I know of five cases where our vests saved someone’s life. We receive such information and words of gratitude. This gives us strength. But we also feel the responsibility.
— Assembling a bulletproof vest is not difficult. I put two steel plates into the fabric cover — a straight one for the back, and a rounded one for the front. Add to that the anti-trauma foam and fragment-proof rubber and you’re ready to go. We produce 100–150 pieces per shift — says Zofia Guła, 28, who until recently was a volunteer and who has been cooperating with the Open Dialogue Foundation for several days.
A tin warehouse in Warsaw’s Ursus district. Until February, it housed a renovation workshop. Now part of the plant has been lent for the craft production of vests for Ukraine. Piles of covers and metal sheets are lying between the works of art. It is not easy to find a reasonably priced warehouse in Warsaw (preferably free, so that the money from collections goes towards production and not towards rent), with a large area and in a good location.
Zofia Guła: — Location is important, with most volunteers arriving by public transport after work. The easier the access, the more people will come and the more vests will be produced. In the beginning there were more volunteers, now we have a shortage. The first few weeks were such a romantic rise. People would take holidays to work with us. But now the holidays are over.
We have morning, afternoon and night shifts. The results depend on the supply of materials. There are times when we have to wait for something, so downtimes occur. And then we get a phone call and all hands on board! Although I’m petite, I do everything the guys do, only I don’t wear the vests. A finished product weighs 11 kilograms. I quit my job for these vests. I spent a year and a half sitting at a corporate reception desk. But it was not for me. Here I feel like I am among my own people. In the Foundation I don’t earn as much as in the corporation, but I feel the sense of what I do.
WE WILL PROVE DWORCZYK WRONG
— More than two thousand of our vests are already in Ukraine — said Łukasz Krencik, who is responsible for the warehouse and logistics. — On Thursday, February 24, Russia launched an attack. On Friday we were already organising ourselves. At first we bought equipment wherever we could. For example, from British Army surplus. Brand new vests, only the design has changed in the meantime, so they were lying around and getting dusty. We bought them from Polish military stores, from re-enactment groups and even from a film set — someone had a hundred vests, because it was easier to buy real ones than to sew props for battle scenes. At the beginning of March there was almost nothing left in the market. If someone was listing a single bulletproof vest for sale, it was for a multiple of the usual price. For example, 8 000 PLN instead of 2 000. It became clear that we had to start our own production. Michał Dworczyk, head of the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, announced back in February that “such an assortment is practically non-existent today”. We set ourselves the goal of proving that we would find it. We’ve had so much work for the last month that I didn’t have time to sit down. I also left my previous job to work here. I was a taxi driver. A Pole can do it. Even a leftist.
Bartosz Kramek, Chair of the Open Dialogue Foundation Board: — In 2013–2015 we also sent bulletproof vests and helmets from Poland. First I was in Kiev, then the fighting started in Donbas — I saw what the needs were. At the Maidan, people wore ski and construction helmets, although they did not protect them against anything. It was even worse in the east of Ukraine. Volunteers did not have the most basic equipment; often everyone equipped themselves. Things are better now in the regular armed forces, but again there is a shortage of protective equipment. There are men who joined the territorial defence wearing sneakers. Governments have complex bureaucratic processes, they have to stick to formal procedures and operate on a larger scale. We buy everything we can and wherever we can, 10, 50, 100 pieces at a time. We can’t make helmets ourselves, but the vests are simpler.
Every Ukrainian can fill out the form on the foundation’s website and usually get the equipment from us within a few days. Those who can, cover the costs. Those who can’t afford it get it for free. The vests are also sponsored by private companies, organisations and even Protestant churches and congregations from all over the world. Sometimes an entire Ukrainian family chips in to provide equipment for ‘their boy’ who has joined the fight. In the Ukrainian reality the commanders of individual units are also expected to be particularly operative — to look for money and contacts abroad, to organise equipment for their men. Then they send us pictures, evidence of how the equipment was used. In the first place, we provided aid to our friends and friends of our friends, as we rely on recommendations and our own contacts in Ukraine. In this way, we can verify to whom the equipment goes. But, after all, an NGO is not counter-intelligence, so we cannot be 100% sure that something will not be further traded. There is no time or resources for this, we rely on a certain amount of trust.
