Luksaz looked out the window and said, “The weather is bad. No clouds. No wind. They can see us. We have bad luck with this bad weather.”
It was an opposite view on how I normally consider a warm and sunny day with blue skies and no wind. But things are different here along the eastern boundaries of Ukraine where we could be attacked by Russia at any time.
He continued. “This is a day that is perfect for drones. Their drones. Bad luck for us.”
Every day the area we are going to is shelled by Russians who are just over the river, less than 20 kilometers away.
We condensed the supplies into two vehicles. The third car was hidden under a tree.
The driver said something and his words were translated twice, “Three cars is like an alarm. They will see us if we are three.”
Knowing that the Russians have live satellite images of our every move is humbling. This isn’t about luck. Or timing. We are at their mercy.
Humanitarian Aid Stop #4: Soldiers
We started our trip by visiting the soldier encampment where we had lunch yesterday.
A soldier met us at the entrance with the flags. It’s a thing here in Ukraine that soldiers sign flags as an act of solidarity. We dropped off four flags yesterday. The soldier posed with Andrew’s American flag, Rosie’s flag of South Africa and several more flags.
We gifted him with computers, supplies and more food.
He thanked us and then shook hands with the men.
We left to start our two-and-a-half-hour drive to the small villages we were bringing supplies to.
I rode in the second van, the English-speaking van with a soldier/priest driving, Oksana translating and Luksaz translating into English. Andrew, Greg and Rosie were also in this van.
I was riding in the second vehicle in the back seat on the driver’s side of the car. I looked out at the sky; this is the direction that the attacks would come from.
I scanned the skies, knowing that missiles that travel faster than the speed of sound are not only soundless, but almost impossible to see.
I know this because the guys have talked about it. A lot.
The driver tells a story about a time they were driving and noticed that the stray dogs went into hiding. They stopped their car, jumped out and lay on the ground.
Dogs can hear supersonic missiles coming. They know when to hide.
The driver said that he lay on the ground and prayed to God. Luckily this was a missile that exploded upwards; they were safe.
He works for an organization called “Priests in War” and is both a soldier and a priest. He told us about various programs they run in Zaporizhzhia from mental health support for soldiers to help for young mothers.
He told us a story about a woman with five kids who lived along the front line and refused to move. He met with her weekly, begging her to leave and pledging his personal support to help relocate her family somewhere else. Week after week she refused.
Then one day she agreed to go to Germany with her children.
Two days later her house was hit by a strike and destroyed.
He knew it was only a matter of time before her house was hit.
After an hour of driving, we came up to a check point with angry-looking soldiers.
The driver did all of the talking. No, they didn’t want our passports.
They checked our cargo and circled the vans, trying to decide.
I handed an open case of chocolate to Luksaz and he handed then out the window and said to the soldier in Polish, “This is so your day can be sweeter.”
The soldier accepted the candy and walked off. We were waved through.
As we drove on, I saw a soldier eating a candy bar. He was smiling.
The driver explained that they no longer permitted humanitarian helpers to enter this area, so fearful that Russians will sneak in and attack them from behind. It helped having we three Americans in the van. The United States has been helpful in this war, but having the priest with us was even more valuable; the soldiers permit the priest to enter this area whenever he wants.
I studied the flat countryside. Yellow wheat fields and the bluest of skies. These are the two colors that are reflected in the Ukrainian flag. The blue of the flag is on top to represent the sky, the yellow on the bottom is for the wheat fields.
There was a story about someone was waving a flag where the colors were mixed up. This man was holding a flag with the yellow on the top.
He was detained and ended up being a Russian spy.
The vans pulled to the side of the road. The drivers got out.
After several translations they said it was time for us to put on our bullet proof vests.
My vest made my thirty-pound backpack seem light. It was so heavy with straps and Velcro that I couldn’t figure out how to put it on.
Andrew put together all of the latches and told me to raise my arms in the air as if I were a small child sliding into a life jacket; he slid the vest on me.
