Meeting the UK's Ukrainian Expats Who've Been Driving Supplies to the Front Line
And a 50-year-old Welsh man named Terry who just loves Ukraine and doesn't think the UK is doing enough to help.
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
For all intents and purposes, the conflict in Ukraine has evolved into something closer to war. Fighting between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed rebels from the separatist Donetsk People's Republic has been raging for almost a year, claiming the lives of over 5,400 people.
Many of the troops going to battle with the rebels are volunteers, some of whom VICE News recently met in Pisky, a village a few miles west of Donetsk airport. A good deal of the supplies keeping this lot and other Ukrainian troops going aren't coming directly from the Ukrainian government, but from a community meeting centre in West London, over 1,500 miles away.
Every weekend since July of 2014, two 32-year-old Ukrainian lorry drivers—Petro Stasiaczek and Artur Kuc—have been helping other volunteers load up their van with dozens of boxes containing vital supplies. These are driven from the London branch of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain (AUGB) on Holland Park Avenue through France, Germany, and Poland to Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk in West Ukraine. From there, volunteer Ukrainian troops will transport the supplies to the frontline in East Ukraine.
"We're doing this because we are normal guys—ordinary men who like to help their own country," the pair tell me through an interpreter.
With temperatures plunging to as low as -20 C, many of the supplies are warm clothing—fleeces and thick socks and that kind of thing. There are also makeshift full-body suits cut from white material—camouflage for Ukrainian snipers hiding in the snow. Another box contains dozens of Cup a Soup packets.
The Holland Park building, which the AUGB purchased after World War II, is just one of 27 branches belonging to the organization. Campaign group London Euromaidan has been using it as a base for collecting supplies and donations since December of 2013.
"Formally, we are a different organization, but many of the volunteers of London Euromaidan are members of AUGB and, therefore, AUGB kindly offered its premises for our use," London Euromaidan member Sergiy Burnus tells me, adding that other branches of the AUGB also send their supplies to the London base for delivery to Ukraine.
At first the amounts of money raised were "insignificant," but after the occupation of Crimea and the start of the war in spring of 2014, London Euromaidan started fundraising for the army and victims of war, raising over $150,000.
In charge of fundraising and supply deliveries is 32-year-old Natalia Ravliuk, a "full-time mum" and regional manager for The Body Shop. She emigrated to the UK at the turn of the millennium and studied marketing at Westminster University. Despite having been in the UK for 15 years, Natalia yearns to return to Ukraine some day. She wanted to go back in 2013, but the revolution prevented her.
"Ukraine is my motherland," she says. "I want my kids to actually grow up there. It's really hard to explain. Ukraine is really sort of everything. Everything is there—your memory, childhood, parents. We are simply volunteers who get together here actively trying to make a difference—maybe not the whole picture, but for the people on the frontline. The Ukrainian government could provide more support for the volunteer battalions."
Natalia says the van that takes the supplies every week is always full, adding that there often isn't enough space to take all the boxes.
"The drivers do sometimes get checked at the Polish border—for helmets and the bulletproof vests and things," she says. "They always get through in the end, though."
On one journey, the precious cargo contained boxes of British army uniforms. At the Polish-Ukrainian border—where waiting times can be as long as nine hours—the drivers were stopped by the border police, who made them cut out all the British flags from the uniforms before they could pass.
Another group using the AUGB centre in Holland Park is Army SOS, whose mission is to "manage purchases of necessary ammunition, shields, intercommunication, and reconnaissance facilities, uniforms, and food supply."
"We deliver all goods directly to the unit's emplacement and pass them right to the hands of our warriors," its website states, adding that it has volunteers in the UK, USA, Canada, Lithuania, and Ukraine.
One member is 34-year-old Alexander Shevchenko, whose day job is in construction.
He tells me that the supplies come from warehouses and army shops, and estimates that 90 percent of supplies to the Ukrainian armed forces come from volunteers. Army SOS has sent three trucks worth of supplies from London in the past month alone, and there are around 0.5 to one ton of supplies going out every month.
"We can't send lethal supplies," he says. "We wish we could. Instead, we buy the gunsights, which are allowed because they're allowed for hunting. We've got one volunteer in the US who supplies gunsights, night vision and thermal sights."
Alexander's commitment to supporting Ukrainian troops doesn't stop at merely shipping supplies: "If the situation does get worse then I'll probably go to Ukraine to fight myself," he says.
Although most of the volunteers are either Ukrainian expats or Brits of Ukrainian heritage, there are some notable exceptions. Fifty-year-old Terry Brown, an actor and taxi driver from Swansea, Wales, has no prior connection to Ukraine, but took a trip there out of interest in 2010 and fell in love with the country.
"I always wanted to go to Eastern Europe," he tells me. "I absolutely loved it and was so pleased that I managed to miss my flight home."
When Terry heard news of the Maidan protests in Kiev in November of 2013, he jumped on the first flight he could get to the country without telling his friends or family where he was going.
"It was absolutely horrific," he says. "I could smell the smoke in the air and everything. I went into one shop and they wouldn't let me out the front door again because they said it wasn't safe. I also saw the bodies when they brought them out on stage."
While there, he visited the palace of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The estate is half the size of Monaco and took hundreds of millions of dollars to construct.
"It was obscene—and all the Ukrainian people have paid for that," Terry says.
He thinks the British government isn't doing enough to stand up to Russia and defend the people of Ukraine.
"The Ukrainian nation has some of the nicest people I have ever met, and how people can believe the lies coming out of Russia is just beyond me," he says. "I think we should provide more support. We are not doing enough. Russia and the Kremlin are like chess players—they play for the long game plan. They have been allowed to invest millions into British business and the media."
In one room, the walls are covered in photos of Ukrainian soldiers proudly displaying the supplies they've received from the volunteers. Many of the faces are cut out of the photographs to protect their identities.
Besides supplies, the volunteers' love for their homeland shines through in many forms. On weekends, the AUGB centre offers classes to children in Ukrainian history, language and culture. Expats can dine on traditional Ukrainian cuisine, like borscht and deruny, in the restaurant bar in the basement. The centre also hosts regular concerts of patriotic Ukrainian music and poetry recitals about the homeland.
While the volunteers take pride in their work, they hope every day that a solution to the conflict can be found.
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Keep up to date with VICE News' coverage of the conflict in Ukraine here.
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