Ukrainian grandmothers make camouflage as volunteers prepare to take the fight to Russia

Thousands of young people across Ukraine are banding together to assist with their country’s war effort

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Five hundred and forty kilometres west of Ukraine’s capital, Irina stands in a community centre thinking about her family.

“My parents are in Kyiv and for five days they sit in their shelter and send me voice notes, and in the background, I can hear bombs,” she tells The National. “I cannot sit here where it’s calm when I know near my house it is war.”

Tucked away in a children’s community centre on one of Lviv’s side streets, she is one of 300 volunteers making camouflage webbing to hide Ukrainian soldiers.

For the women and young men working in the children’s centre, it means tearing strips from old fabric and discarded clothes to help to conceal their loved ones fighting at the front.

Each volunteer is given a task and an area to work in. Fabric is cut or torn into strips, sorted into colours and then distributed to the many wooden frames that hold the nets. Young girls giggle with one another as they meticulously tie the material to nets. Elderly women sit in silence and tear strips with their bare hands.

Teenage boys listen to music on headphones while they slice up old T-shirts. Every member of the community has a job, and each person knows the importance of the role. For those repelling the Russian invasion, the nets could mean the difference between life and death.

“When I’m here I have to work, but here it’s easier because we are all together and we are strong and independent, and we know everything will be fine,” said Irina, who like many interviewed withheld her surname on request.

Irina’s sense of optimism is shared with everyone at the centre. The flurry creates a buzz in the air and sense of purpose. For Victor Makar, 22, his fight has already started. While he waits for his conscription papers to be processed, he doesn’t want to waste a second.

“I don’t need to waste time scrolling Instagram while I wait, so I come here to help my army with my hands.”

Men wait in line outside a gun shop in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. AFP.

After the UNHCR announced that one million refugees have fled Ukraine in a week and thousands of men of fighting age are barred from leaving the country, an army of volunteers has mobilised nationwide.

These volunteers help to make Molotov cocktails, build camouflage webbing, collect medical supplies and weld metal “hedgehogs” – large metal crosses designed to break the Russian momentum.

“Our city is full of Molotov cocktails! Right now, we are trying to help our brothers in Kyiv,” Heletron, 27, tells The National as he reaches into the boot of his car to retrieve aluminium powder. In the cold Lviv street in another part of town, he produces a deadly mixture of iron filings, petrol, white spirit and aluminium to present to The National. The subtle trembling of his hands belies his cool exterior.

“I think this war will be over in a week. Right now, we just stopped Putin’s wave of men and now we need to stop this war.”

Two hundred and fifty kilometres to the east of Lviv, where all the roads meet, is the central city of Khmelnytskyi. Tucked away in the red brick bunker of an apartment block near the centre, Olga, 44, cradles her 3-year-old son, Igor, in her lap. Even with the sound of air raid sirens piercing the night and the bunker walls, the atmosphere is jovial. Families huddle together and chat, their smile illuminated by the harsh fluorescent bulbs above.

I think this war will be over in a week. Right now, we just stopped Putin’s wave of men and now we need to stop this war
Heletron, 27

Olga’s sister lives in the Kharkiv, the city closest to the Russian border and one that has been the target of relentless bombardment. She calls her sister every day to check she is still alive. Olga is less blithe than her neighbours and she grips Igor a little tighter as she communicates her fears for Khmelnytskyi.

“I’m scared for my children. I’m scared that what is happening to my sister will come to this city.”

Dressed in a purple coat scattered with red stars and seemingly oblivious to his mother’s anxiety, Igor leans over and offers his toy robot to play with. He then jumps down and runs towards his young friends petting a neighbour’s dog. Olga looks up and offers a hopeful smile.

The next morning, Serhiy Poberezhnyi slaps his gloveless hands together to keep the blood running. Standing over six feet tall and built like the concrete foundations he is used to digging, the local construction foreman wears a wry smile as his men weld reinforced steel joists together to make the military Hedgehogs.

His construction yard sits six kilometres from the air raid bunker on the opposite side of the city and as families shelter for their lives, this merry band of resistance workers soldiers on. It’s a cold morning and the snow settles lightly on the metal joists before melting under the heat of the welding iron.

Less than a week ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on his countrymen to take up the fight against the Russian invasion.

“Everyone Ukrainian needs to remember one thing – if you can stop and destroy the occupiers – do it!” the president stated in a televised address.

Forty-year-old Mr Poberezhnyi and his band of construction workers have heeded the call with gusto.

“Our so-called Slavic brothers have come to our country, and we don’t want this kind of brother. We want to stop them by any means possible!”

On Tuesday morning, satellite imagery picked up a 64-kilometre convoy of Russian military vehicles heading for the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

Sparks fly behind the foreman as men weld giant road spikes to stop Russian armoured personnel carriers. Individual road spikes are bent into shape out of scrap metal from the yard. In an echo of the community hall in Lviv, everyone has a job on this factory line of resistance.

A flatbed trucks backs into the yard and it takes three men to life the hedgehogs onto the back for transportation to the front. Poberezhnyi slices his cold hand open in the process, waving it off with a laugh. Over his shoulder, a worker writes a message to the Russians directly on to a hedgehog in chalk. ‘Russian ship: **** you!’ A famous message sent to Russian war ships from the isolated soldiers of Zmiinyi Island. Now the rallying cry of Ukraine.

For every member of this volunteer army, the stakes are high. Every person The National spoke to has family members either affected by or involved in the fight. This is a monumental, concerted effort from almost every Ukrainian. Mr Poberezhnyi surveys the work in the yard and puts it succinctly.

“My family is here. I have a 16-year-old son and elderly parents; everyone needs to be taken care of. All the construction workers are doing their best to help. Everyone is here and everyone needs help!”

Updated: March 04, 2022, 7:39 PM