After tightening the straps, it was tight, but I could still breathe easily.
I found the weight of the vest comforting in the same way my weighted blanket at home relaxes me.
Several of the men stood on the side of the road to pee, but were careful not to step on the grass in case there were land mines.
I was glad I didn’t have to pee.
We got back into the vans. The two drivers drove faster than I would on this back country road.
Andrew sat next to me on the back seat. I asked him how fast the driver was going.
100 kilometers per hour, or faster.
That’s just over 60 miles per hour, but it felt very fast on these roads.
Luksaz explained that the faster they drove, the harder it was for them to target us in a strike. He added that we had to leave space between the two vans so if they did strike, they would only get one van.
I wanted to change the conversation to your favorite childhood memory or maybe the strangest thing that ever happened to you at work, but talking about attacks had everything to do with our present moment.
We stopped at another checkpoint and waited while the soldiers tried to figure out what to do. After we were waved on, we gave them candy.
A Ukrainian tank hogged the road in front of us. Five young Ukrainian men rode on the top—sunning themselves as if they were riding in a convertible car. I wanted to take a photo, to remember the look of content on their faces as they drove along, but I had been warned to take no photos of anything to do with the military.
So I took pictures with my eyes.
The men were all young, under thirty years old. Their uniforms were all slightly different, but all medium to dark green, some had camouflage. The stared down the road without talking.
We passed them. Nobody waved.
The checkpoints came more regularly as we got closer to the small villages. The driver always did the talking. We stopped giving out chocolate; we wanted to save some for the villagers.
We passed under some kind of welcome sign written in Ukrainian welcoming us to this remote group of villages. Almost all of the houses had been destroyed. All had been shelled.
It was odd to see flowers still growing in the front yards as if gardeners still lived in the houses.
Humanitarian Aid Stop #5: Village number 1
Sometimes the villagers refuse the supplies people offer even though they desperately need them. They are terrified that the gifts are sent from the enemy to destroy them.
Luksaz introduced us. When he said my name and that I was from America, I started to talk.
“I’m so glad to be here with you. We really want to help. I came from far away to bring you food.”
I knew they couldn’t understand me, but maybe they could catch my tone or hear my accent. I was not much younger than some of them.
One woman who was wearing a red shirt stepped forward and looked deeply into my blue eyes. She said something to the others, then grabbed me into a fast hug and cried.
Someone translated, “Thank you for the food. Thank you America.”
I hugged her back and cried with her for several minutes, wishing I could understand what she said between her sobs.
(Thanks for the photo, Luksaz.)
This village had the greatest need. Each person was given two bags of food. Men and women, most looked to be over 60, readily accepted the gifts. They rode up on bicycles, walked or pulled little wagons behind them to get the supplies home.
We had been instructed that we would not stay at any location for long, but were invited to see where the woman with the red shirt lived and Luksaz said we could all have a look.
We went down a long flight of stone stairs into the basement under a house. There was zero light down there. We shined our cell phone flashlights to find our way.
She showed us where she and her husband slept: in a room in the basement the size of a walk in freezer. There were blankets on the floor. That’s all.
It wasn’t the darkness that unnerved me or even that musty smell that these people had been living in for over a year and a half. It was the thought of them sitting down there day after day after night after night, in the dark while they listened to the shelling above them.
They were shelled and attacked every day, sometimes at night, too.
How did they spend their days? What could you possibly do there in the dark? How were their lungs handling this constant musty smell?
There was a kitchen area where they could cook over a fire and someone had donated a wood stove. But it wasn’t safe to go out to collect wood, especially in the winter when it was very cold, even colder than New York where I lived.
They could no longer grow their own food; it wasn’t safe to garden.
It wasn't safe to garden.
Where did they go to the bathroom? How did they fill their days? How did they keep their sanity?
The woman hugged me again before I got into the van.
I hugged her back.
