They live with no electricity, no water, no gas, no bridges. But they still have a strong fighting spirit. And I believe Ukraine will win this war. Polish humanitarian convoy reached the front line in the area of Kherson.
5 BUSES, 12 people, mainly from Kraków. They started on September 30. Some of them returned after a few days and after delivering humanitarian aid to the liberated areas east of Kharkiv: Within 10 days, some of them made it as fas as to the front line near Kherson.
The convoy was organised by a group of people, mainly from Kraków – they say about approximately 50 people. Editors of the ‘Gazeta Wyborcza’ magazine and people from the Open Dialogue Foundation were also there with their own transports.
The team from Kraków has already organised about 100 convoys, sending approximately 500 tons of aid. As of 17 September, the Open Dialogue Foundation had made 62 transports.
Everyone carries not only humanitarian aid, but also equipment for the army: bulletproof vests, helmets, portable radio stations, thermal imaging scopes, night vision goggles, drones… The Open Dialogue alone delivered 74,000 pieces of such defense equipment to Ukraine. This time they were also transporting supplies for the troops in Vinnytsia, Donbas and Mykolaiv.
There are hardly any bridges there anymore
Wojciech Czuchnowski from the ‘Wyborcza’ magazine: “The part of the country that has been most affected by the war begins east of Kharkiv. Scenes you’ve seen in Chechnya or the Balkans take place there.”
Wide fields that look as in the peak stage of chicken pox – full of scabs. These are craters left by mortar shells, howitzers, cannons and artillery…
Kraków councilor Łukasz Wantuch: “There are hardly any bridges there anymore”.
So to get there, they drove along dirt roads and it took up to an hour to travel 12 km. Wantuch recounts that another convoy drove through the fields that day. The car drove half a metre off the road and hit a mine.
Cities are shrouded in darkness. They were uploading footage from one of the main streets of Kharkiv – the blackness of the night was distracted only by the lights of a single car during the curfew. Sloviansk, with its mass of artillery-crushed buildings, was almost deserted.
Marcin Mycielski from the Open Dialogue Foundation: “You could still smell the stench of burning. And death.”
During the night, sirens rang out in Kharkiv. Literally seconds after that, a rocket hit somewhere near the hotel. Very close.
Łukasz Krencik, an activist of the Open Dialogue Foundation and Protest Tea, wrote on the group from his room to the rest of them: “I think it’s from our side.”
Mycielski: “No, it was from ours.”
As it turned out, missiles fell from both sides.
“What do we do? To the basement?” – asked Natalia Melnychenko, a Ukrainian with Polish citizenship, also from the Open Dialogue. She didn’t fall asleep that night anymore. When Mycielski went to the Central Market the next day, the sirens also went off. No one reacted.
In Kupiansk, Izium, Sloviansk and other towns near the front line, artillery was heard all the time.
Krencik: “We were scared at first, but we soon stopped paying attention.”
Packs of dogs and cats. Lots of cats
Villages ruined, often completely extinct.
Mycielski: “On the road from Izium to Sloviansk, we passed villages on both sides for a good half an hour. There was nothing left. Ruin after ruin. Hundreds of houses. All devastated. And the inscription in front of the houses: Attention: mines!.”
The houses that are still standing have chalky inscriptions on them: “Older people/retirees live here.” “So that they don’t try to enlist them,” Czuchnowski explains.
Packs of wandering dogs, emaciated. Although not as much as those in the cities. They have collars, so the owners have escaped or…
And the cats. Lots of cats.
To the west of Sloviansk, on the side of the road, they passed a wreck of a white tour bus. It has been shot at. And the bus was civilian – it must have been transporting refugees. There are still suitcases lying around.
They enter the newly liberated cities: Izium and Kupiansk. They were not allowed to enter Lyman, where prosecutors were collecting evidence of Russian war crimes. Sometimes there are only a few large-panel building shelled, sometimes there are many. Too many.
“Izium itself is a monument of destruction and crime. Even more than Bucha.”
– assesses Piotr Pietrzykowski, a volunteer with 25 trips with humanitarian aid to Ukraine, on his account.
There are no glasses in the windows, there are bullet holes, smaller calibre marks, shrapnels.
Czuchnowski: “You stop the bus, you honk, and suddenly dozens of people come out of those dark and cold houses and basements. They line up for bags with supplies. It’s as if they emerged from earlier stages of civilization.”
When word got out that there was humanitarian aid in the city, there were already swarms of children running behind the cars.
Melnychenko: “In Kupiansk there were only women, old people and children. I’ve talked a lot with the latter. They responded in single words. And they did not smile at all.”
The residents stood disciplined in the queues for food parcels, they kept distance from each other. Without ripping things out of each other’s hands, without arguing. They didn’t ask for too much, they were thankful even for the smallest thing.
