Natalia Melnychenko, Łukasz Krencik and Tomasz Mysłek from the Open Dialogue Foundation went to Ukraine with humanitarian aid. In 9 days they travelled nearly 4,200 km. They were, among others, in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Vinnytsia and Kupiansk. They talked to the civilians and Ukrainian soldiers they brought the drones to. They could have talked to the Russian prisoners, but they wouldn’t. Are they able to talk about what they saw there? “Not everyone knows how it looks in reality,” they say.
Mateusz Przyborowski: Have you already cooled down after returning from Ukraine?
Natalia Melnychenko: I still have the urge to act.
Łukasz Krencik: I want to get back there as soon as possible.
Tomasz Mysłek: Exactly.
Natalia: Everyone we know – although there are not many people who go to the front to visit the boys – has a similar opinion. And at first I was surprised, because it’s dangerous there, why take any risks? But it is a bit addictive.
Natalia, you were at Maidan at the turn of 2013 and 2014.
My point is, you know what this could have led to. However, it was your first time at the front.
Łukasz: Natalia had already helped the Hornet group we wanted to reach, and in cooperation with the ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ magazine and Krakow councilor Łukasz Wantuch, we also delivered humanitarian aid to civilians in Kupiansk, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.
Tomasz: We also went to Kyiv and Kharkiv. The plan was to spend the first three days together, and then split to drive our own foundation car south to the Kherson region.
Natalia: The foundation has been helping since Maidan and has been sending bulletproof vests and helmets since the first days of the war in the east. There, we had a correspondent who received the humanitarian aid for soldiers, but also for civilians. And now it was our first foundation trip.
We joined forces and left in a humanitarian convoy. We also had our plan: to go south, where heavy fighting took place, i.e. to the vicinity of Kherson and Mykolaiv. There were drones from the foundation and drones from me, because I was collecting money in Warsaw theatres.
I contacted a guy I met one year ago on Maidan square – he is quite a well-known singer in Ukraine, who became a soldier. A mutual friend of ours asked if I knew anyone who could buy a drone with a night vision and thermal imaging head.
I said I’d raise the money and that’s how the fund raiser in theatres started. We sent equipment and it turned out that it was a bull’s-eye, because the boys were in a scouting party and they had to be able to see the area even at night. It turned out that there were still funds to buy them day drones. So we brought them in on this mission.
In 9 days, you travelled nearly 4,200 km.
Tomasz: When we slept in a hotel in Kharkiv, they were firing missiles all around.
Natalia: While driving around Ukraine, we also had to drive through many check-points. Fortunately, we met with kindness at every step. They knew we were from Poland.
Łukasz: We have repeatedly missed curfews and had to drive through these check-points during the night, i.e. when traffic on the roads, apart from military vehicles, was completely blocked.
So what happened then?
Tomasz: And at that time, we met with the kindness of the Ukrainians, because we could keep going.
Natalia: Of course, we were checked, sometimes less, sometimes more. It happened that the soldiers tried to talk to us in Polish. This is the first time I’ve seen anything like this.
Łukasz: When we were entering Kharkiv during the curfew, there were 11 check-points along a 10 km distance and we were checked every time. It can be said that returning from Kramatorsk took about the same time as driving 10 km through Kharkiv.
Natalia: Kharkiv is free from occupation, but it is also one of the most popular targets of the Russians, which is why the curfew is sacred. Alarms go off pretty much every now and then. And there are bombings, they also happened during our stay.
Tomasz: And a blackout…
Are you able to and want to talk openly about what you saw there?
Tomasz: Of course.
Natalia: We have to talk about it, because not everyone knows what it looks like in reality, and secondly, the world has to know about it. It’s different when we see the war in the media.
Łukasz: It can be said that we also saw only a small part of it, but we were safe – fortunately – always one day ahead.
Łukasz: We left Kharkiv and went to Mykolaiv. The next day there was a bombing at the centre of Kharkiv. The place we were the day before, literally.
Tomasz: The day before, we were standing where later a missile fell, leaving a giant hole in the road.
Natalia: This is just an example. What also matters is the fact that helping is different when you sit on the couch, as Łukasz often says, and what we do too, of course. But it’s a little different when you see it with your own eyes. We were lucky enough to know Ukrainian, so we had an opportunity to talk to both civilians and soldiers. We even had an option to talk to the Russian prisoners of war, but we didn’t.
What are the needs of civilians today?
Natalia: We brought a lot of food, but no one thought about the fact that these people are out of electricity and, for example, have no candles or matches.
I saw your Facebook post: “Ukrainians ask for matches, menstrual pads and sweets for grandchildren.”
Tomasz: They also need water tanks.
Natalia: And drinking water in general would be something wonderful for these people. They have to go to rivers and check that the water is not contaminated.