Humanitarian Aid Stop #6: Village #2
A group of people were holed up in a fire house. They piled sandbags inside the doors to protect them from broken glass. Most of the houses around them had been destroyed. I wasn’t sure if they lived in the firehouse or below it.
We handed their supplies through an open window and were then invited inside.
There were fresh flowers on a counter.
Seeing this touch of beauty in this bleak place brought tears to my eyes.
Humanitarian Aid Stop #7: Village #3
The bridge to get into this village had been destroyed. Our vans drove down the bank and rode along a land bridge that someone had built.
Every house in this village had been shelled or bombed. Some houses lay in crumbles, others looked like they had a serious case of chickenpox.
This village built a new school that was completed just two years ago; it was the pride of the area.
A group of 49 elderly people lived in the basement of the destroyed school since February of 2022. They were shelled every day. They stayed in the basement all of the time.
The people came out and sat on benches close to the entrance to welcome us.
A man in our group asked one of the men why he stayed.
He answered, “Where to?”
There were no stores here. No electricity. No place to buy gas for the car. No way to buy or trade food.
This could have been Mars for its lack of resources.
These people were literally stuck here, as were the people in the other villages. If it were not for this priest, they could not live.
A woman with light hair hugged me hard and spoke words I couldn’t understand.
I sat next to her on the bench for a while as she held my hand.
Luksaz handed her a box of chocolate.
She looked at me quizzingly, unsure what was in the box.
I said, “Chocolate.”
She looked at the box and whispered, “Chocolate” so softly as if it was something she had not seen for years.
She turned to the woman next to her and said something in Ukrainian.
The woman smiled brightly and leaned in to us.
Thanks for the photo, Luksaz.
I got goose bumps up and down my arms as I considered all of the things these people had gone without for 17 months.
I wondered if they would gorge on the chocolate, since they were under attack or would they savor it over coming weeks? Did they think that they would die soon or that they would live forever?
They invited us into the basement and see how they lived.
This group had been given a generator. They charge flashlights and once every other day, they had enough electricity to sit in a lighted room for two hours.
I wondered what they did with their lighted hours.
Once again these people were living in a place that had zero outside light coming in.
They collected chairs from the classrooms and lined them up close together into rows, as if they were playing musical chairs. Then they lined another row of chairs facing that row to have a makeshift single bed. I saw blankets and the kinds of pillows you might have used on a couch.
Were did they use the bathroom? How did they wash their bodies? Their clothes? Did they collect water to drink?
The basement of the school was long and seemed to go on forever. One woman suggested we go in a different direction, and I was right there with her, ready to explore. So was Oksana. Was Andrew with us, too?
We followed her into one space and then into another space.
Luksaz called for us to return. Oksana yelled back to him, something. We kept going. I wanted desperately to see what was at the end of this maze.
Luksaz called us again. We ignored him.
The woman held a flashlight to light our way. Room after room, where did it lead?
Luksaz changed the tone of his voice to full on anger and yelled something in Polish.
We all stopped and turned back. Yes. We will stay together. Yes, we will stay together.
Sheepishly we returned to the group.
I never apologized to Luksaz for leaving the group and he never lectured us on the importance of staying together.
I appreciated that.
A woman showed us the area in the basement where they enjoyed their few hours of light every other day. There was a fish tank there with live orange fish swimming around.
The fact that these people chose to keep pets in this dungeon of darkness brought tears back to my eyes.
Humanitarian Aid Stop #8: Village #4:
This village looked exactly like the last ones. Houses destroyed. Nobody outside.
As soon as the vans pulled up, we were swarmed by elderly people. People rode bicycles, ran, dragged carts to get to the van with the supplies.
As we walked from our van to the supply van, we could hear explosions. Again. Again. Again.
I tensed. Rosie turned on her camera and began recording. Thanks, Rosie, for the recording.
The explosions continued. The were not so loud that we couldn’t hear each other, but loud enough that we knew how close we were to the front.