“If they didn’t need something, they would say, ‘No, please give it to someone else,’” Pietrzykowski recalls. “They stood with such dignity,” several of our interviewees emphasised.
Poverty was ubiquitous there, mixed with signs of trauma. An old man, who asked for a chocolate for his grandson, wore a jacket so worn that a homeless man from Warsaw would look like an elegant man next to him. Women were crying, saying that they were somehow coping, that they had become accustomed to this darkness. A Japanese journalist, also from the convoy, did not know the language, so she just hugged everyone.
The residents were mainly looking for candles, matches. Volunteers bought as much as they could get in Kharkiv’s shops.
“Every transport has a double purpose – in addition to what we bring, when we empty the buses, we fill them up again with things bought already in Ukraine,” Czuchnowski explains. Water tanks were also in demand, because people have nothing to carry water in.
We were running out of packages and people were still coming. It was a difficult sight for many activists in the convoy.
How to survive despite the bombing
One person told them that they lived in a basement with 60 other people. They didn’t go outside for 16 days. Not even for a moment. Because a missile could have arrived at any moment.
Wantuch: “The scale of the tragedy is unbelievable. Almost every person there has a similar story. We’ve heard hundreds of them.”
Pietrzykowski: “People kept saying the Russians wouldn’t come back. That these were the worst days of their lives, that they were scared all the time.”
Many got used to it.
Czuchnowski: “War is people who somehow try to live through the bombings. During an earlier trip to Bakhmut, I saw a Ukrainian artillery shooting, and an old woman selling tomatoes just 100 meters away.”
He also talked about a group that, in such conditions… took a bike trip.
In Kharkiv, several members of the convoy came across Russian prisoners of war near the hospital. A dozen or so. Some of them had their wounds dressed. Those who were sitting in the bus were blindfolded with blue tape and had their hands tied. The young officer folded his hands as if he was praying. The features of their faces told everything about them – Asia and the Far East.
Ukrainian soldiers caught them, or rather collected them, like mushrooms in the woods. Because most of them, abandoned by their commanders, left a tank or a transporter and wandered through the woods with the only thing never lacked in their supplies – vodka.
Natalia: “Ukrainian soldiers said that sometimes they would surprise the soldiers when they were sleeping drunk. 300 of them were caught last week in the vicinity of Kupiansk.”
Izium reminded Piotr Pietrzykowski of one of his first trips – to Bucha. It was around Easter: “At the church, Father Andrzej buried the bodies that had been lying on the streets for weeks – the Russians did not allow them to be taken away. The birds and dogs began to eat the corpses. We happened to come across their exhumation. 94 of around 100 civilians were shot at close range. Some of them had their hands tied. It was a traumatic experience.”
Piotr mentions it, because the soldiers also showed them collective graves near Izium. The Russians buried 450 bodies in the forest. They were exhumed. Czuchnowski: “My friends smelled the odour of the bodies. It was a horrible experience.”
The thorn birds
Their commander is from Zakarpattia, where there is a large Hungarian minority. Hence the nickname – Magyar.
And his unit – a part of Drone Reconnaissance – is called “The Birds of Magyar”. Around 20 operators are stationed 3 km from the front line in the Kherson region. When the activists arrived, they had five flying machines at their disposal.
The Open Dialogue Foundation managed to raise money for the drones they needed – with a night vision and thermal imaging head – thanks to cooperation with the theatres in Warsaw. Actors, mainly from the Drama Theatre, gathered the funds among the audience during entractes. They gathered money for two drones for less than PLN 50 thousand each.
The Birds were happy. In the unit, they refer to each other as “brother”, which emphasises their strong bond. And they are from a variety of professions: lawyers, medics, athletes, musicians. Svyatoslav Boyko – the leader of the well-known Ukrainian band Shyrokyi Lan – announces the fundraisers then necessary. The fans are working.
The squad also includes a European vice-champion in taekwondo, a European and world champion in taekwondo and kickboxing, and their coach. “These boys are as good as gold. Literally,” Boyko said.
A few months ago, in one hit by six Russian missiles, they lost more than 180 colleagues. But they have not lost their spirit.
Łukasz Krencik: “There is no doubt that Ukraine will win. I’ve never seen such morale before.”
Czuchnowski: “Putin, recognising Ukraine as a non-existent state, has achieved the opposite of what he intended – he has integrated this society around the idea of statehood. I think this will be a formative event for Ukraine.”
Wantuch: “It is clear that Putin has moved from the phase of occupation of Ukraine to the phase of its destruction. And this tactic is effective. He wants desperate Ukrainians to ask for peace. But it won’t happen. Never. They will suffer more, but they will not give up.”
