Ukrainian Volunteers: We Deliver

Both radically decentralised and profoundly efficient, a vast civilian volunteer network is mobilised across Ukraine.

Ukrainian Volunteers: We Deliver

Both radically decentralised and profoundly efficient, a vast civilian volunteer network is mobilised across Ukraine.

Luibov and Ivan at a loading warehouse in Lviv.
Luibov and Ivan at a loading warehouse in Lviv. © Paul Conroy
Thursday, 28 April, 2022

Well past curfew on a chilly early March evening, a slight, dark-haired woman tugged an overloaded brown box from a pile nearly her height. A Parisian-style street lamp, elegantly curved, threw a pale light on the scene on a side street in Lviv.

Supplies donated from Germany had been delivered to Luibov’s home (surname withheld for security reasons). I had slipped out of my nearby hotel to the deserted streets for a breather, so there was nothing for it but to pitch in and help her move them indoors. 

Most boxes were sealed, but there was everything from soaps and over-the-counter medicines to nappies and candles that kept spilling out. 

Luibov, 29, has a background in science and a day job with an international fabric company. She is also a humanitarian volunteer, one of millions in the country and around the world supporting the war effort. 

All of Ukrainian society is mobilized, and everyone is doing something; sheltering the displaced, making camouflage netting from cloth strips, or operating a vast private supply chain delivering goods countrywide. 

“Now in Ukraine, volunteers do everything,” said Tymur Levchuk, a coordinator at the Kyiv-based Centre for Civil Liberties. 

“It is efficient because there is less bureaucracy. Volunteers can also go anywhere. Because they do not have rules and procedures like a big organization, they can take anything. And the volunteers are connected with local people, so they know what people need.”

Luibov is just one of them. In the morning those boxes would be taken to a warehouse to be distributed to those in need across Ukraine – some of them potentially by her husband, Ivan, 30. 

His job in “industrial mountaineering”, with a side hobby in auto maintenance, makes him well-suited for his role delivering goods to the frontlines. At that time in early March, he was delivering goods to the military in Mariupol. 

Six weeks later I catch up with Luibov again. A full day driving around Lviv in Ivan’s white van gives some sense of Ukraine’s remarkable volunteer supply system. 

Both radically decentralised and profoundly efficient, this vast civilian army of friends and associations, intersecting networks – what Ukrainians call bubbles – brings humanitarian aid and supplies to the frontline military and to populations in need. 

“We have two systems, one by government and one by volunteers,” Luibov explained. “The government delivers large loads, that go through a very long, bureaucratic path. But real needs come up quickly, for the people and the military. The volunteer movement delivers the most needed things as soon as possible.”

Luibov loading the van at Lviv rail station. © Paul Conroy

TAKING STOCK

The day begins in the van, Luibov in a sports vest and Ivan, lanky and taciturn, in a baseball cap. First stop is the train station, a few kilometres away, winding through the Lviv morning traffic. 

The location is a small side building not far from the main plaza, in sight of the sprawling aid tents set up to support those displaced from across the country. Just the day before, a Russian shell landed by a rail yard a few kilometres away.

In two modest rooms and a packed hallway, the couple are met by three friends, including Oleksandr Oliynyk, in normal life a tour guide for mountain trips and kayaking. 

The buzz feels a little like the preparation for a camping trip, arranging, checking supplies, getting ready for the road. 

“A lot of our knowledge from being outdoors we use now,” Oliynyk noted.

The rooms are packed with medical supplies. Catheters, bandages and gauze wraps, disinfectants and plastic gloves. Paracetamol, Ibuprofen, aspirin. Sleeping bags and mats. In a corner, a large array of crutches and canes. 

There are also canned goods, baby food, cookies, instant noodles and fruit juices for kids. 

Luibov and Ivan collect items from a list. Ivan grabs two fire extinguishers from a collection of more than 30 in the hallway, I carry out fire blankets. 

