LVIV, Ukraine -- It’s a Friday night in this western Ukrainian city, and seven friends are spending it grinding walnuts, melting honey, and hand-rolling granola bars. They plan to send the bars to soldiers fighting in the east, packing more than one hundred of them with drawings from schoolchildren. The package will go to the eastern city of Luhansk, where government forces are battling pro-Russian separatists.
Volunteers aiding Ukraine’s war effort, from those making granola bars to those traveling throughout Europe to buy military supplies, admit that the military is too ill-equipped to match the well-armed rebels who are being supplied by Russia. Average citizens play an important role by donating what they can and helping deliver supplies to the east to aid the country’s military. The government, beset by budget woes and rising debt and dealing with a dire economic crisis -- the Ukrainian economy dropped 8 percent last year -- needs their help.
Mariya Hopyka, 24, says she thinks of her brother, Bohdan, 22, who wanted to join the Ukrainian army and is currently serving near the strategic city of Mariupol, while she wraps the granola bars in plastic.
“People are tired and the government seems without action,” Hopyka says. “The conflict has now lasted for more than a year and this is a war, and the end isn’t clear and it’s tiring.”
That’s why for more than six months the young women have been meeting on Fridays, and sometimes a few other days a week, to do what they can to help friends and family members who are serving. New women join their group every week; many volunteers here collaborate through networks of family, friends, neighbors and word of mouth.
Doubts About War's End
Iryna Vovk, 26, a journalist and volunteer, shares with many Ukrainians the view that the war will not end soon. She says the ceasefire that’s officially been in effect since mid-February doesn’t really exist, and that the official casualty count listing around 6,000 dead is in fact much higher.
For the last 10 months Vovk has traveled to the Anti-Terrorism Operation zone, as the Kiev government calls the war zone, to provide troops with supplies, from coffee to uniforms and night-vision goggles. “Russia knows how to wage a war,” she says, listing past conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia. “I would recommend all volunteers start buying summer items,” she adds, imagining that the campaign will not be short.
If the Ukrainian military had modern technology and weaponry, she says, it would be able to beat back the rebels. But those aren’t available; the U.S. and European Union have rejected the idea of sending so-called “lethal aid” to Ukraine, and Vovk can only bring supplies like the British uniforms she is taking east tonight. The soldiers themselves will have to tear off the Union Jack and sew on the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
“The Ukrainian government is paying a minimal salary, giving ammunition, and some basic uniforms,” Vovk said, “but it’s another question of whether the government could give more, and I think they could.”
Volunteers are now widening their efforts to fill in the gaps that the government cannot, by supporting the families of soldiers as well. In a building used by the People’s Self-Defense in Lviv, two volunteers tie strips of summer-color camouflage to netting to send to the army, while Nelya Vasyta, 31, persuades two families to look through large piles of clothing donated from Poland and encourages them to take what they need. The families’ fathers and sole breadwinners are serving in either the military or volunteer battalions, and they aren’t able to provide as they did before.
When Vasyta’s husband, Mychailo, a political scientist by training, was called up in May, she, like many others, rushed to find body armor, a helmet, and proper military-grade supplies to equip him for the front. She says that even now the Ukrainian army remains in a poor state, without the basic supplies and good management skills to properly wage a war.
“I wanted to be a support for my husband and I wanted him to feel that here I was doing something important,” she says.
Vasyta now works long days, from 8 a.m. to 3:30 a.m., as a coordinator for families affected by the war. Fundraising efforts from regular Ukrainians, the Ukrainian diaspora, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and church groups support her work. She estimates that in over 90 percent of the 200 families she works with, the husband has gone to fight and the wife has been left at home without the ability to work a steady job to support the children. Vasyta organizes outings and gives out packages containing basic kitchen items -- including rice, flour, and oil -- to help the women get by.
Signs Of War Everywhere
The war can seem distant here in western Ukraine; Lviv is more than 600 miles (1,000 km) away from the conflict zone. But its signs are everywhere. Large donation boxes are found in most bars and restaurants around the touristy, historic center of Lviv, and men in military fatigues walk the long stretch in front of the grand opera house. Most people either know someone directly involved in the war or can quickly give the names of other friends.
Kostyantyn Hurashchyk, 54, the owner of a technology company, stands in the light drizzle, beckoning people walking by the statue of King Danylo to stop for a bowl of hot soup and donate what they can to Help the Front. The organization collects clothing, food and supplies for the army, posting everything on its Facebook page in order to be transparent and combat the negative perception caused by dubious volunteer efforts that have sprung up throughout the course of the conflict. People stop by the table, leaving chocolates and cigarettes for the army as well as batteries, flashlights and other needed supplies.
Hurashchyk would like to be sending something else to the Ukrainian fighters in the East -- something Ukraine’s powerful allies aren’t supplying, but should, according to him.
“If they give us tanks and Javelins -- and I’m not going to say who -- but if he doesn’t, we’ll still win,” he says, mentioning the American-made anti-armor missile as a way to refer to U.S. President Barack Obama. “But it would be easier with the equipment, and fewer of our boys would die.”
Yet, he says, it will be Russia that will ultimately decide when the fighting stops.
“The war will end in Moscow," he says. "There is no other path.”