One of our drivers from Krakow tried to calm us by saying, “Don’t worry. This is Ukrainian work. Ukrainian.”
How did he know that? And how long until the Russians retaliated?
We ran out of food to give out. There were too many people.
They looked at us hopelessly.
It’s the worst feeling to show up promising supplies then not having enough.
The priest told us that he would return the following Sunday.
I hope he does. I hope he does return with food.
We drove on, and then stopped in the road. The people in the other van got out. They were taking off their bullet proof vests.
Great. We got out of our van.
I noticed that my driver kept his vest on.
I said to Luksaz, “I’m not taking off my vest until he does.”
I kept mine on, but stopped carrying my helmet.
Humanitarian Aid Stop #9: Soldiers
These soldiers were living in another small village. I didn’t see other people around. The houses were destroyed, but the small house the soldiers were living in, maybe a one bedroom house, appeared to be livable.
We brought them supplies. They eagerly peeked into the bags. One soldier saw a case of milk and pointed it out to another soldier. They both smiled big, big smiles like children noticing wrapped gifts under a Christmas tree.
I was asked not to take any photos, or if I did take some to be sure to cover all of the men’s faces.
Oksana went out into a field with two soldiers and stood next to them. The soldiers were holding some kind of costume that looked like grass. The soldiers put on the suit of grass, that I later found out was known as a ghillie suit, and posed.
The soldiers laughed as they figured out how to wear the suit. With it on, they blended into the grass around them.
We all laughed at grown men dressed in grass suits.
Then Oksana asked one of the men to cover up and lay in the grass.
I slowed my breathing. It was as if the soldier had been swallowed up by the earth; you couldn’t see him at all.
She called to him to ball up tighter.
I know very little about war and about costumes in war so this was another new experience for me.
He looked exactly like a spot of grass sitting on a spot of grass. You couldn’t tell where his body started or ended.
We returned to their shaded area and watched as the soldiers proudly signed the flags from our group. No, I didn’t have a flag; I didn’t know about this tradition.
One of our drivers decided it was time to go.
We walked quickly to the vans.
This time Greg got into the other van so we wouldn’t have to sit four people on the back seat for the two-and-a-half-hour drive back to Zaporizhzhia.
We started the fast drive back to the city. I had to pee.
Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.
Trust me, there are no bathrooms out here. And it wasn’t safe to pee in the grass.
Ignore. Ignore. Ignore.
After a half hour or so, the vans pulled to the side of the road.
My driver took off his bullet proof vest, so I took off mine.
Greg stumbled out of the first van holding his helmet.
After some fast talking and instant translating, Greg got into the front seat of our van and Rosie jogged to the other van.
He got in slowly and put on his seatbelt.
“Got carsick.” He said. “Vomited in my helmet. A lot of vomit.”
We offered our sympathies.
The drivers poured water into his helmet, swished it around and then rinsed it again. They seemed unfazed by this helmet cleaning, perhaps they had done it before.
Two things came to mind:
1. Thought #1: Thank God he was the one riding backwards in that van. If it had been me, they would have to lay me on the grass and leave me here: I would have been sick for a week. There was a time I forgot about my aversion to riding backwards and become a flight attendant. Bad move. Bad, bad move.
2. Thought #2: What a great use for a helmet.
As we drove, we asked the driver questions.
“How long do soldiers from other countries stay when they join your army?”
He asked us why we came to Ukraine.
Andrew said that he felt that Ukraine was taking a “punch” for the west and wanted to help.
Greg said that he was an ex-service man and wanted to help them.
I said that I didn’t like war and I loved Ukraine so I was here to help.
We went through checkpoint after checkpoint while the soldiers tried to figure out what we were doing in this remote region.
One checkpoint delayed us longer than the others. They looked in our vans, studied our faces.
I heard a phone go off. It played the tune, “Rocket Man” by Elton John. It was a slower version, sung by a woman. His phone went off again and again playing the chorus again and again.