“Water purification tablets, that’s what they need in Mariupol,” Oliynyk explained. 

Then we are back in the van and off. There appears to be no detailed stock-taking, much less any computerised system which would be well within Ukrainian capacity. Instead, boxes come and go, items are quickly counted and shared, and somehow everything gets where it needs to be. 

Luibov explained that regional authorities as well as local groups send requests which charity coordinators forward to volunteers, and they manage the rest. 

As we progress through traffic, both Luibov and Ivan – driving, device held by crooked shoulder – are immediately on their phones.

“That’s the way it works,” Luibov explained. “I need this, do you have that. I’m taking this here, can you take that.” 

ON THE ROAD

The next stop is a small town, nearly 40 kilometres from the central Lviv, past rows of village houses, and up a steep hill to a pleasantly rustic home and another friend, Christina. 

Here the main pick-up is torniquets. Luibov explains there are three kinds, for rescuers (orange), military (black) and another for training purposes. 

Christina has a storage room with boxes of pills, torniquets and other supplies. She works with North American Scouts organisations, so her goods come from America and Canada, mostly via a Ukrainian in the US. 

The conversation extends, two more boxes with medicines and bandages are agreed, and we are off. It’s nearly an hour drive each way. All that way only for three boxes, but it included the essential tourniquets – destined for embattled Kharkiv.

Ivan makes one or two journeys every week, sometimes in one van (with two drivers), sometimes two (three drivers) others with three (five drivers). It can take a day and a half return to Kyiv, and two to four days for a journey east. He’s been everywhere, from Kharkiv and Dnipro to Mariupol and Mykolaiv on the coast. The drivers rotate between driving and sleeping, and never stop the car except for comfort breaks or a little food.  

Sometimes, he is asked to transport something for the military. It can be anything from bullet-proof vests to night-vision goggles to computer equipment. Does he transport ammunition and arms? “In principle,” he said, “we cannot transport weapons. We are not military.” He does, however, carry a bullet-proof vest and a weapon.

Often, he will have a letter from the local authorities. But the volunteer system is understood and generally does not need paperwork. 
    
“People talk and they know what’s true,” she said. Very occasionally, Ivan may need to telephone a commander to put an awkward checkpoint patrol at ease and let him pass.

Ivan said he has made many friends from all this travelling, and even when he doesn’t have anything to deliver to them, acquaintances will invite him to stop for a coffee and a smoke. If he needs a place to stay overnight or assistance with the van, people are always ready to help.

At a stop for petrol, he explained that he can generally make the one-way route on a single full tank of diesel – Lviv to Dnipro shows 943 kilometres on Google maps – but sometimes they carry extra fuel, especially if they are heading to Kharkiv and areas without stations. 

The van, a Fiat Ducato, was purchased for around 5,000 US dollars, with funds raised quickly through an online campaign. He has so far purchased around 100,000 hryvnas (3,400 US dollars) worth of fuel covered by private contributions, coordinated with support from various Ukrainian non-profits.  

EVERYWHERE WAR

Then we head to a residential area in the outskirts of Lviv and the local storage of the Ukrainian Scout organisation Plast. 

The location here is in a development of apartment blocks, with the storehouse through a door just at the ground floor. Inside a tight hallway are tall piles of large brown boxes, the destination scrawled in firm marker: Irpin.

Amid the adventure, the meaning of their efforts remains close. Luibov’s calm eyes occasionally verge towards tears, and then determination, before she relaxes back to her usual cheerful self. 

“I was asked to find 1,000 black body bags, to buy them in Lviv. I thought a lot about that number, and it scared me,” she said. 

“We know that we don’t know the number of dead soldiers. The government only gives good news so they won’t panic people. But then I realized it was a number over time, the army knows what it is doing, and I just have to find them,” she said.

Although outside the main theatres of the war, these people are totally submerged in the conflict. Everything they do responds to the realities, suffering and specific needs on the frontlines.

