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Ukraine, Avdiivka, destruction

Bringing Hope To Avdiivka

As Russian forces move to capture the eastern Ukrainian town, volunteer aid workers brave constant shelling to help those who remain.

Words: Hunter Williamson
Pictures: Hunter Williamson

Around 5 pm in late March 2023, a man came to the humanitarian center in Avdiivka, Ukraine, and said that people had been injured. The town was quieter than usual that day, but shelling still continued to fall, gunfire chattered from the outskirts of town, and the threat of attacks by Russian aircraft perpetually lingered.

From a basement underground emerged three volunteer aid workers: Misha, Nastya, and Vitaliy. For nearly a week, they and a handful of other Ukrainians had been constructing the only humanitarian center inside Avdiivka, a small town in eastern Ukraine that is shaping up to become a new epicenter of fighting as Russia’s invasion of the country moves forward into its second year.

Misha, a volunteer chaplain in the Ukrainian military, looks in the direction of explosions as he installs water hoses outside a humanitarian center in Avdiivka, a town under increasingly intense attack amid Russian advances in late March 2023.

Neither Misha, Nastya, nor Vitaliy were trained medical professionals. But they had come to help the residents of Avdiivka, where Russian efforts to capture the town have caused services to collapse as most residents have fled.

With an orange first aid kit in hand, Misha led his team. The man who had come trailed from behind, shouting directions as the volunteers proceeded. Explosions rang across the town as they moved. They passed destroyed and damaged buildings and unexploded ordinances. Twice they dived for cover from nearby shelling, except for the man who followed. He seemed unfazed, almost indifferent to the attacks.

After several minutes of walking and running, the team reached the location of the injured person. Whoever had been, there was gone. All that remained was a pool of blood near a damaged wooden bench and an unopened combat bandage in the grass.

No one lingered at the site. They made their way quickly back to the humanitarian center, a four-room basement near the center of the town that was being renovated to provide 24-hour electricity, water, internet, food, medicine, heating, and other services to the 2,000 residents estimated to be still living in the town.

Milana, a 19-year-old volunteer aid worker, walks toward Misha and Nastya in Avdiivka in late March 2023.

“It was hard today, really,” Nastya said a few hours later as she painted the walls of one of the basement rooms white. “It was crazy.”

The Next Bakhmut

Avdiivka was not the first place Misha, whose full name is Mikhail Purishev, created a humanitarian center. But Avdiivka posed a particular challenge.

“Everywhere is always difficult. The only thing is that in Bakhmut, there were no planes,” said Misha, referring to another town in eastern Ukraine that has been the epicenter of fighting for months. He and other volunteers built similar humanitarian centers there before Ukrainian officials closed the town off from media and aid workers in February 2023. Misha said that up to 600 people came to his centers each day in Bakhmut. In Avdiivka, he was anticipating 300.

The center in Avdiivka was being constructed and stocked through donations. While countries have donated billions of dollars worth of aid to Ukraine, small groups of volunteer aid workers like Misha and his team from “Unity of People” (a humanitarian nonprofit that is based in Mariupol) perform important roles in Ukraine, filling the gaps that officials fail or are unable to meet.

“It’s hard to build (here),” Misha continued. “In Bakhmut, it was easier because there was no aviation. Here they are constantly bombing from the planes.”

Vitaliy, a volunteer aid worker, cuts part of a pipe used for ventilation in the humanitarian center in late March 2023.

Located south of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, Avdiivka has been on the frontline of hostilities for nearly a decade. Pro-Russian separatist forces seized the town in early 2014 after Russia moved to annex Ukraine’s southern Crimean peninsula. Ukrainian government forces recaptured Avdiivka that summer, but its close proximity to separatist-held territory subjected the town to waves of attacks over the following years.

One notable flare-up in 2017 briefly left residents without power during winter. Avdiivka also sits just north of Donetsk city, the former Ukrainian capital of Donetsk region, which Russia controversially moved to annex along with three other regions in 2022. Moscow said at the time that attacks on any part of the regions would be considered aggression against Russia. In recent weeks, Russian forces have intensified efforts against Avdiivka, reportedly resulting in heavy losses.

“It was hard today, really,” Nastya said a few hours later as she painted the walls of one of the basement rooms white. “It was crazy.”

On a cold spring evening last week, a Ukrainian soldier calling himself Pavlo stopped by the humanitarian center in Avdiivka for a warm drink. Construction was still underway, but the volunteers could at least provide coffee and tea. Standing above ground near the center’s stairway, Pavlo chatted with Yura, an Avdiivka resident who was helping at the center while waiting to evacuate to Kyiv. At one point in their conversation, Yura complained about Pavlo’s cursing.

“My fighting spirit is zero right now,” Pavlo said. “I’m just acting automatically, like a robot.”

The 33-year-old soldier said he had served in Bakhmut too. As if to prove it, he reached into his jacket and pulled out a medal awarded to those who fought in Bakhmut. Fighting was worse there, Pavlo said. But in Avdiivka, he continued, Russian aircraft pose a serious challenge.

Nastya, left, and Milana, right, rest during efforts to hastily construct a humanitarian center in Avdiivka in late March 2023.

“We need better weapons,” he said, particularly air-defense ones.

