fighting against an independent and united Ukraine?
“They are not Ukrainians,” she replies with a smile. “People who live in the territory of Ukraine close to Russia are much too influenced by Russia. That’s the result of Russia’s information war.”
The schoolteacher says Ukrainians have to work together for their country. “We have to realize that independence can’t be free. We have to fight for it.”