It started as a rumor, something most Ukrainians did not want to believe—that Russia was preparing to invade its neighbor. Citizens didn’t prepare by stocking up on nonperishable foods or leaving their homes. They believed there was no need.
All of that changed on February 24 at 5 a.m., when Ukrainians awoke to the sounds of Russia’s invasion. Since then, they have lived under constant attack, or threat of attack. The United Nations estimates that at least 15.7 million people in Ukraine are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection. In addition, more than 7 million people have been internally displaced; the U.N. says that it and its more than 200 humanitarian partners “have scaled up at record speed” to deliver life-saving aid to more than 4 million people across the country. But inside Ukraine, access to help is a different story.
Ukrainians are the first to respond to the emergency calls of their fellow citizens. They offer critical support, donating clothing, food, medical equipment, and their own money to support one another amidst the carnage wreaked by Russia’s invasion. With this bravery and the phrase “Slava Ukraini!” (“Glory to Ukraine!”), Ukrainians have captured the world’s attention, fighting back against a much larger military force to protect their homeland. But underneath the patchwork global support that Ukraine is receiving lies a severe problem—the country’s aid supply is running low.
In the western city of Chernivtsi, Yana Kachkovska, 21, works in a grade school that has been transformed into a volunteer collection point while students learn over Zoom. “I decided to start volunteering because it was impossible for me to sit still and keep reading the news. It was making me anxious, especially since people close to me were scattered around the country at that time,” writes Kachkovska in a conversation over Telegram with the Voice.
Volunteering gave Kachkovska a way to stay busy, to keep her hands moving. At the beginning of the war, she sorted through donated clothes, food parcels, and hygiene kits. Each day, Ukrainians came to the volunteer center, either to donate what they could spare or to get the aid they desperately needed, and Kachkovska would provide for them. As time went on, and refugees from all over started to flee to Chernivtsi, Kachkovska and other volunteers offered pillows, blankets, mattresses, and personal hygiene kits to the increasing number of people who arrived at the center. Additionally, Kachkovska cooked three meals a day for refugees and has raised $35,000 through her fundraising campaign on social media, which she created for the purchase of ammunition for the Ukrainian army when the war commenced. “I started to coordinate other volunteers between themselves. Helped people find cars to leave the areas of hostilities. I organized the delivery of 27 tons of humanitarian aid from the Czech Republic,” she writes.
Each day, Kachkovska spoke with refugees and helped them in any way she could—and there have been hundreds to care for. The 21-year-old took on a leadership role that eventually led to exhaustion. She was constantly stressed, worried if a delivery she sent out would make it safely to the people in need, thinking of ways to raise more funds. Kachkovska worked long shifts, and relates how she listened to people’s stories about their cities and towns being “wiped off the face of the earth, how they had to flee with no personal belongings at all, how their relatives were dying, and they had to abandon their bodies.” She adds, “The biggest problem is that almost all Ukrainians are traumatized by the war. That leads to a lot of different reactions, which in turn sometimes leads to verbal aggression and personal conflict.”
Recently, Kachkovska has stopped going to the volunteer center because of the emotional toll it has taken on her. She had been acting as a volunteer but also as an impromptu psychologist, listening, crying, and laughing with refugees, and she reached a breaking point when a friend died in the war and an acquaintance was killed at a train station in the Kharkiv region while helping people evacuate. After that, Kachkovska was encouraged by her family, her boyfriend, and friends to consider how important it was to take care of herself. But her anxiety has not gone away. Kachkovska’s boyfriend, Nikolai Polovin, 27, a translator for the International Committee of the Red Cross, is from Volnovakha, a small city in eastern Ukraine, between Mariupol and Donetsk. The city hasn’t gotten as much attention as its neighbors, but it is still under Russian occupation. Polovin was living in Kyiv when Russia first attacked his home city; his parents and grandparents managed to survive the shelling because they lived in a neighbor’s basement for two weeks. The basement was “spacious,” he says, and there were mattresses and benches. But they could still hear bombs dropping all around them.
“When the invasion began, I think many people expected the city to see some fighting, but I don’t think anyone really expected it to be almost leveled to the ground, which unfortunately is exactly what happened to it,” Polovin says in a series of voice memos sent through Telegram. Birds can be heard chirping in the background of the recordings, a surreal juxtaposition to Polovin recounting the horrors his family has witnessed under Russian occupation. Polovin lost all connection with his family at the beginning of the war. For several weeks, he did not know if his grandparents and parents were safe. Eventually, his mother called him from a number he did not know, and still does not know. But he spoke of his family’s experience as if they were some of the lucky ones—their flat is still intact. “The windows got blown off, but that’s what happened to 99 percent of the houses and flats in Volnovakha. There’s absolutely nothing surprising about that,” he says.
Life under Russian occupation has become the norm for the people living in Volnovakha. Polovin says that each day, his family and others take to the streets in an attempt to clean up the rubble and debris, trying to salvage anything they can from what was once their city. But they face uncertainty. Until a week ago, there was no gas in the city—no way to heat homes or cook meals. Now, there is still no electricity. Families charge their phones and laptops with a generator, but there are only a few in the entire city. In terms of food supply, people still have access to the basics: grains, potatoes, vegetables, and some meat. But the city has no tap water, so people have to risk their lives going to a nearby well to collect drinking water.
“When you take a look at it, it’s almost wiped off the face of the earth. There are no job opportunities, no stable way to sustain yourself, everyone is uncertain of their present and their near future. Nobody has any long-term plans anymore because everything is so uncertain,” says Polovin, adding, “I just want people to know that the city is still going through quite a lot—90 or more percent of the buildings are either damaged or destroyed, and living conditions for most of the population are still very tough. I want people to remember about Volnovakha and other small cities, towns, and villages, and share information about these places as much as possible so that nobody forgets what they have gone through.”
