2 April 2023
Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK, and from 23 March to 6 April she is in East and South Ukraine, with her friends from the Freefilmers NGO, interviewing local people – especially women in rural communities – about their experiences and survival strategies. Anna is blogging about her trip here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site. You can donate here to support the people Anna meets.
Arkhanhelske 2: Bikes for Women, Tablets for Kids
Prior to travelling around the village with Vasyl, we had initially arrived at the former shop, which had been used as a base by the Ruzzians, who set up mortars among the empty shelves and ice-cream freezers. It’s now used as a storehouse. Here we dropped off the generator, bikes, tablets and gardening tools. The generator, big enough to power welding torches, angle-grinders and other building tools, was a bit of a challenge, but we managed:
It was a typical day in a deoccupied village. Further down the road, a funeral was being conducted for a man who had trodden on a mine. The fields are still strewn with ‘petal’ or ‘butterfly mines’, cluster munitions that scatter themselves around randomly, so you can come across one absolutely anywhere. And at the same time, in the shop-turned-storehouse, the villagers were celebrating Vasyl’s birthday, as he’d turned 72 two days ago and they’d decided to celebrate it on the day the generator arrived. They’d obtained a fancy cake for the purpose, and served tea using hot water from a thermos flask that Sashko recognised as having been delivered by Freefilmers last November. It also facilitates after-work meetings.
There was a lot of shuffling around in the shop’s serving area, which was overfull of Freefilmers, bikes, sacks, the generator, and a dozen villagers. We handed over some boxes of medicine to the local nurse.
There were two big handovers for particular individuals. This one speaks for itself. There are not many children left in the village, but we met two of them:
I look quite pleased with myself! And I guess I am. This is the first time I’ve actually seen kids receiving tablets I’ve collected. Recently the local military have started sharing their Starlink connection with the villagers, so these boys will be able to study online.
And then for three members of the older generation (one pic is at the top of this post):
The woman above is the village nurse, who does a lot of volunteer work that isn’t covered by paid medical staff, for example visiting the babushkas on the outskirts who can’t get to hospital. She’s been in her job for 32 years, and her friend in the yellow headscarf told me approvingly that she’s very good at it – ‘hits the vein every time!’
The other two women will use the bikes for getting groceries for themselves and their elderly neighbours who aren’t able to walk far. They told us that before the invasion people in the village had used bikes a lot, but when they had to flee across the river – later in the spring than Vasyl, and boats were available, so nobody froze – they had to leave their bikes behind them. They came back afterwards to find 40 hopelessly rusty bicycles sitting in the trees by the river.
One request we aren’t able to fulfil is for a ‘grandpa’ – meaning in this case a partner. Two of the women said their husbands had died and they would like to have someone they could rely on in their households. And possibly also romantically. They said they wouldn’t mind having one guy between the two of them if necessary. It was a joke, but it’s also true that life expectancy in Ukraine was already lower than for women even before the war, because of alcohol and unhealthy lifestyles in general. I think one of them wanted to keep me as well (see her firm grip in the photo below) though I’m not sure what for.
All the people we met in Arkhanhelske were dynamic and positive. This partly reflects the fact that we didn’t go into any houses, as we did in Mospanove – by their very nature, the more active people are the ones who came to us – but also an attitude that’s common among Ukrainians. They were able to joke about their horrible experiences, though one old woman teared up when talking about her dog that had become sick during the occupation and died in the course of her evacuation over the river. Vasyl joked with our driver, who helped to evacuate people from Mariupol and Berdyansk last spring before being arrested and tortured by the Ruzzians, about the stupidity of the invaders. They used to think that Vasyl was mocking them by speaking Surzhyk (mingled Russian and Ukrainian dialect).
In my last post, I talked about the things we might be able to provide to help with major reconstruction. The Arkhanhelske also nurse asked for a special 15-litre medical backpack that would be convenient for riding around the area, and we would like to consider providing these to nurses in other villages as well. We also hope to supply some kravchuchki, trolleys similar to the ones you see older women using for their shopping in the UK, and a vital means of transporting personal supplies in Ukraine.