Widespread destruction and shelling have driven most of Avdiivka’s pre-war population of just over 31,000 residents away. Volunteers estimated that 2,000 people still remain, but no one is certain. Along Avdiivka’s battle-scarred streets, the occasional resident can still be seen walking, seeming indifferent to the endless shelling.

Last week, during what volunteers said was a quiet day, a woman named Lidiia passed by the volunteer center on her way home. A trail of dogs followed her. Noticing my camera, she stopped and spoke about the artillery.

“Now it’s flying,” she said. An explosion boomed. “Now it fell. Please be attentive. You cannot hear it very good. It’s coming… it’s flying silently, and then this can happen.” She pointed to one of the many nearby residential buildings that had been destroyed. “It’s good that nobody was there. It (the strike) was at 8 pm. Maybe a month has passed. Nearby there is another one. So please, listen attentively.” Still trailed by the dogs, she continued home, carrying a bag of groceries in each hand.

With Russia reportedly increasing pressure on Avdiivka, volunteers said that shelling has intensified, prompting more people as of recently to leave.

“People understand that. People are dying,” said Vitaliy Lesin, a 33-year-old actor working with Misha’s team. On Mar. 31, 2023, two people, including a five-month-old child, died in an artillery strike.

Volunteer aid workers gather around a table to rest after a long day of work at their humanitarian center in Avdiivka in late March 2023.

But not everyone can or will leave, which is why Misha decided to build the humanitarian center. Others, like Yura, have decided to evacuate and are waiting for the opportunity.

“I didn’t want to move yet,” Yura said, “But the conditions are getting worse.” Yura said that his cousin was the one who ultimately persuaded him to go, “When my (cousin) was convincing me to move, she said that there is very concerning news about Avdiivka, that Avdiivka can become the second Bakhmut.”

On Mar. 27, 2023, local officials evacuated utility workers and cut the town’s cell connections due to the alleged presence of Russian informers. The end of cell services was the latest blow to residents who have already lived months without electricity and running water. And it made the humanitarian center all that much more important. In the basement, the team had drilled to a water reservoir. They intended to use the water for drinking, showering, and washing clothes. Two generators provided 24-hour electricity, and a Starlink system offered internet connection.

“It’s really important to us and people who live in this city,” said Lesin.

He noted that services like internet access and television are especially important for fighting propaganda pedaled by Russian media, which residents can still access through radios.

In late March 2023, Nastya, a volunteer aid worker, cleans up a table inside a humanitarian center in Avdiivka.

“It’s very dangerous because Russia says Ukraine is very bad, the Ukrainian military is very bad, and then people start to believe it,” said Lesin.

The team also planned to put up fliers with information on being evacuated from the town, though it’s unclear how and if local officials’ decision to close Avdiivka off from volunteer workers who have traditionally performed such evacuations will affect future efforts.

Lesin said that many of the residents remaining in Avdiivka are people who cannot afford to move, lack connections in other parts of the country, or are physically impaired. A small percentage, he added, are waiting for Russian forces to take the town.

“Many people don’t understand that,” said Lesin, who noted that he receives questions from people on social media asking him why he goes to towns like Avdiivka. Such commenters, Lesin continued, tell him that those remaining in such areas are waiting for Russia to take over. “I say, ‘No, no, in this city are many people who don’t have money.’ People don’t understand in Kyiv, in Chernobyl, in Lviv, in Dnipro. Many people don’t understand why we do (this work).”

Yura, a volunteer aid worker, plays on his phone while taking a break inside a humanitarian center in Avdiivka in late March.

For the volunteers on Misha’s team, a sense of duty or desire to help people drove them to be in Avdiivka.

“It’s just scary,” Vitaliy said about the work, “but it’s shameful not to do it.”

Some on the team had gotten used to the fear. Others had learned to face it through prayer or each other.

“I couldn’t do it alone,” Vitaliy said. “But with this kind of team, it’s a pleasure.”

A Point of Hope

On Mar. 27, 2023, Vitalii Barabash, the head of Avdiivka’s civil-military administration, closed the town to press and volunteer aid workers. Five days later, Misha and his team finished constructing the humanitarian center.

It now offers showers, drinking water, clothes washers, food, medicine, warm drinks, television, internet, information on evacuations, and even a barber.

“A lot of people are coming,” Misha said in a phone interview on Apr. 2, 2023. “They are smiling, and that’s very nice. They are saying, ‘You gave us new life and new hope.’”

Vitaliy Lesi, a volunteer aid worker and actor, jokes with fellow volunteers inside a humanitarian center in Avdiivka in late March 2023.

Misha said that despite the ban implemented on allowing aid workers into the town, he and other volunteers had not been affected or prevented from entering and working in Avdiivka. Shelling continued to hit the town, and one building near the center was completely destroyed on Apr. 1, 2023, Misha said. But as of the next evening, he said upwards of 200 people had already come to the center.

“Points of invincibility (humanitarian centers) are not only built on those places to provide people food but also to fight for their hearts… to show people that they are not left alone and that Ukraine is with them.”

The cover photo, by Williamson, shows Nastya looking at a damaged sign titled: “I (Heart) Avdiivka.”

All photos were taken by Williamson in March 2023.

Hunter Williamson

Hunter Williamson is a freelance journalist based in Beirut, Lebanon. He covers the Middle East and Asia.

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