Over the past two weeks, Ukrainian society has been transformed.
People mobilized, moving from a normal, modern life to making impossible decisions: do I leave my life behind and seek safety as a refugee? Or do I stay and apply whatever skills, supplies, or know-how I have to support the war effort, risking death in the process?
An example is Vitalii Khalimonchuk, the founder of a Kyiv-based adventure tourism company, who I spoke with recently. He initially sought to join the forces defending the capital, but was turned away.
But as the operator of a company that organized trips across Europe and even to Mount Kilimanjaro, he found a way to put his skills to good use around the corner. In an old bomb shelter in a school basement near his house, he found groups of women and children sheltering.
Khalimonchuk realized that the sleeping bags and mats he used for the camping trips he organized could be useful for displaced people. The equipment and rations he hid could go to the army or the Territorial Defense Forces – civilian battalions created in Ukraine to defend the country.
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They left – sleeping bags for civil defense battalions and bomb shelters, rations for all who needed them.
This episode sent Khalimonchuk on his way to helping the war effort behind the front lines, part of an informal group of civilians working to maintain supplies as the country attempts to delay Russia’s advance.
“It’s incredibly uncomfortable for me to sit at home during all this, watching TV,” he said.
He is just one of many Ukrainians who uprooted their lives and redirected everything they had to support the war effort.
In Khalimonchuk’s case, the war began with him in the Ukrainian capital prepared and ready – not for war, but for lead a hike in the Carpathian Mountains in western Ukraine.
Then the bombs started falling. His girlfriend left Kiev, going to Europe. Khalimonchuk went to his local military recruiting office and found a line of 150 people.
“We only take people with military experience,” he was told. They wrote down his name, and Khalimonchuk returned home, feeling that he had to do something. That’s when he realized his tour operator’s supplies could come in handy.
During the week, as Khalimonchuk’s stock ran out, he started asking people in shelters and at military checkpoints: What do people need?
“It wasn’t coordinated from above, it came from below,” he said.
Today, Khalimonchuk is one of many volunteers involved in transporting goods within Ukraine to people in need, and goods from outside Ukraine to soldiers in the country. Goggles, dog food, warm clothes – it’s a nationwide messaging system that has formed as the Russian military attempts to shut down supply routes.
Although not on the front line, volunteers like Vitalii take a huge risk. Last week, three volunteers working under the same effort were shot and killed outside Kyiv while trying to deliver pet food to a dog shelter.
“There was a notice in our group to take the food,” he said. As the volunteers were on their way, they were attacked.
“They just shot them,” he said. One of those killed was a friend of his sister.
Khalimonchuk has family in Crimea and Russia; they refuse to believe the images of destroyed buildings, of dead children that he and other relatives send them.
In the months before Putin’s declaration of war, Khalimonchuk himself had not really believed that the Russians would attack. Like everyone else on February 24, he had heard of an impending Russian invasion and knew that it had intensified over the previous two weeks.
“I think I subconsciously denied that the war would happen,” he said. “Even for Putin, Kiev is the mother of Russian cities – it was impossible to imagine that he would try to destroy it, as he is doing now.”
It was a common feeling. Russia had been threatening Ukraine for eight years prior to the February 24 invasion – why should this buildup be any different? Moreover, a full-scale war would destroy the historical monuments which, according to the Russian vision, unite the two countries. It would be fratricidal, incomprehensible.
Even now, two weeks into the war, Khalimonchuk can’t quite bring himself to understand what’s going on. It’s like a video game, or a dream, he says, something still vaguely unreal, an organ that the body doesn’t accept.
“In 2019 I went to Burning Man,” he said. “I really thought that was impossible in the modern world.”
His grandmother, who lives in Ukraine near the border with Belarus, remembers World War II and, he says, still can’t believe she’s going through it all again, this time at the hands of of the Russians.
“I would like this to end as soon as possible, but not at the cost of giving in to Russia,” he said. “We can’t give in after everything they put us through.”