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Odyssey and meeting around Kyiv [Ukraine]

Kyiv. Ukraine. Chronicle and interview about solidary organization from below (but not only) in Ukraine.

Originally published by Lundi Matin. Translated by Riot Turtle.

Some people close to Lundi Matin went to Ukraine to meet up with some of their friends, to give a hand where possible and to try to understand the situation beyond online fundraising and geopolitical statements. You can find all their stories, reflections and some photos on the “Ici Transcarpatie” blog that they have been running since the beginning of the trip. Two weeks ago, they sent us a report about the delivery of an ambulance from Transcarpathia (in the west of Ukraine, for the moment spared by the Russian army) to Kyiv. This week, we publish the continuation of this trip to Kyiv with an “Odyssye in Kyiv” which tries to give an account of the atmosphere around the capital, a few days before the withdrawal of the Russian troops as well as an interview with Sergueï who guided and invited our friends to his place. Through these words we discover how much the civilian population helps each other in a massive and decentralized way and, most of the time, outside of commercial relationships.

Odyssye in Kyiv

The following text was written from notes taken between the end of March and the beginning of April, after a delivery of equipment to Kyiv (see article). At that time, Russian troops were on the outskirts of the Ukrainian capital without being able to move in. They have since retreated to concentrate in the Donbass region.

The day after the delivery of the ambulance, Liet and I decided not to go directly to the Carpathians. Sergueï will return in a week and in the meantime we will discover with him how, since his activities before the war, he sets up a network of solidarity (see the interview with Sergueï below). These few days of immersion will allow us to better understand the way life works in a city partly under siege.

We have thus burned up the kilometers by car between Sergueï’s house in the small village of Rozhivka and the immensity of Kyiv to stay there for five days.

1) A day, the night of Saturday March 26 and Tuesday March 29. About twenty kilometers north of Kyiv, at Sergueï’s place, in Rozhivska. First impressions.

At the end of the last buildings empty plains appear, the end of the capital.

Dimwitted, I write in my notebook in tiny characters.

Ghost villages, lights out, locked houses.

The Russian army is not far away.

The sound of wheels betrays the silence, the car slides into the night.

We move with headlights in the house.

We don’t hear the war (for the moment), unlike in Kyiv, but the wind shakes the Scots pine.

The soil is sandy, you would think you were in Landes. [1]

Strange atmosphere in this new house dropped there like a cinder block on a deserted beach.

In spite of everything, my senses search in vain for the ocean.

Image: Stop ! Mines

Three kilometers to the east is the village of Skybyn north of Brovary, which is north of Kyiv. After this village lies the no-man’s-land before the positions of the Russian army.

It was here that a column of a dozen tanks was routed by a Ukrainian ambush at the beginning of the invasion.

A small oligarch from Brovary, a friend of Sergueï, owns an important tomato and cucumber plantation. His 38 hectares of greenhouses are inoperative since the beginning of the war.

Millions of tomato plants left to their fate are slowly drying up.

The bombardments are too close, it is impossible to ensure the safety of the 600 employees.

The surrounding neighborhoods are almost deserted, the majority of the inhabitants have decided to leave the area.

Our little oligarch stays here with two of his friends in a villa aesthetically worthy of Tony Montana’s [2], only much more modest. He sells tomatoes and cucumbers, not cocaine.

The wives and children of the three men have left to take refuge elsewhere, so they sleep in cots in the cellar under the kitchen, among friends.

Sinister faces, black jogging suits, big bottles, rings and gold chains. Their mobster look comes straight out of a Scorsese movie and contrasts well with their childlike good-naturedness and their passion to cuddle the house cat.

In the garden, a big Ukrainian flag proudly waves, as a warning to any Russian soldier who might dare to venture into the area.

A bible lies on a pompous piece of furniture in the middle of orthodox icons, the protection provided by God seems insufficient to defend itself.

On both sides of the front, one prays for its protection, one could be tempted to see a certain paradox there.

We are shown a collection of sabers and a mosin, a Soviet rifle emblematic for the Second World War.

That won’t be enough either.

Their confidence and innuendo let us know that they have what it takes.

They are ready to die here as heroes.

Then they decided to take us to the last positions of the Territorial Defense, very close to the front line.

In a few minutes we are at the end of an expressway intersperse with Czech iron hedgehogs [3] of concrete sills and various debris.

It is a strategic axis because it leads straight to the center of Kyiv from the northeast.

Tribute to the “Heavenly Hundred”, the hundred activists who died in the Maidan battles

We arrive at the foot of an elevated railroad track, where we are greeted by some members of a battalion. The adrenaline and the tension are palpable.

They give us chocolates before they take us to the outposts in a black van.

