Kalashnikovs and a grenade launcher hang casually beside a handbag. Boxes of armor plates and sniper rifle scopes are stacked high against each wall. This is the scene that greets me as I unlace my boots in the hallway of my host Andriy’s apartment in Kharkiv.
A warm welcome from his beautiful and staunch Ukrainian wife Oksana, and I take my seat at the dining table. “It was a mess in here until I got back,” she tells me, having been temporarily evacuated to Dnipro before the longing to be reunited with her home and husband became too much.
“Things like this were everywhere.” She points over to the now neatly folded piles of combat clothing beside the kitchen door. “It needed a woman’s touch,” she adds with a smile.
Andriy, along with his close friend Ivan, are just two of many civilian patriots helping supply arms for the Ukrainian war effort.
He passes me a wicker basket, but rather than slices of bread to go with the succulent meat (the goat was shot by Andriy, cooked by Oksana and now takes pride of place in the center of the table), the basket contained a collection of grenades.
“Smell this,” he says, handing me what seems to be a large bar of petroleum-scented soap. “C4 – enough to blow up an entire building like this one. You like?”
As elegantly as Oksana has decorated the dining table, I’m immediately grateful that she hasn’t lit any candles.
Tucking into the delicious meal, we perform a series of toasts with homemade liquor in-between the telling of troubled stories from the past and their hopes and concerns about the future.
“I love my city,” says Oksana. “But when the bombing from Russia got so bad, Andriy said it was time for me to go to safety.”
Back in March, the couple watched in horror through the kitchen window as Russian army vehicles rolled along the small overgrown path behind their apartment building. Andriy prepared for a possible attack on their home and kept a gun close to hand.
Luckily, he didn’t need to use it. Instead, the Russians were eventually pushed back from Kharkiv, and Helena returned home.
Yet she came back to a city still very much under attack by the Russian invaders. Her Dacha – the ‘home from home’ that she and her husband had planned to eventually retire to – is now partially destroyed.
“It’s too late for us to start all over again” she says, “so we do what we can and help however we can.”
This help, mainly organized by Andriy and Ivan, comes in the form of providing food and supplies to the local community, but also in arming Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers.
Tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of specialist equipment, armor, weapons and ammunition pass through this apartment and various other storage units and warehouses.
They aren’t the only ones carrying out such endeavors; all over Ukraine, men and women are contributing in their own ways. Their unbreakable unification is just one of many by-products of the ongoing war that Vladimir Putin failed to anticipate.
The following day, I’m invited by Andriy and Oksana to a secret site where they test guns salvaged from dead or captured Russian soldiers. The guns are cleaned, checked, fired, and if necessary fixed or recalibrated before being donated to defenders.
To understand the entire process, I’m shown how to load cartridges before firing-off some rounds from an M16, Kalashnikov, and a small handgun.
Many of the weapons used by the Russians are antiquated hand-me-downs from the Soviet era, as I first learned after finding a smoke-stained inventory beside a destroyed Russian tank. Handwritten on the abandoned paper, the date that the last repair work carried out on a particular piece of equipment: August 1989.
As I’m just about to fire off another few rounds, Andriy pauses in silence and extends a finger to the sky. There’s shelling nearby. In fact, shelling has been continuous throughout my time in the outskirts of Kharkiv – the only place I’ve visited so far where the sirens no longer play because they’d have to be bellowing 24/7.
In fact, I spent my first night in northern Saltivka watching Russia firing thermite bombs into Ukraine, followed by a strong barrage of return artillery fire from the Ukrainian forces. The following morning, after a night of heavy shelling, I inspected a destroyed secondary school. The school was far from any military targets, making it impossible to suggest that Putin’s goons had made a ‘mistake’ in striking an area filled only with civilians.
Back at the testing range, ignoring the shelling in the background, Andriy and Ivan raise their guns and continue firing at targets, focused and with a sense of purpose and determination.
That sense of purpose is embodied not only in soldiers, but in millions of everyday Ukrainians across the length and breadth of the nation. Their fierce desire to protect the families, culture, and country they so evidently love, makes me realize not only why they’re doing what they’re doing, but why Putin has little chance of ever winning this war.
Note that the names of individuals described in this story have been changed for security reasons and to protect their identities.
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