By Sam Patten

They let me have my own mattress because I am a foreign visitor. Five of us slept in one room, four in another and three in a small bedroom downstairs. Yesterday afternoon, I came over the Romanian border with an American friend and arrived in a small Western Ukrainian city where he had rented an apartment over a dental clinic to temporarily house Ukrainians seeking shelter from the war that is raging throughout the country.

Ukrainian refuges cross the border with Romania. Photo courtesy of Sam Patten

Near the Carpathian mountain range, this has been a small vacation destination, where Ukrainians from cities to the East would come in good times to enjoy the countryside. In Western Ukrainian regions, the traditions blend with those of neighboring Romania and Poland.

The region is also known for smuggling, which, in the current context, takes on a humanitarian aspect. People go out, and supplies to support those who remain behind come in.

Anatoliy speaks with Romanian journalist about sending his family to Poland and staying behind to help. Photo courtesy of Sam Patten

As I write, Olga is shredding carrots, soaking mushrooms and chopping potatoes on the kitchen table we are now sharing in order to prepare a stew for the daily meal for comers and goers. She is master of this house, so to speak. Her husband Roman makes things happen beyond its walls, like getting the truckload of medical supplies through today that follow the SUV full of various items we brought in yesterday.

Local dogs give me a once over. Photo courtesy of Sam Patten

Being internally displaced persons is not new to these two or their teenage son. They are from the Southeastern region of Donetsk, where Roman once ran a chain of fitness centers and small restaurants. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea and sponsorship of breakaway regions within Donetsk and Luhansk in 2014, they moved West to Kyiv. Three weeks ago, they moved here along with two small dogs, a cat and a rabbit, which curiously sniffs my sock.

Before the war, Anastasiya ran a small Kyiv-based company she founded that turns used sacks manufactured in the United States and elsewhere for seeds or food staples like rice and flour into designer clothing. For now that’s on hold. Here she is trying to get basic survival supplies back East to elderly friends and relatives who could not or would not leave when the war began.

Anastasiya left her clothing design business behind in Kyiv. Photo courtesy of Sam Patten

“For us, it is hard to hope because the invasion that started last month was not the beginning,” Anatoliy who worked in community relations of one of Ukraine’s largest conglomerates explains, “We have been in a state of siege for eight years now. Just before the recent fighting began, I sent my family to Poland where they are safer. The kids think it is a vacation – for now it is better that way.”

Yesterday two Romanian friends joined us in coming here. Camelia, a TV journalist and her husband Marian, managed somehow to rent a hotel room, which seemed impressive given that all the hotels here are packed with internally displaced people. But when they arrived to check in an hour before curfew, they learned it was right next to the local airport, which is naturally a military target. They spent the night anyway, keeping their curtains closed and the lights out.

The ad hoc relief organization that my friend set up when the war began more than three weeks ago is scrambling to meet the needs of Ukrainians who decided not to leave. He has been raising money from friends and associates, and in addition to renting the apartment has purchased a vehicle and a wide range of supplies for people in need. Many larger and well-established outfits are set up on the border, but their focus is on the refugees leaving. But it is unrealistic to expect an entire country to evacuate.

Civilian car on which is written the Russian word for children. Photo courtesy of Sam Patten

“I just wanted people to feel safe,” my friend, the founder, tells me as I ask him about the heavy-duty coffee machine he purchased for temporary residents. “In a situation like this, the least people can expect is good coffee.” To date, he’s plowed in enough of his own resources to make a down payment on a house back home.

(Given my own checkered past, I am being purposefully oblique about names so as not to cast any shade on a nascent group that is saving lives.)

It is difficult to overstate the resilience of the Ukrainian people, who have suffered enormously in the last century, most notably from Josef Stalin’s Holodomyr, or forced starvation of four million as punishment for not complying with his forced collectivization program in the 1930s. That is but one reason why it is always special to be fed by a Ukrainian.

Today the onus of the misery and destruction being heaped on these people with no provocation lies entirely at the feet of Russian President Vladimir Putin. I sense but have no evidence to support that many Russian soldiers abhor what they have been ordered to do, as anecdotal reports of conscripts shooting themselves in the foot to avoid the fierce resistance of Ukrainians suggest.

Is the giant covertly tying one arm behind its own back?

American media is rife with reports of Russian military underperformance. It’s much too early to gloat, and what I’m seeing here supports that. In an instant, things anywhere can become much worse, as they are in Kharkiv or Mariupol where civilians are being indiscriminately targeted. This morning I walked past a parked car on the windows of which the owner had plastered paper signs that read, in Russian, “children.”

Hope, the saying goes, dies last.

Denis is a veteran of the Donbas and now is a defender of Kyiv. Photo courtesy of Sam Patten

Volunteers load a truck with medical supplies headed to the front. Photo courtesy of Sam Patten

 

Related Headlines