We finish on foot, zigzagging between the anti-tank mines.

In the distance we see Russian tanks, standing still in front of a Coca-Cola factory.

Two different shades of red.

The empires come together.

Full of sand, the wind, again, rubs our faces and sweeps the road.

Dry and cold, in this dramaturgy, it performs its role brilliantly.

It blows wherever it wants and every soldier is a death row inmate.

A young Russian man rests here in his uniform.

Human debris among the debris of tanks and bombed out houses.

Spared by the missiles with submunitions, some are still inhabited.

A horizon full of promises

2) Another day. My rough notes zigzag between numerous stops, checkpoints and potholes.

Back in the streets of Kyiv, it takes me longer to differentiate between ordinary decay and the traces of war rather than the sound of an exploding Russian missile destroyed by an air defense missile.

How is it possible that the whole city is shaking from so far away?

The eye is also sharpened, in the many checkpoints we distinguish those operated by the regular army from those of the volunteer battalions.

Subtleties in equipment, attitudes and behavior.

From a certain point of view, the front is only a small part of the war, a kind of mirage where it is firing in bursts.

A game between presence and absence

The absence of his children and his wife in Sergueï’s house, of the whole family in the apartments of his friends, where everything shows that they left in a hurry.

Brovary, Skybin, Butcha, Marioupol, Kharkiv, Kramatorsk…

The names of the cities appear to me as they get bombed.

Interview with Sergueï

Sergueï is one of the many diverse people you can meet in one or the other of the two houses of the Longo Maï cooperative [4].

in Ukraine. The interview is a bricolage made out of the discussions we had during two trips we did together. First the delivery of an ambulance to a group of paramedics in Kyiv (see the report about this trip, also published on Lundimatin here – French) and second the delivery of material and food to Zaporizhzhia.

How did you join the Longo Maï farm in Ukraine?

I know Vladimir [5] who owned a Hotel in Svydovets Park for a long time and he knows Longo Maï from the Free Svydovets Wrestling [6] .

I came there for the first time 7 days after the beginning of the Russian invasion. I wanted to bring my family across the border. Then I was asked if I could help with the transportation of refugees.

Where are your other family members?

In Dortmund, Germany. My wife wanted to leave before the attack started because she was sure it was going to happen but I didn’t believe it. When the invasion started we decided not to leave in panic together with millions of other people.

So my wife, our two children, Lea and Lukas, are with friends there [in Dortmund] now.

When do you think they will be back?

For the time being, I think the war will continue and I don’t think it’s possible for them to come back before next year, early 2023.

What did you do before the war?

Under normal circumstances, I do quite a few things. I am a consultant in real estate services, I organize sports trips and I run a small solidary industrial bakery with about 20 employees, a social café and I was in the process of opening my own bar.

The bakery and the social café are social projects from below, my friend and ex-colleague who runs Zeelandia [7] (I don’t work there anymore) has a son with Down’s syndrome and he decided to create a dynamic that makes their integration possible. In the bakery as in the social café the idea is to give them the opportunity to be confronted with life in society in order to eventually become autonomous.

The bakery is called 21.3, 21 for Down Syndrome (trisomy 21) and 3 for the three stages of social integration: 1) discovery/immersion/familiarization in a mixed environment, 2) integration at work and 3) autonomy.

Zeelandia

What has happened to all these activities since the invasion began?

I have stopped all my consulting and organization of sports trips. The café has not been able to open but I have decided to change it, in a few days, into a distribution point for food and other items if needed, free hot meals and a place to share and exchange.

In the bakery, all the workers are volunteers, except for a manager on whom the production depends. At the beginning of the war only 2/3 of the workers were present instead of the 16 employees in normal times, and now there are about ten. Many people want to help in one way or another. My friend from Zeelandia is trying to find funds to try to pay everyone at least partially.

The bakery

Currently we produce 1300 breads of 400g twice a day and cakes.
The distribution is mainly done at the social café with soup, 270 per day, but also at the checkpoints in a clinic in Brovary. At the bakery, the locals can come and help themselves at fixed times.

Preparation and distribution of bread
Preparation and distribution of bread

Everything is distributed for free.

There are other distribution points in the city like in Druzy Christa, a protestant church where we went together but I think that it is necessary to multiply the distribution points so that it is accessible for people who cannot move easily. Especially with the checkpoints, the partial and random maintenance of public transport and the curfews.

We don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but for now it’s quiet in Kyiv, even if there are bombings in the surrounding area. On the other hand, around Marioupol and Donbass many people are in need and with the possibility of an evacuation corridor, the number of people will increase. With the help of Longo I think that it would be interesting to do something there based on the same model as here, but we have to figure that out first.