However, there are times when emotions take over. There have been fights between Ukrainians in Polish warehouses. Two recipients arrived at the same time and each thought that a particular batch of vests was for him. We also have to segregate the stuff that the foundation receives. For example, you can find a good, working, but blood-stained vest — from a soldier wounded during a mission. Should we send it or throw it away? We also had a batch of new vests, with certificates, but mildly rusty. That rust on the outside makes no difference in terms of safety levels. You have to remember that this is a war, and we are not a professional arms company, but only a bunch of crazy amateurs. We’re refining the process, we’re doing tests at shooting ranges, but we’re operating under enormous time pressure — everything is due ASAP.
The mobilisation in this matter has exceeded my wildest expectations anyway. In ten days, we collected almost PLN 2.5 million via the Zrzutka.pl crowd-funding platform. Together with contributions made directly to the foundation’s account, we raised over PLN 10 million in a month. In the beginning we had 10 people, today we have 30 plus over 100 volunteers. We act in two ways.
We organise aid for refugees: accommodation, food, transport, and recently a large relocation programme outside Poland. At the same time, we are sending vests, helmets, radio-telephones, ambulances, medicines, bandages, military first-aid kits and blood stoppers to Ukraine. We are even sending drones.
Everyone is acting in a hurry, because there is no other way. There were donors from the US who would send USD 200,000 each — although they did not know us at all — trusting that their funds would be put to good use. Suppliers operate on a prepaid basis. The first batch of vests for PLN 0.5 million had to be paid for immediately upon receiving information that they were available, to the account of a company we didn’t know at all. Not only did its owner not deceive us, but also became our main partner. The amount of trust and willingness to cooperate that is triggered in such situations is incredible. At the same time, the law has been changing. Now, a purchase concession is no longer needed, but each shipment has to be reported to the Ukrainian Embassy and the Ministry of Technology. It can take up to several days to obtain approval for export. That’s why, in practice, we use different, let’s say ‘alternative’ solutions.
Andrzej Dołecki, leader of the Free Hemp movement and volunteer of the Open Dialogue Foundation, sent me a pin on a map with the marking of a shooting range in the former FSO factory in Żerań. This is where the ‘home-made’ vests are tested. It was a little nervous at first, a lot of spectators came. There were Ukrainians waiting for another batch, two former US Marines who arrived the day before from Lviv and were about to return there with a new supply, a few Polish volunteers who needed to quickly get to know the matter, since they started producing vests.
We put on soundproofing headphones and go in. We place bulletproof vests instead of shooting targets. We act fast, because the shooting range is booked to the minute. Everyone is filming to provide evidence of the tests. After all, there are no official papers. One Ukrainian is late, he comes when we have already left the shooting range. He angrily says: “I understand the test took place, but I didn’t see it. I have to see it”. The film is not enough for him. He will come back again, with the next group, in three hours.
The tests are supervised by Kamil (let’s call him that, he is a former soldier of the Polish army, currently an armaments company employee, preferring to remain anonymous).
Kamil: — Certification at the Military Institute of Technology and Armament takes two to three months. And the Ukrainians need the equipment ASAP. So we are working in two ways: on the one hand, we have entered the certification process, and on the other, we are continuously sending out vests that pass our tests. We are not able to replicate the laboratory conditions of a military institute. However, we do the most important thing: we fire at the vests with the same weapons that are currently used in Ukraine. These are mainly AK (Kalashnikovs), AR, and SWD Mosin rifles. A total of around 40 shots are fired at the vest, at distances of 10, 25 and 50 metres. We are sure that the equipment we send to Ukraine meets the high American standards — these are class 3+ and 4 vests (where 4 is the highest level of protection). For the vast majority of the fighters, 3 would be enough, as 4 means protection against anti-tank ammunition fired from sniper rifles, which is rarely used in this war. But you know that psychology matters too, everyone wants level 4.
Kramek: — I know of five cases where our vests saved someone’s life. We receive such information and words of gratitude. This gives us strength. But we also feel the responsibility. The equipment that we produce must be adequately safe. Where do we get the sheets from? They are made in Poland from certified steel. There are heavy industry companies that have quickly started production. They used to make agricultural machines, and now they additionally make, for example, 1000 pieces of steel sheets. Some companies do it with no margin, and part of them — for profit. In addition to our own production, we also buy e.g. certified aramid vests (which are lighter and more modern than the steel ones) from Israel. It is an Israeli company and technology, but they are manufactured in China. This is a bit funny, as the Chinese authorities tend to support Putin.
Our manufactory is moving for the fourth time. There was Saska Kępa, Bank Square, then Ursus, now Wola. It will be easier for volunteers to get to Kolejowa Street. Perhaps new ones will join us? Everyone is welcome, and young people will receive a certificate of completed volunteering for the school.