Tomasz: It’s about the most basic things we wouldn’t even think of.
Natalia: But that’s obvious, because if there’s no electricity, they need light. If there is no heating, they need warm clothes or some portable heaters.
These are the things a man can’t survive without. And we also need things that Ukrainians do not talk about, but we can obviously see it. I was ere hugely struck – and you can see it in one of the recordings I published – by the fact that these people would walk around in torn clothes and do not even ask for new ones. They just patch up the ones they have ten times, so for them, bringing ordinary clothes means a lot.
Of course, I’m not talking about clothes that someone has already worn out and would give them away, because it also harms their dignity. Let us imagine ourselves in a similar situation: would we like to wear old stretched sweaters? The Ukrainians want to feel a little dignity and normality in these humiliating circumstances. There is also a part in this video in which a woman with red hair receives help from us and thanks us with such incredible grace and pride. She’s still trying to be a lady, despite the circumstances she found herself in. This shows that these people need to maintain their dignity above everything else.
What has been the hardest for you?
Tomasz: Not getting enough sleep.
Natalia: For me, the most painful were the tears of the service ladies in the hotels where we stayed. They came to us and thanked us for what we were doing. They might not have even known what we had brought with us, but they cried, knowing that we were venturing into such distant regions and risking our lives.
I was also taken struck by the sight of torn apart animals, hit by a missile, for example, or killed after stepping on a mine in the road. And the dogs searching the ruins for any kind of food. Man, after all, is able to cope with the situation somehow, to communicate. Abandoned animals, innocent, killed… For members of a normal civilization, it is hard to imagine.
And the enormity of the destruction.
Natalia: I don’t know about Łukasz and Tomasz, but I was a little prepared for it. I follow the news from Ukraine, I have relatives in Ukraine and I know what it looks like. Of course, when we approached a destroyed building in Sloviansk, which is now a ghost town, we felt like small human beings.
Łukasz: The site of the attack in Vinnytsia, in which children were killed, was also striking. And the toys lying on the rubble where the car park of a shopping centre used to be.
Natalia: The whole world heard the story of little Liza, who was pulling a stroller on her way home with her mom from the doctor’s office. Half an hour later, the girl was gone, and her mother barely survived. It was in the same place. Now it’s just a giant missile crater.
Tomasz: I remember the 10-storey buildings in Kharkiv. With corners ripped off by missiles and no windows.
Natalia: And the inhabitants who live as if nothing had happened. The sirens are howling, but they don’t even hide anymore. When we slept in Kharkiv…
Tomasz: …One missile struck from the left, and another from the right. And were in the middle. It was the middle of the night, the windows began to shake. We asked people the next day: “What was that?” And they said: “Oh, something hit.”
Łukasz: We slept for three nights in Kharkiv and each night there was shelling, but on this one night the missiles hit very close to us. In Mykolaiv, a kamikaze drone fell quite close to us.
Natalia: We were very lucky. We returned on October 9, and the next day there was another massive attack on Ukrainian cities and civilian facilities. We’ve been everywhere rockets have fallen: Lviv, Ternopil, Vinnytsia, Mykolaiv. Kryvyi Rih, which had not been shelled for months, and to which we went to visit one of our charges, for whom we arranged a roof over her head in Warsaw. It’s a sign to us that we still have a lot to do.
You guys are amazing.
Łukasz: You have to explain it to yourself somehow.
And what about your loved ones?
Łukasz: I am a father of three, so my family was worried about me. The youngest son didn’t realise it, but now the 9- and 12-year old know what are the risks. I didn’t hide where we were going either. We had contact practically every day and I reported that everything was OK. I know it was definitely a lot of stress for my family.
Tomasz: My girlfriend was texting me all the time, asking if everything was okay and begging me to be careful. I sent her alerts about possible bombings we were receiving. She asked me to hide in a shelter.
Natalia: My sister and my parents didn’t argue with me because they knew they couldn’t stop me. Besides, they understood me because my dad is just like me – in the first weeks of the war he went to Ukraine to help as a volunteer. My grandma and aunt didn’t know anything at all.
My husband was a little concerned. Of course, he didn’t forbid me to go, he was… jealous. He is Ukrainian and after the outbreak of full-scale war he wanted to go to Ukraine, but I hid his passport and explained that he was able to do more in Poland. However, I know that he would be most happy to take the gun and go to fight.
We wanted to get to as many places as possible to show the enormity of the destruction and to make others realise that some people are already tired of the subject of war, but the most tired are those who are not there. The Ukrainians have no time to be tired, they are on standby all the time. We wanted to show this and that is why we went to the soldiers to see how they work, the high morale they have and the need to maintain this morale. So that they know they have the support.
Łukasz: I would like to come back to one more thing.
