A month into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, local activists and human rights advocates are working tirelessly to help the Ukrainian cause and those fleeing the war. Their job descriptions have changed overnight and their own lives have been turned upside down. But even though their lives are at risk, they are using their knowledge and connections to support others. Four nonprofit workers shared their stories with Helvetas Mosaic.
Helping from a distance
The car tank was full and suitcases packed in advance, but as she heard the first bomb strike Kyiv, Natalia still wondered if it was really happening. “No one believed that the attack would be on such a large scale,” she recalls. “My family and I left the city immediately using local roads to the west of the capital.”
Talking to Helvetas Mosaic a couple of weeks later, Natalia Zhuhay, a program officer with the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) and a mother of two, was in a hotel in Košice in Slovakia, not far from the Ukrainian border. “CIPE also has an office in Slovakia, so I can work from here. My younger son is with me. The older son and husband are in Uzhhorod, volunteering and helping people.”
Like many towns in western Ukraine, Uzhhorod has been mostly spared from deadly shelling. “But some colleagues are still in Kyiv or in neighboring regions,“ says Natalia. “We are trying to help them.” During the call, she said was especially afraid for her colleague Bohdan Mosunov and his family in Sumy, a northern city that was surrounded by the Russian army and under heavy bombardment.
Later in the week, Bohdan made it out of Sumy, using a green corridor for evacuation.
Normally, Natalia says, she would be in her office in the Ukrainian capital, working on various projects for CIPE. The organization has also partnered with Helvetas on the RECONOMY program that aims to revitalize transitioning economies in post-Soviet states and the Western Balkans.
“But all of us are working, even now, trying to do what we can to help people resist this horrible situation,” says Natalia. “CIPE has a lot of partners in Ukraine, representing businesses associations. They have connections and resources and are trying to help ordinary people with their urgent needs. We are supporting them in organizing logistics hubs to coordinate humanitarian aid among government, volunteers and donors.”
“For instance, in Kharkiv, which is under heavy fire, our two RECONOMY partners are running a big humanitarian hub. CIPE sends them money and supports them. They do a great job working closely with the city government, helping women and kids with food, medicine and other supplies. They are also helping people to evacuate,” Natalia says. Twelve hours or more is now a typical workday for her, she adds.
Natalia says she struggles to define her feelings right now. She is sad, yes, but also angry. “This won't end in a week. It takes time, but I believe we will win. We will go back and rebuild Ukraine.”
Out of the basement
Bohdan Mosunov wants to get back to Sumy as soon as possible. Not with a rifle, he says, but to help in any other way he can. Sumy, located on Ukraine’s northeast border with Russia, has seen dozens of deaths in the wake of the Russian aggression, and tens of thousands fleeing.
Bohdan, an expert on the regulatory policies and anticorruption working with CIPE, never wanted to leave. “But I knew we had to. My younger son was crying at night while we were under heavy bombing,” he says.
The family spent days and nights in a basement, listening to the horror outside. “The fighter jets were bombing all the time and flying just above our home – so low that the radars couldn’t notice them. A rocket hit not far away from our neighborhood, destroying five or six houses and killing people.”
It was in the basement that this photo was taken – Bohdan insists on publishing it. It shows his two children, in the dark, holding a message demanding a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Bohdan and his family are in Lviv in western Ukraine now. Like many others that fled, they used a green corridor established for the evacuation of civilians.
Prior to the war, Bohdan was fighting on a whole different level – against the burdens that the state imposes on small and micro businesses. “We were working with the RECONOMY program to make things easier for small businesses,“ says Bohdan. “CIPE helped create a national coalition of small businesses in Ukraine. I am planning to now use these contacts to help in every way possible,” he adds.
Like Natalia, Bohdan is confident that the Ukrainians will prevail. “I don’t hope for something – I know we will win. It is impressive that people running away from destroyed cities are also optimistic.”
