Look no further than the Ukrainian people for hope as Russia’s onslaught continues


UKRAINE — Despite the darkness that the onslaught of conflict carries and the notion that war reveals the worst of humanity, it is evident that such trying times also bring out the best.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine ignited last week, the embattled country’s residents have come together in Facebook groups to publicize the desperate and life-saving needs of those in the besieged capital of Kyiv.

The most necessary items, for now, are medicine and medical supplies for the troops on the front lines. But given that much of the capital is shuttered, civilians are without critical and life-saving medicine, too.  

A spirited young professional named Inna is taking me with her from the country’s border with the Hungarian village of Tiszabecs to Kyiv, where she and others are trying to help as many of their countrymen as possible.

Our small car is overstuffed with supplies from food to medicine to basic necessities, mainly earmarked for volunteer defense forces repelling the Russian advance day and night.

A map of Russian attacks in Ukraine as of Tuesday, March 1st, 2022.

It is a 500-mile drive that would normally take around eight hours. But Inna cautions that taking the country’s small back roads snaking through its tiny towns is going to be the best option to avoid potential fire by the Russian invaders, so the drive will likely be 20 hours.

Groups of people have organized to work around the clock to source prescriptions from neighboring countries, with mixed success.

Nonetheless, Ukrainians won’t stop trying. The outpouring of support from the outside and in has been overwhelming, although there are snags. One group raised several thousands of dollars to purchase much-needed armored vests and helmets for resistance fighters, but the issue has been in purchasing the items from a nearby country and finding someone to bring them to hot spots.

Scenes from Ukraine
At the beginning of her journey Hollie Mckay witnessed a long line of women and children attempting to flee to the Hungarian village of Tiszabecs.
Hollie McKay

The logistical operations are never-ending, with Ukrainians risking their lives to drive across the country to deliver whatever they can to those caught in the bloodletting.

In the relative safety of Ukraine’s west, a woman in a group of people at a local pharmacy rattles off a catalog of needed medicines.

“What is that list for?” an elderly male customer asks.

“Kyiv,” come the responses.

Scenes from Ukraine
Ukrainian citizens are risking their lives, evading Russian fire by journeying through backroads, to deliver food, medicine, and military supplies from neighboring countries to the front.
Hollie McKay

The elderly man’s face becomes grim, and he opens his wallet to give whatever notes of money he has without question, stressing that he wishes he had more to assist his brethren.

Locals speak of pharmacies opening their doors to them and insisting volunteers take whatever they need, and restaurants once busy with business now devote all their time and resources cooking for the men and women who have gone to fight.

Despite the dire situation, Ukrainian hospitality does not waver, as locals still hold to the tethers left of their former life.

Scenes from Ukraine
Men stand in the freezing cold behind sandbagged lines, lucky to have body armor.
Hollie McKay

In the Vynohradiv, Zakarpattia, area, a man brings out large bottles of homemade red wine disguised in plastic water bottles as a gift to us, assuring me with a jovial smile that his country possesses some of the best grapes in the world.

Still, phone calls among Ukraine’s residents are filled with tears and trauma — and are as constant as they are chilling.

Stories pour in of traumatized children living in bunkers burrowed into the earth or being unable to even flee their homes in eastern pockets of the country because of bombed and blistered bridges.

At one point on our journey, we stop for a tea break and huddle around a small television in a local apartment. It is broadcasting routine footage of Ukrainians on the battlefield accompanied by overlays of the country’s blue and yellow flag and the national anthem.

Road block
Ukrainian officials are urging locals to fix or destroy Russian symbols that are placed on the sides of Ukrainian roads that either signal an incoming attack or are used as an intimidation tactic.
Hollie McKay

“These things are very important to us,” explains a tearful woman Luda, who is traveling with us to Kyiv. “These things help us to keep going.”

Starting out on our trip, there was a long line of women and small children dragging small suitcases across the icy pavement toward the seeming haven of Tiszabecs.

But otherwise, the western swath of Ukraine still carried a veil of normalcy: people peddling rusty bicycles through towns in the mid-morning light, bustling grocery stores and the sight of snow-dusted, quaint homes in the forest far removed from the fear clogging Kyiv.

The shroud of ordinariness was distorted somewhat by strange markings appearing at random intervals along our journey to Kyiv, though: amber circles with crosses through them and bright red Xs closer to road edges.

According to the State Agency of Automobile Roads of Ukraine, these are part of the signal system used by Russian forces, especially at night, to plot their trajectory of war.

The signs suggest infiltrators have come to the areas in recent days or weeks to paint them, and Ukrainian authorities are pressing residents “to fix and destroy similar signs on roads and other infrastructure objects.”

Scenes from Ukraine
Ukrainians are trying to hold onto hope amid the Russian onslaught.
Hollie McKay

“We aren’t sure if these are genuine targets or just used as intimidation tactics to make Ukrainians feel intimidated and frightened,” Luda said.

As we glide along barren roads to the central city of Ivan-Frankivsk, the sense of anxiety deepens. People stuff their car with as much of their life as they can as they desperately head away from their homeland.

“We are OK now, but I don’t want to wait for the war to come here,” a tearful elderly woman said along our route. “So we must leave our men and go.”

Weaving through villages and as far from airports as possible, given their propensity for being targeted by the enemy, we are stopped at more than a dozen unofficial checkpoints run by local residents who want to ensure they know the identities of those entering their terrain.

Ukraine
Throughout her journey, Hollie McKay and Inna were stopped at several unofficial checkpoints run by locals who want to ensure they know who is entering their area.
Hollie McKay

The closer we get to Kyiv, the more ominous the situation becomes as darkness falls.”

We are instructed to drive with low lights despite the pitch black, snow-speckled skies. As we approach a virtually invisible checkpoint run by the military, there is only a flash of a light in the distance signaling us to turn off all headlights and proceed slowly only with our interior lights on.

Even the handful of gas stations that remain open, and often with long lines, operate in almost complete darkness. Streetlights are gone, and cities and towns alike are pitch ebony.

It is a strange new world for Ukrainians used to traversing their expansive nation with freedom and ease. The black skies are unsettling, and there is safety in the misty light of day, even though it does not make one any safer from bombing.

Scenes from Ukraine
A sense of mist and gloom pervades Ukraine.
Hollie Mckay

When I would previously tell troops that I am a journalist from the US, my presence attracted the ire of suspicion. But Ukrainians now respond with gratitude.

It is evident that they want the world to know what is happening to them, how their Russian neighbor has ripped their lives apart.

It is jarring to see many of the men standing for hours in the below-freezing night behind sandbagged lines, unable to even build fires for warmth, sometimes with little more than a thin winter coat and body armor if they are lucky.

The men inform us that they don’t need food, but they need tourniquets and other medical fundamentals should artillery strike.

As the ghost-like capital comes into view, roads are almost entirely deserted, blurred by tendrils of dawn mist and gloom. Soldiers warn that the grim 40-mile Russian convoy of tanks and troops advancing toward the city center is just miles away.

Kyiv
Kyiv is a virtual ghost town, with roads and bridges deserted as a Russian convoy approaches from less than 40 miles away.
Hollie McKay

Emotions run high, but if they are scared, many Ukrainians do their best not to show it, sure that a victory is within reach and expressing deep pride for their fighters and President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has refused to leave his embattled nation despite the direct threats against his life.

As the dread moves closer, Ukrainians brace, heads held high.

“Good luck, girls,” an elderly soldier says softly at a checkpoint.

“Viva Ukraine.”



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