Łukasz: You asked what moved us. Kharkiv, despite being shelled by the Russians all the time, is still one big construction site. An attack comes and after two or three days the Ukrainians start to rebuild the site. A large-panel building hit by a missile? The missing part is being added with hollow blocks. Right away.
Tomasz: The road in Kyiv was repaired in one night.
Natalia: And in the hospital in Kharkiv there was black film instead of glass. This had a dual purpose: not only to protect against the escape of heat from the building, but this film was also intended to shade the object so that the enemy could not see that it was a building. And even on the upper floors, where the panes of glass were still in place, the windows were boarded up from the outside.
Another example was when we arrived at a hotel in Mykolaiv. We stood in front of the entrance and we were in shock. We thought it was an abandoned building, that there was no trace left of the hotel. The windows and doors were boarded up. We called the hotel, the door was opened for us, and everything was lit up inside. Normal life, like in any other hotel.
One of the photos Łukasz posted on Facebook shows a man with his eyes covered and his hands tied behind his back. Is that a Russian soldier?
Tomasz: Yes. This was a photo from Kharkiv.
Natalia: On our way out of the hospital, we bumped into prisoners of war who walked ahead unsteadily. We approached the minivan. We were not quite sure whether they were prisoners of war or collaborators.
Tomasz: Ukrainian soldiers opened the door and there were a dozen occupants inside.
Natalia: They told us that we could even talk to them, ask them something.
Did you not want to?
Natalia: I didn’t. Because I knew very well what they were going to say.
Łukasz: But after a while we talked among ourselves and concluded that we could have talked to them. It was the day after we returned from Kupiansk and these were Russians who had been detained there.
Natalia: This is another dangerous factor for Ukrainians, as the soldiers themselves say. Even when villages are recaptured and it seems that everyone has already escaped, there are unfortunately individuals who can continue to do harm.
Łukasz: In the Kharkiv region alone, they caught three hundred of them in just two weeks.
Have the Ukrainians told you what such a round-up looks like?
Natalia: Yes. And they don’t have to make any effort at all. When fleeing the occupied areas, Russians, in panic, forget their colleagues, for example. Or they escape from the tank, run away and get lost in the forests. Then in the forest, sitting under a tree, they open a bottle, get drunk and wake up in Ukrainian captivity.
Ukrainians say that you can recognise an orc, i.e. Russian soldier, by the stench of alcohol or by garbage. We also saw Russian belongings: parts of uniforms, first aid kits, medicines, canned goods.
Tomasz: Canned food with a composition better than many baby porridges. No “e” on the label.
Łukasz: Just meat with spices and carrots. Fresh.
Natalia: But the new mixes with the old. Next to new belts and dog tags we saw dirty and old first aid kits from the Soviet era. Belts with the hammer and sickle. However, not only did we see the orcish items, but we got some of them from the Ukrainians and we are organising an auction where they will be sold and the money will be used to help the
Ukrainian Armed Forces.
What’s also important: when the Ukrainians grab the Russians and the Russians are injured, the first thing they do is take them to hospital. They must be healthy and only then are they ready to be exchanged for Ukrainian prisoners of war.
What does life like in the trenches look like?
Łukasz: Ukrainian soldiers do not live in trenches! They live in bases and work in trenches. We visited the reconnaissance team and saw a mobile command centre, very high-tech. We saw a live drone feed on the big screen. And it seems to me that our arrival was probably a break from reality for the Ukrainians.
Natalia: They also showed us how, with the help of drones, they managed to track orcish equipment or positions. And it was only then that we realised how important the eyes of the Ukrainian army were. However, drones do not come cheap or last forever. And they are still in short supply. We have been on site, so we already know that they don’t need five, but fifteen drones.
An activist and friend of ours said a wise thing recently: diapers and porridge are necessary, but you don’t win a war with that. And that’s why I have organised a fundraiser. We have an ambitious plan to get these drones to the guys in November. What’s more, they not only have a reconnaissance function, but are also useful in combat.
Łukasz: There are, of course, more needs. Winter is coming, so warm uniforms are necessary. There is also a shortage of fuel: there is no problem with diesel, but there is a request for 2,000 litres of petrol because there is none around the region.
Natalia: Money is also being raised to feed the abandoned dogs and cats that live at the base. These people give their own food to the animals. Ukrainian soldiers live like family and address each other as “brother”, even the commander.
They have their own code.
Natalia: Yes! Since the start of the war, they have not touched beer, let alone any other alcohol.
Łukasz: And we learned that the humanitarian supplies for the orcs included vodka. See what is the approach of the Russians and the Ukrainians.
Natalia: Ukrainian soldiers probably gave us more boost than we gave them. They felt they had strong support, emphasising the help of the Poles. We’ve probably heard it a million times, but for them it’s hugely encouraging. They do not even doubt for a moment that they will win.