Ok I see the idea of help and solidarity but in practice it costs money, how do you manage to pay the expenses when everything is distributed for free?

First of all, you have to know that for me, it is impossible to think about making money during the war. People are in need and the question is: how to help when you can? And not “how to make profit“?

Entrepreneurship can be resumed later, at an appropriate time.

For the bakery, I am in charge of raising funds to pay the expenses of the bakery but a friend, who is the CEO of Zeelandia, in Brovary provides all the ingredients for free, he manages to get donations to finance the losses but I am not in charge of that so I don’t know exactly how they work. For the rest, the workers are volunteers as I said before. The social café is also subsidized, people are in charge of finding funds.
For my café I use my personal funds and when I go back and forth to the Carpathians and bring people also. I also use my connections to get donations of materials and technical support.

In fact, the main expenses for me are gas and the car, the rest is almost nothing, especially since I am always invited to eat at different places than my home.

I can mention my friend Andrii too, he is a caterer and currently he provides 300 to 1000 meals a day for free for police officers and territorial defense personnel who are on the checkpoints: the local authorities provide him with the ingredients and he works for free.

But I imagine that he has a contract that will allow him to keep this customer base afterwards, right?

No, he only has a one-time contract, when a normal situation returns, there will be a bidding process for these contracts.

And it doesn’t worry you that afterwards, companies that participate little or not at all in the war effort as you do, will get the contracts back? Because we can see that there is a big effort on your part and it would be normal that there is some form of recognition in the future, isn’t it?

You know, this is not the first time that the country is in crisis and we are used to the idea that we have to start from scratch or close to it.

Maybe there will be a kind of “Marshall Plan” after the war, maybe not, maybe we’ll benefit a little bit from it, or maybe big multinationals will grab the subsidies and the contracts…

Those who profit from the war, that’s their business; we don’t expect recognition, we know why we do it.

Inside the bakery

What are local or state authorities doing to help the population?

As you could see, in the protestant churches where we went (in Khmelnytskyï and Kyiv) many families are welcomed, food and basic products are stored and distributed. You also saw that no one cares about wearing masks and the standards are obviously not respected. We can consider the fact that the authorities do not hinder us as a form of support.

In Brovary, volunteers organized a storage and distribution area in the gym. And then one day, the mayor decided to take it over under the direction of city hall and communicated that it was their initiative…

It should be noted that for some elected officials, this is an easy opportunity to request additional budgets.

For example, in one of the villages where we went together, 80% of the food is managed by the municipality and nobody knows where it goes.

I prefer to participate and organize networks from already established contacts or from trusted person to trusted person.

And these networks, in the event of a new crisis, a new problem, we can say that they will be mobilized again.

But in Kyiv it seems that the mayor is more progressive and the network of volunteers is quite big.

How much aid is provided by the people and how much is provided by local authorities?

I can only speak for the Brovary district but I would say that 85% of the support and solidarity is provided by local people.

It took a long time before the mayor woke up, between 10 and 12 days before he did anything: everyone was wondering where he was hiding. Whereas the volunteers reacted very fast.

As far as the state is concerned, I think that the military response was more than adequate and that Zelensky was effective.

As for the support and solidarity, it is the people who have been very strong.

Have you thought about joining the army, or the territorial defense?

I thought about it but I am convinced that I am more competent in the background than in combat, a field in which I have no experience. The bakery, the café, the social café are quite useful, moreover it is officially considered of public interest in wartime. Thanks to this, I have an exemption from conscription. However, I still realized after the annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbass that things had to be taken seriously, so I decided to do a short training course on paramedical skills in the Asap Rescue battalion [8]. and I also did a firearms training for six months (one or two days a week) in a private organization. Anyway, taking up arms, I’m willing to do that but it would mean that war is widespread and even if I enlist, I’ll make sure to be an EMT.

What is certain is that if the country will be annexed to Russia I prefer to go into exile.

Somewhere in Brovary

Notes

[1] Landes is a department in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region of Southwestern France, with a long coastline on the Atlantic Ocean to the west. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landes_(department)

[2] Antonio Montana (Tony Montana) is a fictional character and the protagonist of the 1983 film Scarface. He is portrayed by Al Pacino in the film and is voiced by André Sogliuzzo in the 2006 video game Scarface: The World Is Yours. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Montana

[3] These are obstacle-type anti-tank devices…

[4] https://www.prolongomaif.ch/

[5] Vladimir is involved in the “free Svydovets” struggle

[6] See the struggle for the protection of the Svydovets forest against the construction of a ski resort: https://freesvydovets.org/en/

[7] Zeelandia is a company that offers flour mixes for industrial bakeries.

[8] https://asap-rescue.com/en/


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