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 nightime 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.