The Birds showed the Poles their videos of the destruction of enemy tanks. And they took the guests on a mission. Relaxed atmosphere, smiles, photos. A moment of normality. As they left the trenches, the commander stood between Natalia and the Russian positions to cover the snipers with his body.
They hooked a grenade to a drone. The activists wrote on it: “Greetings from the ODF and Protest Tea”. And they signed it. The drone flew towards Russian positions. Shortly afterwards, the operator’s face turned sour. “We just lost it,” he said coldly.
There was a dead silence.
During the visit of the Poles in the unit, the Birds of Magyar lost two drones. One was taken over by the Russians, and the other was blown up by them. If it were not for what the activists brought from Poland, they would have stayed with only three of them.
Where convoys do not arrive
When the members of the convoy were shopping in Kharkiv, there was some commotion in the shops. Because they were Poles – special guests. They thanked them, they helped them, they were surprised that they came here.
Natalia Melnychenko: “In Vinnitsa, a woman who found out that we had come with help from Poland, cried. She was so moved by the fact that we were going to the east.”
Mycielski: “Beyond Kharkiv, we did not met any organisations with humanitarian aid. In Kupiansk, already liberated about two weeks earlier, people told us straightforwardly: no humanitarian convoy was there for them. It was sad.”
Czuchnowski, who last time was in Bakhmut, a town over which there has been heavy fighting for months: “I noticed that help didn’t get that far. Convoys do not go there, supplies are distributed earlier and taken over by local communities.”
During his earlier visits with humanitarian aid, he met several unnamed heroes in Ukraine. “A kind of madmen. They bought an old bus and, with their own money or with raised funds, alone, without organisation, filled it with aid and drove it around. They’re so into it that they don’t do anything else. People like them are the ones who are doing amazing things in this country.”
These madmen also include the Polish journalist Karolina Baca Pogorzelska.
“As the only media representative, she lives in the war zone in Kramatorsk. She organises fundraisers and provides people with equipment, warm clothes, a dozen or so cars… These soldiers (the Donbas Battalion – ed.) love her there.”
It was she who showed Czuchnowski what was needed and where when he was preparing his earlier transports with humanitarian aid.
Uncollected sunflower fields
The day after the activists visited the trenches at the southern front, the Birds of Magyar survived a mortar attack they hadn’t had in a long time. Before the convoy entered Mykolaiv, they were detained at a block post. Because that’s when soldiers from the anti-aircraft brigade fired on Iranian kamikaze drones. Some of them hit the city anyway.
Wantuch recounts that during one of the earlier trips with humanitarian aid, during its distribution in Kharkiv, a missile came. The volunteers fled, leaving all the aid. The residents trampled each other as they tried to escape. Wantuch recounts that elsewhere Russian saboteurs attacked civilians on the road. They murdered everyone.
On the southern front, soldiers took the activists from the Open Dialogue Foundation to show them a ghost village – a post-Russian occupation area. They rushed the military off-roader down the dirt road so that the passengers were thrown around the vehicle like sacks of potatoes. They passed bomb craters, cow corpses, ruins of houses, a rocket stuck into the ground.
Natalia Melnychenko: “It didn’t quite occur to me how dangerous it was. Until our soldiers began to pray. I ask her: why?
“There are no atheists in the trenches. Even if someone is like that, they quickly cease to be here,” a soldier explained to me.
Along these 4,000 km in Ukraine, they passed hundreds of kilometres of fields of uncollected sunflowers. Dead. Gray fields to the horizon.
Melnychenko: “And here, where the bullets whistled over our heads, we had blue skies and juicy yellow sunflowers. Until now, we don’t know why.”
Warmth for Ukraine
Everyone says that it is becoming increasingly difficult to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Poles are not as generous as they used to be. Even the petrol for 5 buses for a 4,000 km journey is even over PLN 20,000. Companies are also less willing to give gifts or free help – the crisis is coming, costs are rising, energy, inflation…
Pietrzykowski: “What we do is a drop in the ocean of needs. But it is needed.”
Wantuch went again on the weekend before November 1. This was his 30th time with humanitarian aid. They take 500 canisters of water and 30,000 candles. To Izium, Kupiansk, Sumy, Bakhmut, Lyman. “There, 10-15 km from the front line, people are already waiting for it,” he explains.
If there is fighting somewhere, they will not get there.
A week later, another transport by ‘Wyborcza’ starts, organised under the slogan ‘Warmth for Ukraine’. “We already have about 10,000 candles, flashlights, batteries, warm clothes and a huge amount of food,” says Czuchnowski.
Natalia Melnychenko has decided to raise money for another 15 DJI Mavick 3 drones. Ukrainians who held Russian prisoners of war gave Polish activists a box of gadgets taken from the orcs – buckles, belts, first-aid kits, clasps, cans of meat… They will be auctioned to help collect money for the next drone.