This store room is even larger, absolutely overflowing. In one corner, metre long bails of foodstuffs are piled to the ceiling. Ivan and Luibov pause together to consider some camouflage shirts, holding one up like a couple out at the shops, before moving on to fill their list.

We have another stop, at a school which Luibov’s daughter, Dzvinka, now seven, attended some years ago. In the front, a large auditorium, unpainted plaster walls giving it a faded elegance, has been converted into a church.

Here, three medical kits picked up first thing in the morning are handed over. Another set of volunteers will be heading off in another van to take them somewhere else.

Ivan is distracted by a call from his agitated sister, whose husband has just been called up. She is afraid the army will not provide adequate clothing and other gear. Ivan assures her that they will, and anyway they have time to get anything he is missing. With a van increasingly stuffed with goods, there’s little doubt Ivan and Luibov can source anything. 

Then I get a text, and it turns out that I need something, too. Our organisation, with funding from the British government and partnering with a Polish and two Ukrainian charities, has procured 50 flak jackets to be donated to local reporters. 

It’s been an enormous hassle. They are among the best vests available, but we had to ship them from Bogota. The complications – not least from Polish customs – have been extreme. But from there, Ukrainian volunteers transported them smoothly to Lviv, and they have just arrived in town. 

I need to pick up five of them, get them quickly to Kyiv and give them to Ukrainian reporters travelling to the front.

The location is not convenient, especially with afternoon traffic. But Ivan obliges, and they help carry the heavy gear to the van to be conveyed to another volunteer heading to the capital. 

By now, fatigue has set in, and Luibov’s daughter needs to be collected from her grandmother’s, so we have to part. I am dropped at my hotel, and Ivan, Luibov and the van speed off. 

POWER FROM THE PEOPLE

Ukraine’s volunteer system is a complex and vital national phenomenon. Levchuk, from the Centre for Civil Liberties, emphasised that it grew directly from the grassroots pro-Europe 2013 uprising. 

“The idea of trust, these are the values of Euromaidan,” he said. “From that, we understood that we are a nation and if we need something we can unite and we will win. Euromaidan was the training, and it is the same now.”

Nadia Shevchenko, a journalist in Kyiv who has covered social movements since Euromaidan, said the volunteer system provided far more humanitarian aid than any official support. 

“The government system just cannot do it now,” she said, “We can say that it has failed. So volunteers are doing it.

“The only hope for Ukraine to win the war is to have a society which is resilient and involves as many of the people as possible.”

It is a remarkable and highly effective logistical supply network. Goods are procured, move fast and get where they need to go, even in difficult places. 

Aid Volunteers Pay the Price – Humanitarian workers killed by Russian troops as they brought aid to Borodyanka.

Ivan explained that the army received humanitarian supplies and forwarded them to volunteers in conflict areas where it was too dangerous to drive himself. 

As I myself saw near Borodyanka, however, some volunteers, delivering supplies around Russian-held areas, have been killed.  

The system is a social phenomenon; government is engaged but it is totally citizen driven. An aid trip I took to villages around Chernobyl was the idea of an activist who raised the money and pulled the journey together by herself, bringing in an old friend in the Territorial Defence for support. 

It is the nation’s overriding asset in this war. It is why Ukrainians are convinced they will win. They are too united, too determined and just want it too badly to lose. 

Obviously, these are western Ukrainians mobilising to support compatriots in the centre and especially in the east. Despite variations in culture and language usage, the solidarity is so strong and so instinctive, it doesn’t even merit mention. It is taken entirely for granted.

Every bandage, box of medicine, military supply parcel – it is all to support fellow citizens, defeat the invaders and restore Ukraine. 

“We love our country,” Luibov said. “We just want to be able to travel, see the mountains and the lakes, and enjoy it in peace.”

Until then, they will continue to deliver.

This publication was prepared under the "Amplify, Verify, Engage (AVE) Project" implemented with the financial support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norway.

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