MEDYKA-SHEHYNI BORDER CROSSING, Ukraine—
It begins with a note on Facebook: the next batch of helmets for the Ukrainian soldiers has arrived at the border with Poland. They need to be carried across into Ukraine, one by one. “It looks like the operation will last three days. We won’t be able to get them across in one night.”
This is the pedestrian border crossing at Medyka, on Poland’s eastern border. The long walkway through Polish and then Ukrainian passport control stretches ahead between high fences, exposed to sun, rain and snow. Here and there delicate flowers grow on the metal fencing. On the other side of the fence, the queue of cars stretches back into infinity. Crossing by foot is the quickest (and cheapest) route between Ukraine and Poland. I’ve crossed this border in every season, carrying five pounds of apples from a friend’s garden in summer, or queuing for hours on the treacherous ice, hurrying to catch a train home for Christmas.
Over the past six months, Ukraine has experienced a revolution, the loss of Crimea and now an armed conflict against Russia-backed rebels that is tearing the country’s east to pieces. And business at the border has become part of the war effort. Yes, during the day trade continues as before: On the Polish side, locals stand around selling the same cheap vodka from Ukraine, the same cheap cigarettes. Others head in the other direction, laden with heavy bags of groceries and other household goods, which are overpriced or unavailable in Ukraine, to sell on in their hometowns. It’s their job.
But when the sun goes down, a new type of character appears at the border. They are known locally as “ants”, because of the heavy weight they carry on their backs: an army of volunteers from the surrounding area who carry helmets and body armor across the border, one at a time.
There’s a dire shortage of these non-weapon supplies in the Ukrainian army. Ukraine’s factories cannot produce them fast enough and Kiev’s efforts to purchase them abroad are proceeding sluggishly (some locals smell corruption). Meanwhile, the death toll of Ukrainian soldiers keeps rising, with over 270 servicemen killed since conflict in the east began, according to official figures. Many of them come from Ukraine’s west, which strongly supported the anti-government protests in Kiev.
In Shehyni, on the Ukrainian side of the border, most pedestrians crowd into a yellow minibus—known as a marshrutka—bound for Lviv, the main city in western Ukraine. It lurches through the villages, overloaded and sweaty, to the beat of folk music. Low houses drown in a sea of green; the boughs sag with apples and cherries, and corn and beans grow high in the gardens. In one village, the bus passes a funeral procession of gaudy wreaths, a bearded Ukrainian Greek Catholic priest and the parents sobbing quietly at the end. We have no idea what happened, but each of us in the overcrowded minibus turns to watch.
Ukrainian men are being sent off to the east, with or without the necessary equipment
These are the same roads that the army surplus caravans take—once the supplies cross the border, they are usually taken to Lviv. It’s all part of the ad hoc, expanding war effort in Ukraine, in which the fight is growing faster than either side’s ability to supply its soldiers.
Ukrainian men are being sent off to the east, with or without the necessary equipment. Mykola, a young officer from Lviv, spent over a month along the Russian border, in the separatist-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk regions, without a helmet or body armor. When his unit—the legendary 24th Mechanized Brigade from Lviv—was hit by a rebel rocket attack on July 11, killing at least 20 soldiers, he took the helmet from the head of his fallen comrade, his wife tells me.
How do a soldier’s chances of survival fall when they have no body armor? How can the Ukrainian government send these men—many in their early 20s—off into rebel-occupied territory without so much as a helmet? Olena, who has been collecting money for the families of the dead and wounded in Lviv, began by asking the eastward-bound soldiers why they had joined. She usually got the same reply: “If not me, then who?”
While Kiev spoke about how it will be buying more body armour from abroad, local activists decided to take matters into their own hands, buying second-hand army surplus equipment from abroad, where it can be three to four times cheaper, and then getting it across the border into Ukraine. One of the masterminds behind this is Valeriy Veremchuk, the leader of the Self-Defense Organization of Lviv—the volunteer units that withstood the riot police on Kiev’s Independence Square this winter.
Inside the entrance of Self-Defense’s headquarters, in lofty apartment off one of Lviv’s broad boulevards, a man poses with a massive helmet. “It’s a good one,” Veremchuk nods approvingly. He leads me into a high-ceilinged room with an antique tile stove hulking in the corner, a remnant of the Habsburg era, when Lviv was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. “If you’d come a day earlier, there would have been nowhere to stand,” he smiles, moving aside a pile of uniforms with German flags on them so that we can sit at the table. Volunteers packed up several tons of equipment and sent it off to the east that morning.
When the fighting began in the east, Self-Defense received requests from soldiers and their families for equipment. Using experience and teams inherited from the days of the protests, it sent scouts across the European Union for the used goods. So far, it has raised some 5 million hryvnia (about $430,000) from donations big and small. In a country plagued by corruption, Self-Defence’s activists emphasise transparency, listing its donations and expenditure on a spreadsheet on its website. They deliver this equipment to the east themselves, without going through the defence ministry. Last week, a 35-ton delivery of equipment, as well as everyday supplies donated by local businesses, reached the zone of the fighting from Lviv.
The Ukrainian authorities don’t get in the way, but they aren’t helping either. “We don’t expect anything from them,” says Veremchuk. “We know we’ll sort it out faster ourselves.” One thing has remained unchanged even through the handover of power in Kiev: Ukrainians’ characteristic mistrust of official structures. Self-organization was one of the defining features of the “Euromaidan” protests over the winter months, and it remains so during the war in the east.
EU rules allow one piece of body armour, one helmet per person
Once a delivery is announced on social media, local volunteers gather in the evening, after work. Sometimes too many people—students, couples, volunteers from all walks of life—turn up to fit in the specially organized bus to the Shehyni-Medyka or other crossings. Once at the border, they get out and walk down the narrow walkway— a distance of almost a mile—to the Polish side. They show their documents—Ukrainians need a visa or special “small border traffic” permit to enter EU countries, including Poland. Then they lug the bags of heavy equipment—a piece of body armor weighs around 15kg—back into Ukraine, one at a time. EU rules allow one piece of body armour, one helmet per person without a license, for personal use. “It’s for me and my wife’s personal self-protection,” a man told reporters in a Polish TV report, somewhat unconvincingly. Each of these trips from Lviv takes several hours; the drive to the border is about an hour and a half each way.
Poland will be accused of contributing to the death of Ukrainian soldiers
The so-called “ants” have reached a tacit understanding with the Polish border authorities. “People say this equipment is for their own protection—and that’s fine,” a border officer told the same Polish television station. All the same, there have been cases of bigger deliveries being stopped; earlier this month, two Ukrainians were caught trying to drive nearly 500 helmets across another border crossing, and could face up to ten years in prison. One Polish lawmaker suggested that the equipment should be handed over to Ukraine or else “Poland will be accused of contributing to the death of Ukrainian soldiers”. Meanwhile, Self-Defense’s scouts are in Germany, on the hunt for more equipment. The bill after every trip keeps growing, says Veremchuk, as private suppliers start playing with prices.
These nighttime border crossings add a new layer of improvisation, even absurdity, to the events unfolding in Ukraine over the past few months.
But with fighting in the east showing no sign of stopping, every helmet, every piece of body armour, could save a soldier’s life.