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Trudy Rubin: Ukraine's civilian volunteers work to give aid and rebuild, even as Russia continues to bomb them

Trudy Rubin, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Op Eds

KHARKIV, Ukraine — Here is a critical reason why Vladimir Putin has failed to crush Ukraine: Its civilians are fighting back with an army of volunteers.

All across the country, groups of ordinary Ukrainians are helping to feed or house refugees displaced from the Donbas, raising funds to buy flak jackets or drones for military units without them, helping homeowners devastated by Russian shelling to rebuild, and rescuing survivors from villages the Russians still occupy.

Like Americans, some volunteer through church groups or clubs. But I have met many who have created volunteer networks or are working on their own to make a difference. Their civic resistance to the Russian invaders is a morale boost to the public — and to the army.

While ordinary Americans debate how to counter threats to our democracy, these Ukrainians are fighting to save their democracy from a Russian takeover. Many have the skills to find jobs elsewhere in Europe but have chosen to stay on, despite constant risk to their lives.

In Kharkiv, 20 miles from the Russian border, volunteers face nightly shelling. They wrestle with the uncertainty of whether the United States and its allies will give their army the long-range weapons needed to push Russian forces back beyond artillery range. They believe their fight for democracy is also the West's fight.

So let me introduce you to a few of Kharkiv's courageous volunteers.

The Rotarians

In a basement cafe of Kharkiv's French Boulevard Mall, real estate agent Igor Balaka recently rang the bell to call the "New Level" Rotary Club chapter to order. They, along with myself and my translator, were the only customers.

Most of the 300 stores in the mall have been closed since a Russian rocket damaged the roof of the complex earlier this year. But the mall's owner, Robert Mkrtchian, a Rotarian, allows the group to use a former skating rink in the basement to organize 1,500 food packages a day for those left homeless or hungry by the war.

Packages of macaroni, other packaged foodstuffs, and bandages, saline solution, and syringes for hospitals line the concrete floor of the rink, along with clothing and household supplies. The Rotarians have been working with many other volunteer groups to disperse the goods across some of the neighborhoods that have been hardest hit. They also work to clear the rubble.

Balaka; Serhii Ivalho, a developer; and Pavlo Filippenko, the head of a construction business, discuss how to find funds to build modular housing to help Kharkiv when winter comes. Members of the group are concerned that access to water and electricity will become a problem and more citizens will lose their homes from shelling.

"In wars you've seen, how did the economy survive?" one member asked me. "Is this like the other wars you've seen? We've never seen a war before."

I realize that these businessmen, like most Americans, never imagined an all-out invasion could come to their country in the 21st century. They are struggling to figure out how to rebuild their city even as the Russians try to destroy it. They know their survival depends on whether the United States gives them the long-range weapons to push back Russian artillery beyond the range of their city.

 

"War is a situation where you see what people are capable of," says Mkrtchian. "People take off their masks."

Balaka adds, "Everyone left here in Kharkiv is like a family."

Then the group nervously asks me the question I heard everywhere in Ukraine: "What will happen in America if the Republicans get the majority in Congress, or Trump becomes president again? Will your country stop supporting Ukraine?"

The Restaurateur

Last Wednesday night, shrapnel pierced the walls, windows, and ceiling of Oleksiy Lomskiy's NEBO Restaurant in the DAFI Mall for the second time. (Putin's military seems to love targeting malls, as I have seen in every city I've visited.)

The first attack on the mall also set the multiplex cinema next to the restaurant on fire. Lomskiy risked his life fighting the blaze with a handheld extinguisher until the firefighters arrived. Being inside a cinema mostly reduced to ashes by a Russian rocket gives you an idea of the absurdity of this war.

But Lomskiy kept his staff going, adding more kitchens, in order to cook meals and bake bread for 8,000 people daily. In Lomskiy's Kharkiv neighborhood of high-rises scarred and blackened by rocket attacks, I see weary adults lining up outside the battered NEBO for a midday meal.

Lomskiy also has a fleet of yellow delivery vans that deliver food to danger zones; while I was visiting, one of them radioed that it had come under heavy shelling, but it managed to escape.

Like the Rotarians, the restaurant owner worries that the West's attention will fade if the war continues. "Now, most Ukrainians who relocated to the West are running out of money," he told me. He wants to keep feeding as many as he can. He was also concerned about how to shelter Kharkiv citizens who lived in destroyed buildings; he thinks they will need places to sleep for at least the next 18 months.

NEBO means "sky" in Ukrainian, and the restaurateur has set up a charity foundation called "Peaceful Sky of Ukraine" to fund future operations. Until now, he has paid part of the expenses himself, and received some help from World Central Kitchen, as well as funding from European aid groups.

But he warns that "Putin will destroy what he cannot have," and "Kharkiv can be easily destroyed if we can't stop Russian rockets from flying."

Ukraine's civic army, like its military forces, knows that all its efforts will be insufficient if the West stops paying attention. Yet, unlike many of America's past misbegotten overseas efforts, U.S. assistance to Ukraine goes to a country whose people are doing their utmost to help themselves win.

©2022 The Philadelphia Inquirer, LLC. Visit at inquirer.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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