War Zone Diaries #21 – Two Brave Ladies from Kharkiv
Olga and Małgorzata, two good friends for ages, were as shocked as the rest of the world by Russia’s brutal attack. They have a beautiful home in Kharkiv, near the city center. According to Małgorzata, Kharkiv was a peaceful city of close to 2 million, but never had that big city feel. More like a modest sized town where you were just as likely to run into friends at the market as to see a buddy in the park and certainly at church on Sunday. Małgorzata runs a successful roofing business and expected to continue in management for many years. Then the Russian bombs began to fall. Now she has fifty people–relatives, neighbors and friends–sheltering in her house.
When the invasion began, neither woman could believe what was happening. Most of the town had not stocked up on supplies. Just like Olga and Małgorzata, they believed invasion was not possible – that it just couldn’t happen. If you’ve been tracking the battle of Kharkiv, you know it is suffering attacks equal to that of Kyiv and without the same number of fighting forces to defend it. After the initial shock wore off, they decided they could not just stand by and watch. They made a decision: find the causes dearest to their hearts and jump to action.
Using roofing trucks from their now defunct business, they made two immediate runs to Poland and back to bring supplies: food, diapers, and two generators. Their first mission, support and supply a local shelter for homeless mothers housing forty women with their babies. When the attack began, the homeless mothers were personally invited (by the wife of the President of Poland) to relocate into Poland for safety. But these girls are impoverished, mostly late teen mothers who’d lived on the streets. They simply didn’t have the means. But now, with the aid of the Bishop of Kharkiv, two nuns and Olga, Małgorzata and their team, they have relocated the women and their babies into the monastery located in the relative safety of the western part of Ukraine.
The women have completed more than five supply runs, all of great help, but now the war has escalated. Both the tasks and the needs have become daunting. When I asked them when they’ll be finished, they said they won’t stop until the war is over or they are killed. Even with the Russian’s pounding all the city’s infrastructure to rubble – the sheer scale of the Russian bombing would repeatedly take out the power grid. Oddly, this gave Olga and Małgorzata reasons for hope. After each bombing, technicians, service personnel, the mailmen, even the garbage collectors went back to work. Obviously with severely limited capacities and under extreme duress, but it shows the determination of the people of the city of Kharkiv.
Małgorzata tells the story of her son and his girlfriend. They were in their basement during a rocket attack, and they told everyone that the building didn’t just shake. The whole building “jumped.” Many people who have experienced the battles in cities like Kharkiv and Kyiv where Russian artillery is pounding the city day and night have explained the phenomenon the same way. The feeling that the whole building lifts up off its foundation and jumps up in the air. In the case of her son, the power went out, but early on the next day, technicians came out to repair the lines.
But as much as there are survivors, there are also deep tragedies. Famine and death are a constant. Kharkiv is literally on the end of the line, well past Kyiv; much of the nation’s supply chain is simply not making it out that far. The war is not just dangerous for those on two legs, either. The new Kharkiv zoo where local schools once took children to learn about animals also became a battleground. Shelling has killed many animals, and quite a few have also escaped–lions, deer and an elephant. The zookeepers who went to feed and care for the animals were shot by the Russians. Now that the zookeepers can no longer approach, the animals are either slaughtered or run free. Many are wounded and will suffer until they reach their ultimate demise at the hands of artillery or the daily gun battles.
Are there any hopeful stories? Yes, many. Humanity will persevere, as both Olga and Małgorzata bear testimony to. The local Ukrainian soldiers who ring the city of Kharkiv in a defensive perimeter are sending videos of encouragement to its citizens telling them to “stay strong.” The soldiers crack jokes about Putin and give motivational speeches to raise the city’s spirits. Improbably, there is another kind of hope too. The city of Kharkiv was largely Russian. It is a very near neighbor to Russia and, because of its history, it has always been a close friend and seen Russians as brothers. Now… now, the entire city has turned utterly against Russia. As the ladies describe, everyone is now galvanized as simply “Ukrainian.”
Amid all this chaos, these two women also persevere and have no doubt, after speaking to them, I don’t believe they will ever quit until victory is achieved or the city lies in ruins. And even then, watch the videos and you’ll assume as I did, that they will be with the last residents, picking through the rubble and lending a hand to their brothers and sisters of Kharkiv.
AUTHOR’S NOTES: Olga and Małgorzata are using their own money. Gas, vehicle maintenance, paying their drivers, and of course buying load after load of supplies for the homeless mothers and the starving city of Kharkiv. If you’d like to help them send another load of food and supplies, here is their PayPal: [email protected] with a note “Roofer’s Help Ukraine”