Polovin’s family is just one of many that have been separated because of the war. Polina Mikulina, 17, was living in Volnovakha with her parents in the days leading up to the invasion. When the bombs began falling, on February 24, Mikulina’s family sought refuge in their basement, while throughout Volnovakha there was “mass panic.” “The explosions didn’t stop for a minute and they became louder and louder. Everybody was very scared,” she recalls.
After the attacks began, Mikulina’s family made the decision to try to flee to a nearby city, Pavlohrad, where they had family. Mikulina says they left under shelling from Russian “Hail” rocket launchers and drove fast, trying to make it to safety. “I remember all of the details. Close my eyes and see everything. I remember the look of my mother, she was crying all the way. Everybody was crying who was in the car,” she recalls, adding, “To tell the truth, I was crying every day for two or three weeks, such experience was the first in my life.”
The family left behind Mikulina’s grandparents, and lost contact with them. Mikulina says they had no way of knowing if her grandparents were alive or not, and everyone was afraid. “I fell asleep every day for two weeks and prayed they would survive and get in touch with us,” she says. Finally, Mikulina’s grandparents made contact, saying they had survived in their basement for two weeks. Now Mikulina’s grandfather has shell shock, after a missile hit their house while he and his wife were in their front yard. The couple is still living in their wrecked home in Volnovakha, without electricity, gas, or water. Mikulina says there is still no aid anywhere in the almost completely destroyed city.
Meanwhile, in Chernivtsi, there have been attempts by Ukrainian aid groups to bring help to Volnovakha. But each time people try to drive to the city, they are stopped at Russian checkpoints, and often everything they are attempting to bring in is confiscated. And sometimes the volunteers do not make it back alive. Kachkovska writes that the Russians will shoot at anyone: “They don’t care who drives the car; they don’t care that people die without food and water. They are shooting at everything—that some people manage to escape from the Russian occupation is a miracle.”
Five hours away from Chernivtsi, at the Humanitarian Headquarters of Chervonohrad City, Kachkovska’s friend Olya Semkanych, 19, is a volunteer. She is one of a large team of people who work around the clock, with almost no days off, to support Ukraine. Semkanych tells the Voice that she decided early on that she could not sit at home while the war raged. “I decided to volunteer because I would not be able to stay at home when there was a war in my country,” she writes. “I want to bring as much benefit as possible and do everything in my power [to help].”
When Semkanych started volunteering, she was responsible for accounting and keeping track of donated money. She collected inquiries from those in need and sent help to high-traffic areas for refugees. Now she also works for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and helps people register for financial assistance. Semkanych says her work changes daily, but her roles include helping internally displaced people find the safest place they can go, unloading trucks with humanitarian aid from abroad, and scheduling missions for volunteers to travel to hot spots to help refugees. However, in areas like Volnovakha, Semkanych and her team meet the same challenges that Kachkovska and her boyfriend have faced—there is no way to get aid in. “I keep in touch with people who have been forced to leave their homes. These people come from Mariupol, Irpin, Bucha—the hottest spots. They are exhausted and scared,” says Semkanych. “We try to give them all the help they need. It is very difficult, but I believe that it is necessary to give people a lot of positive emotions, to encourage them.”
A colleague of Semkanych’s at the Humanitarian Headquarters, Oleh Mussi, 23, has recently returned from driving supplies to the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv—alone. Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, and has been the site of constant battle and attack since February. Mussi sees and helps hundreds of people a day, but communication in zones of combat is minimal. “Being in the north of the Saltivka district … my heart broke, and tears came into my eyes,” writes Mussi. “Thousands of people do not leave their homes, many of which have already been almost destroyed, realizing that a shell can land again at any moment. The war hurts everyone’s heart, and the fire of sorrow and despair burns in the hearts of people who were under bullets every day.”
Mussi says that he has been in areas where people haven’t received humanitarian aid since the beginning of the war. Sometimes, help arrives too late—the people have already died. At the beginning of the conflict, the Headquarters saw an influx of aid coming in. People from other countries sent money to support volunteer efforts, and volunteers used some of that money to buy fuel and ammunition. But since then, funding has decreased, and there is a lack of fuel in Ukraine, with the result that volunteers cannot make it to places such as Volnovakha. Both Mussi and Semkanych stress the importance of getting more help.
In addition to driving supplies—a job that could result in his death—Mussi also says that, psychologically, the toll of working with refugees is difficult. He has encountered the same challenges as Kachkovska—he became a psychiatrist in the form of a humanitarian volunteer in his early 20s. In between bringing people aid and having to be strong when someone hugs him and cries, there’s no time to think about himself: “No time to walk with a girl, no time to even talk to your mom and brother at home. In the morning, you go to the Headquarters and return from it late at night, but all in order for my country to win.”
Back in Chernivtsi, Kachkovska tries to take care of her body and mind. Her loved ones encourage her to go on walks, or take her out for coffee, but she feels like she carries the weight of Ukraine on her shoulders. When thinking about realities like what has happened in Volnovakha, she says, there is no way to escape the burden she feels for not being able to do more. She carries that feeling with her every day.
“I hate myself for not having time to evacuate them,” Kachkovska says. “I try to pretend that everything is fine, but it’s very difficult. Every day I look for some opportunities to help them, but so far it is impossible. No one will understand how it hurts.” ❖
Anna Conkling is a freelance journalist based in New York City whose writing focuses on human interest stories and environmental issues.