The song is based on a Ray Bradbury story with the same name about a man who loves the stars as much as he loves his family and is torn between his two loves while suffering great loneliness up in space.
I wondered if the head soldier, who’s phone played this tune, loved war as much as he loved his family. Or did he consider himself a misunderstood rocket man? Did he understand the English lyrics, or did he think it was a war song about war?
We made it back to Zaporizhzhia and went right to the train station. We lugged 27 computers with us so that we didn’t have to wait for the vans to arrive in L’viv where we would hand them out.
Computers are heavy.
We rushed to the snack bar. My friends bought bags of doughy foods to eat for dinner and some drinks.
There were no gluten-free choices for my dinner.
We found our way to the platform and then when the train arrived, we carried our backpacks and lugged the children’s computers to our compartments.
Once again the men had one compartment. This time we had no grouchy Ukrainian woman sharing our place. Nobody got on at our stop; it was relaxing having our own place to stretch out.
While they ate dinner in the guy’s compartment, I took a few minutes to myself and ate a beef stick while I watched the beautiful landscape go by. Wheat fields. Soybean fields (I think). Wheat fields. Forest.
When the train stopped at the next stop for a fifteen-minute break, Rosie and Oksana stepped onto the platform to cool off; the train was so hot.
I remained in our little room. If anyone came for that one sold seat, I was going to try to talk that person into moving to the other compartment at the other end of the car. Luksaz always buys extra seats on the train just in case we need them.
A man entered. I tried to start a conversation, but he didn’t speak English.
Luksaz stepped in and spoke fast. The man asked to see the other car.
Nope. He wouldn’t move.
So we three women would be sharing a compartment with a strange man.
He refused to join us in conversation. He sat on his seat playing on his phone.
I noticed that he was not dressed like a soldier even though he appeared to be in his thirties. Maybe he was special forces? For a young man to be able to unflinchingly turn down an older mans request showed that he had some level of confidence.
He played games on his phone, answered emails and watched bits of movies. He moved around a lot as if he couldn’t get comfortable, but seemed unaffected by our constant chattering.
Yes I watched him while the three of us sat on the opposite bunk and used the translation programs on our phones to get to know Oksana.
She asked what kind of work we did. Then we asked her.
She asked what we did for fun, and then we asked her.
She showed a video of her and her friends sitting behind sewing machines and explained that they taught themselves how to sew when the war started “so we could help the boys.”
The video showed stretchers made out of black material, gadgets for holding things and a grass costume.
I grabbed the translation program and switched it so I could speak in English and it would translate to Polish. “Wait. You made that grass suit?”
She read my words and shook her head, yes.
I said to Rosie, “She made that grass suit.”
Rosie leaned forward and spoke without the translation program. “You sewed it? With material?”
Oksana nodded and shrugged, as if building a life-saving grass suit was the perfect project for a beginning seamstress.
Then she showed us photos of her children and grandchildren.
I said to Rosie, “I thought she was thirty.”
Rosie said, “I thought she was late twenties.”
I asked how old she was and how she could have grandchildren when she was so young through the translation program.
She wrote back, “22.”
Rosie and I agreed that we were all 22. We never got her to give us a more precise age.
How? How did she look so young?
We chatted this way for an hour or so and then she asked us how to curse in our language.
We may have been laughing a bit loud as three woman who were raised on three different languages (Rosie—Afrikaans, Oksana—Ukrainian, Holly—English) compared words.
Rosie said, “Kak” and I thought she said “Cock” and so we were all very confused. It seems that in South Africa you can call someone a kak when they are acting like an asshole.
I stood up too fast, and hit my head on the upper bunk.
And then when I sat down, I hit it again.
When I was ready to go to bed, I climbed to my upper bunk and hit my head again, this time harder.
I bent over and held my head in my hands.
Ow. Ow. Ow.
For the first time, Oksana was willing to speak English. “No more Holly. Dead. Oh my God.”
She pronounced me dead?
We laughed into the night.
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