Ukrainian volunteers, themselves victims of the war, help compatriots in the liberated areas in the south and east of the country. By bringing food and goods. Reporter Patrick van ‘t Haar joined a transport from Irpin to Novooleksandrivka, a village in Kherson province.
“We go where others don’t go. But where the need is high.” In two sentences, Ludmila Pershin from Irpin explains the destination of the transport: Novooleksandrivka and the surrounding villages of Kherson province. Villages that are within firing range of the Russian troops who have retreated to the left bank of the Dnieper.
Together with Fedir Shtukaturov and Leonid Zhebrovskyi, we sit at a table in a building in Novovorontskova – the place where we spend the night. Interpreter Oleg Shetlichnyy is also present.
After a drive of about ten hours, we were met at the entrance to the village on Tuesday evening by Oleksander Mowchen, who took us to our sleeping place. It is dark outside, a cold wind from the Dnieper River makes minus 10 degrees feel like minus 20.
Remarkably, there is electricity in the building – Novovorontskova is the only village in the Berislav district that has not been occupied by the Russians, says Oleksander. The other villages in the area rely on generators or are without power. “When the Russians left in October, a tank shot down a transformer, but some villages haven’t had electricity since April.”
It is discussed with Oleksander how and where the aids are to be delivered the next day. Everything must be organized in a tight schedule. Because the Russian army may have retreated to the other side of the Dnieper, the distance as the crow flies is only about 5 to 10 kilometers. The Ukrainian side is bombarded daily with artillery.
A large gathering of people in one place and two large white buses could be detected by Russian drones and become a target. At parting, Oleksander jokes that I shouldn’t be alarmed if I hear the sound of machine guns at night. “Then we hunt for Russian drones.”
“We all gained experience at the beginning of the war,” explains Fedir, a 42-year-old manager from Irpin, a little later during dinner. According to him, the risk is easily manageable thanks to tight planning, good agreements and contacts with the military authorities.
“I think about my children’s future. We can lose everything because of the war, so we have to help people who need it,” adds Leonid. For the 39-year-old owner of a landscaping company, it is his 22 . humanitarian mission. The Russians may be close and regularly shell Kherson province, but the area is vast and enormous, they stress.
Ludmila is the driving force behind the transports. In addition to her work as an assistant to a chief of police in Kiev, she is busy day and night collecting emergency aid – mainly through Facebook. Hundreds of kilos of rice and pasta, coffee, tea, dog food, clothes and other materials have been stockpiled, people from Irpin brought goods to her house for transportation.
The second bus is filled with clothes, gas stoves, food and first aid materials, collected with the act of Leeuwarden Courant and Nordens Avis . Eleven generators in the Netherlands were also purchased and taken with the proceeds from donations from readers. In Irpin, the bus is full of food. And, at Ludmila’s express request, a hundred large boxes of biscuits.
“Yes, I understand your surprise. Cookies as relief? When the Russians retreated from Irpin and we returned at the beginning of April, there was almost nothing to eat. We also received cookies from aid organizations. They not only give a good feeling, they also satiate us. We were very happy about it at the time,” Oleg explains.
The next morning it is on narrow roads towards Novooleksandrivka. Leonid, Ludmila and Fedir in front, Oleg and I a little behind. The landscape is barren and gray in winter. There are broken and burned trees along the road, holes in the asphalt from mortar impacts. Oleg smiles and points to the dense clouds. “Good news, the Russian drones can’t see us now.”
Novooleksandrivka is the largest village in the area. Before the Russian invasion in February, there lived about a thousand people, now five hundred. The houses are largely from the Soviet era, the roofs are mostly made of corrugated iron. Even before the invasion, life here was not easy for many people, says Oleg. The main source of income is agriculture and horticulture.
We park next to the community hall, where the village mayor Oleksander Levechko welcomes us. A group of people stand ready to unload the two fully loaded buses. A man in his forties walks up to me, hugs me and won’t let go. More people come to the meeting house, and the scene of hugs, folded hands and extended expressions of thanks is repeated over and over.
