Volunteers tell Asharq Al-Awsat the difficulty of relieving civilians
Six in the morning in Kharkiv, Russian planes bombard multiple areas on the outskirts of the city, then artillery opens fire on the northern and eastern areas of Ukraine’s second largest city. Saltivka in the north, and the industrial area in the east get the largest share of the bombing, while a number of shells are distributed over separate areas. Russian forces are still trying to encircle the city, and extend east to isolate Kharkiv from the city of Azium (southeast of Kharkiv).
A woman in her forties refuses to speak at a metro station near the industrial area, and like her, everyone at the station refuses to talk to journalists. Were it not for the Ukrainian police escort, the atmosphere would have been more tense, as no one wanted to reveal his whereabouts. Fear seeps into everyone’s hearts here, and with the information that there may be 300 civilians dead in the shelter of the Mariupol Theater, people are becoming more wary and fearful. The tension of the night and the constant bombardment during the day make everyone on alert, even the junior policemen prefer to check with their officials before cooperating with the press.
The metro station has been converted into a residential neighborhood. Outside, men and women sit on the road smoking and taking a shot of the spring sun, talking in low voices and watching the few passing by. Inside the metro, many children and the elderly are sitting, their things and sleeping mats piled here and there. The first to arrive at the station booked a car for him and his family, while the rest settled on the sidewalks, extending mattresses on them and turning them into sleeping quarters, dining rooms, and seating areas.
A commercial warehouse turned into a house in the industrial zone of Kharkiv (Middle East)
One of the residents of the metro says: “We consider our place of residence now classified information, we do not want to say anything, the Russians will bomb us.” The man refuses to speak his name, give his age, or even why he came on the subway.
Vatislav, 32, a volunteer at the Kharkiv Relief Bureau, explains that most of those here are residents of the upper floors of apartment complexes, and some of them live in houses in the industrial zone, which includes dozens of apartment complexes. He added that these people left their homes and came to the nearby metro stations for fear of being bombed, and that the electricity was cut off from most of the buildings in the area, and access to the upper floors of the buildings is no longer an easy matter. On the outskirts of Kharkiv’s commercial center, many families have taken refuge in the metro stations as well, which are considered safer than anywhere else, thanks to the depth of the stations and their equipment from the Soviet-era authorities as nuclear shelters. Some who have lost their homes do not want to leave the city, simply because it is their city. Others don’t have enough money to leave, and some are still hesitant. Vatislav specializes in delivering aid to people in dangerous areas. Before the war, he worked as a legal advisor for a cell phone company, and today he travels daily on the city’s roads towards Saltivka, accompanied by his dog “Graf”. Vaticlav says he doesn’t know how long he can go. “When I have money, I buy cigarettes. And when I don’t have it, I stop smoking. My dog and I get enough food. As for the fuel for my car, I get it from donations for relief work.” But what Vaticlav really wants is to join the army, “but they do not accept new volunteers.”
While waiting for him to volunteer in the army, Vatislav loads his car with bags of medicine, food and other items donated by Western countries. Each bag bears the beneficiary’s name, address and phone number. The young Ukrainian Faisal and his dog go home and call the beneficiary to receive his things.
The Kharkiv Relief Bureau includes about thirty volunteers. Some of them work in receiving calls, others in preparing requests, and the most adventurous part is in charge of delivering the requests to their owners.
Metro cars shelter the displaced from their homes (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Aid from this office alone reaches 500 people every day. It is part of a network of humanitarian organizations that includes more than twenty associations, working in coordination among them to distribute the largest amount of aid. All of these local organizations have recently been established to fill the shortage in relief operations, after the need has expanded and has exceeded the capacity of government institutions to absorb. Despite the volunteers’ efforts, the residents’ needs are increasing every day, according to Mikhael, a 32-year-old volunteer in the same office, who works to receive requests from the needy and transfer them to implementation. Mikhael points out that the provision of aid is not limited to civilians, but that the office provides its services to soldiers and military volunteers by providing them with non-lethal combat tools, such as shoes, military clothing and other equipment.
Oleks, 34, arrived in Ukraine a month ago from a professional mission in Europe. “I got into my friend’s car on the morning of February 24, and we heard news that Russia was invading Ukraine. But it sounded like a joke. We reached Kharkiv, and we heard the sounds of shelling and clashes inside the city. Only then did we believe the country was being invaded,” he says, showing photos from his phone he took on the first day of his return from abroad.
Oleks is the director of the relief office in Kharkiv, near the city centre. The office owns several warehouses, one for medicines and another for food and supplies. OLX is seeking to expand the volunteer team. With the war continuing, and a third of the population refusing to leave the city, the needs are increasing, especially as people are running out of money, and their conditions are deteriorating, and they need help after they no longer have the ability to buy from shops and get medicines from pharmacies.
Olex adds that a number of materials are available for free, and arrive from many European countries, including Italy, Spain, Latvia and others. But the distribution process has become slow and needs to be expanded. At the same time, he says, increasing the volunteer team means risking lives. “The Russian bombing affects many areas, and sending delegates or assembling volunteers in warehouses will expose people to danger. But we don’t have easy solutions. Difficult solutions are what Ukrainians live in this city. Alexander, 55, lives with his family in a commercial warehouse under a building. The warehouse is still stocked with plumbing fixtures, but parts of it have been isolated and converted into a toilet and sleeping rooms. About twenty families flock in the evening when the curfew begins, to spend the night in this poorly equipped, damp and dusty warehouse.
“We came here after the first shell fell on the building where we live,” Alexander says. Many residents followed us, and we all ate dinner, stayed up late, and slept in the same place, until the morning curfew passed.” Alexander is also careful that the place of the warehouse where he resides, not even the street address, is known.
All these difficult conditions do not prevent the people of Kharkiv from expressing confidence that this situation is temporary, and that the country will return free. When you ask the remaining residents about the reason for this confidence, some of them answer, “This is our history,” while others say, “We trust ourselves,” in a whiff of pride that the foreign observer may not find justified.