There's always someone ready to help
Chernivtsi in southwestern Ukraine is famous for its architecture and cultural offerings, and has even been called “Little Vienna.” Olha Vesnianka visited the area many times over the years, including while reporting for the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle on a local poetry festival. Now it’s in Chernivtsi that this human rights activist from Kyiv is finding refuge.
Olha says she hopes to be only a “temporary guest” here and to return to Kyiv soon. “First, I resisted running away. But after twelve days of Russian attacks, all these sounds of artillery, alarms, hearing rumors about chemical weapons ... you don’t sleep well, you don’t eat well, you can't go out.”
Eventually, her friends put her name on the evacuation list and Rustem Skibin escorted her to the train station in Kyiv, where the above photo of two of them was taken. Skibin, a famous Crimean Tatar artist, now helps as a “humanitarian taxi” of sorts. “I was also helping people at the railway station while waiting for the train,” Olha says. “It is a good feeling to be able to help.”
Talking to Helvetas Mosaic around midnight in mid-March, she was asked what she would be doing right now if there was no war. “I would probably be watching YouTube or reality shows in English to relax before I go to sleep. In the daytime I would be preparing workshops for the media about gender-sensitive journalism. I was also working as consultant on minority rights. Or, I would be having meetings with Roma mediators.”
But now, with a brutal war underway, Olha is trying to help from a distance. “We created a coordination group with colleagues from Roma NGOs and initiatives, where we exchange news and help each other with practical stuff such as how to evacuate, where to find a place to stay.”
What makes her strong, she says, is the fact that she is actually succeeding in her efforts. “It is challenging. But if you try hard and call the right people, you'll always find someone to help – someone who would provide a car, apartment or food. People do show great solidarity in Ukraine, and abroad, for instance, in Poland.”
Before going to bed, Olha adds that she plans to sleep through the night. If there would is an air raid siren, she will not run to the shelter, but would maybe put some pillows in front of the glass windows. “I want the evil to face judgment. I am sure that Ukrainians would unite to kick it out,” she says. “Unfortunately, it might take years.”
A kind of superpower
The other Olha, last name Boyko, also thinks the war will continue for quite awhile. “We are winning. But it's going to get dark before it gets lighter. The fact is that Russia is still going to be our neighbor – this particular war will end, but the whole problem might last.”
Boyko works with the well-known ecological NGO Ecodiya in Kyiv. She coordinates the Climate Action Network for Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and Central Asia, networking daily with colleagues from Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere. There are 58 environmental NGOs working together across eleven countries in the post-Soviet region. “We are all about climate policy and about connecting people working on the same topic in different countries,” says Olha.
Olha has lived in Kyiv her entire life, but is now in Ternopil, halfway between Lviv and Chernivtsi. “We were anticipating the aggression. My boyfriend and I had packed our bags already. On the first day of the attacks, we managed to buy train tickets, but nobody was checking them – people were just getting on trains and leaving.”
“In the first days I didn’t really feel anything,“ she says. “There was only adrenaline and focus on surviving. Now my feelings depend on the situation outside and on the news about my family.”
Olha is a little afraid but also angry. This anger, Olha says, fuels her and her fellow Ukrainians’ determination. “We are in a privileged position compared to many people who have lost their jobs since the war started. We still have connections with international media and climate movements. We are using them right now to talk about what's happening.”
“This war is partially financed by the fossil fuel industry that is very developed in Russia,” Olha says. “So we advocate towards the EU and USA that they should stop buying fossil fuels from Russia. This message has worked well because activists around the world have been working on this for many years. There is finally a strong reason to leave fossil fuels more quickly.”
While organizing press briefings with experts, she understands it as a fight for the Ukrainian identity that is under attack. “Putin doesn’t want our resources or anything similar – he simply wants Ukraine not to exist. When someone wants to take your future, you feel this kind of superpower to fight it.”
Nemanja Rujević is a journalist with the German broadcaster DW and a reporter for the Belgrade-based weekly magazine Vreme.
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