Oleksander Levechko makes it clear that he wants to show me something, and we walk together towards a large building in the middle of the street. From the front it looks ‘slightly damaged’ by Ukrainian standards – windows have been replaced with wooden boards, some rubble is visible in the space between the playground equipment and the roof is broken in some places. “School”, Oleksander makes clear. “Rockets,” he holds up three fingers. “Rashty!”
Oleksander walks around the building and then the enormous damage becomes visible. Two walls with a basketball backboard attached and a huge amount of rubble in between is all that remains of the gym. The rest of the school building was also heavily damaged. Three weeks after the Russians withdrew in October, the missiles hit.
The village mayors from the seven other villages have also arrived, as have three representatives of the region’s military administration. In a small room, which also serves as a waiting room for the doctor, there is instant coffee and biscuits. One of the representatives of the military administration, an elderly man, wants to know everything: where do the generators come from? And what are they for? And what is my name and what newspaper do I work for?
As Oleg translates, he takes careful notes. “This man grew up in the Soviet era and was probably already a civil servant then. And his job is to report to someone above him. And he does it in as much detail as possible.” After the ‘questioning’, a picture must be taken of us together – in front of the school.
In three speeches from the village mayors and representatives of the military authority, it becomes clear how serious the situation is. Agriculture has largely ground to a halt since the occupation in March, and many residents have lost their income as a result. Many elderly people in the eight villages have not received a pension for a long time, and families with children have left.
Those left behind are largely dependent on humanitarian aid, but trucks are unlikely to get here because they could become targets of Russian shelling. Everything must therefore be collected with passenger cars and this also causes problems because fuel costs money.
The longer they talk, the more poignant the picture becomes. Artillery fire killed three people on New Year’s Day. One of the villages was hit hard by shells. Agricultural machinery is either broken or taken by the Russian army. The region has been given a number of large generators to keep vital functions such as the water supply running. But the diesel supplied by the government is not enough.
A woman shows me a notebook with the names of the inhabitants of Novooleksandrivka. “Each household pays 100 hryvnia per month per person to operate this generator.” Behind the names are the amounts, at the back of the writing are the receipts for the diesel. There is just enough money to maintain the water supply for several hours a day.
“But the biggest problem we face now is the lack of firewood,” concludes the last speaker. Ludmila looks up in surprise and immediately starts the conversation. Usually, it is clear, the inhabitants of the villages collectively buy wood for heating and cooking.
Firewood delivered from central and western Ukraine. But because the province was occupied, no wood could be transported to Kherson. And now many people lack the financial means to pay for the tree.
Then there’s the rumble in the distance: the Russian artillery starts firing. None of the villagers react: no conversation is interrupted, the women sorting and distributing the relief supplies inside and outside continue undisturbed.
“Okay, we’re going”, says Fedir and Leonid is already on his way to the buses. Where the grenades landed is completely unclear at the time. Impacts or explosions cannot be heard. “But we’re not taking any chances,” Fedir says as he enters. We’ll be gone in five minutes. Ukrainian news sites report a day later that one person was killed and five wounded, the artillery strike targeting locations at least 40 kilometers away.
A few hours later, during a break in Kryvy Rih, Ludmila begins preparations for the next act – to send a truck full of wood to Novooleksandrivka.
Relief action LC and DvhN
Thanks to the readers of LC and DvhN the eight villages now have eleven generators from 2000 to 6000 watts for common use. The generators supplied 250 liters of petrol and oil. In addition, 100 power banks and 50 USB rechargeable lamps went to Novooleksandrivka, around 200 kilos of food, seven blankets, three bags of clothes and a large amount of incontinence diapers and various other goods. The bus to transport all goods was provided by the car company Haaijma Hylkema Leeuwarden.
Afterburner: 33 cubic meters of wood were bought for Novooleksandrivka with money from the donation campaign. If all goes well, the tree will be there next week.