3 November 2023
Anna Bowles is a pro-Ukrainian activist from the UK and a regular visitor to Ukraine, meeting up 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 trips here – we are also republishing some of her blogs on Rights in Russia, but please also visit Anna’s site.
1st Nov 2023
“All your hatred, all your pain, goes towards fighting this.” An interview with Anya the evacuation co-ordinator (Part Two)
After Bakhmut, and the russian destruction of the Nova Khakovka damn, Anya and Yura spent time delivering aid to flood-hit Kherson. Yura was wounded in the shoulder – his second injury, after a concussion in Mariupol – while in a small boat which came under fire from the occupied right bank.
‘Now I drive to Kherson oblast, after the flood and all that, after the bombardment of the power lines and the water supply,’ said Anya. ‘In one finished project, we provided drinking water and pumps for winter. And now, in the villages, we are starting to do similar projects. We have a very small team. Me, a driver and sometimes my assistant.’
Anya and Yura in Kherson, January 2023
Yura, meanwhile, has joined the army and works in logistics. He has to travel around a lot, so they live in different places. Anya jokes, ‘I go around after Yura like the wife of a Decembrist! Where he’s stationed, that’s where we live. For the past 18 months, we drove somewhere every day. All the hot points, we went there together. And now… it’s hard to know he’s going somewhere without me.’
Anya channels her fundraising activities to the army too. ‘There are no more serious evacuations going on, so we decided our fund would work directly with Azov.’ And the couple were visibly annoyed when I mentioned that many people outside Ukraine still believe, or claim to believe, the Azov battalion are Nazis.
‘I have a personal story from Mariupol,’ Yura remembered. ‘A person who had been killed was lying on the grass, and one metre away, people were just placidly cooking food on a campfire. Taking no notice. When I went over and asked them why they didn’t bury the corpse, who it was, they said, we don’t care, they’ll fire at us in a minute anyway. They were indifferent.
‘But the Azov lads dragged murdered civilians away and buried them. They didn’t leave anyone on the street, in spite of the fact that they were fighting. Wearing full equipment, with weapons, they dragged people away and helped them. That’s what Azov are like.’
Anya had a story too. ‘My close friend’s father went to get some humanitarian aid when there was a strike, and he was very badly injured. Some Azov guys found him and saved him, did surgery right on the bench near the apartment block and took him home. I think they are very honourable people.’
A couple of days before, I’d met a well-known antifa vegan activist who recently joined Azov – for the high-quality training and resources. If they’re good enough for him they’re probably good enough for most mortals.
It can be hard for Westerners to understand why Ukrainians hate russia quite so much, in a way that goes deeper than the already considerable provocation of 24 February, so I often ask people about this. Anya had one of the most striking answers yet.
‘Yura’s from Donetsk, I’m from Mariupol, so we grew up under russian propaganda, russian occupation. On the TV in Donetsk oblast, we saw Putin. Not our president but Putin.
‘You live your own life, you try to do things, you make plans for the future, but when I was 18, in 2014, our village came under fire. My grandmother didn’t want to leave, so my parents stayed. After that, the area came under Ukrainian control but the shelling continued.
‘I went to university, got a job – three jobs, to look after myself and my family. Because there was no real work there, no opportunities. I buried an awful lot of people who were close to me. I lost my health.
‘I left for Mariupol in 2019, to start my life over again. I did that… And they came again. Again they took away my family, my friends, my home, my plans and understanding of my future.
‘I don’t know how to explain in words what it’s like to live every day like it’s your last. Because tomorrow they might attack. And this hatred, it works hard, because you understand you can’t live your own life, you can’t study, work, establish a family, have children, because you don’t know what will happen tomorrow.
‘They’ve taken everything from you, and now all your hatred, all your pain, goes towards fighting this.’
I asked when the couple thought the war might end.
Yura said: ‘Never.’
Russian warship fuck off
I got him to elaborate. ‘If on our planet there’s one person who is pro-Ukraine and one who is pro-russia, that means war and it will never end. It’ll last for years, centuries… just have different phases.’
Anya agreed. ‘If russia gets a chance to attack us, they will attack us. They’ve had many, many years of war, and many generations have grown up with the idea that they are living in war, everyone is a threat to them, they think they have to steal territory and for them that’s normal.
‘In russia it’s always the same. There’s war; the decent people leave, and the ones who support it remain. The next war, the same thing happens. There have already been a lot of generations where the decent people leave and the fools remain. And that will always happen.’
What would Anya say to Westerners who think we should send humanitarian aid, but not weapons?
‘The reality is that for almost two years our lives and our blood have guaranteed the peace of the entire rest of the world. Because we are holding russia back, and we are the ones who are dying. If we fall, they’ll go on to Poland, and other countries. That’ll happen much faster.
‘We’ve been living with these neighbours for a long time. We knew them, and we prepared! Europe isn’t ready for it. And it’s better to help us with money and weapons now.’
‘When they’re finished with us,’ said Yura, ‘it’ll be your turn. What will you do then?
‘At the start of the war there was a lot of aid. In the first six months, it was really good, because the whole world was united against russia. Now there’s nothing like that.
‘But there’s still a war on. War is happening across the entire country. And not just Ukraine and russia but the whole world. History keeps repeating itself. An age of war is beginning. Ukraine-russia and Israel-Hamas aren’t the last wars. And the next ones can only be bigger. So you have to either accept it and fight, or take action so it doesn’t happen.
‘ I say to everyone who is afraid, give us weapons and we’ll put an end to this war for a very long time. Just give us weapons, in the volume we need. Then you – Britain, Italy, Poland – won’t have to give your blood. Give us planes, give us long-distance missiles, and will put an end to all this.’
Or at least, move the war to one of the quieter phases. Anya and Yura don’t plan, they say, because they don’t know where they’ll be tomorrow, but they dream.
‘We do have an interesting life,’ Anya agreed. ‘We share pictures on social media that show we’re always travelling somewhere. But you go out, you see the road, the warehouse where you pick something up, then the road again, then your destination. Then again.
‘When the war is over I really want to buy a motorhome and travel. Just for the sake of going where we want to go. To beautiful places where you don’t have to worry about timing and schedules, where you can just be, live and rest, then move on.
‘That would be perfect!’
The donations collected from the fundraiser attached to this blog go to humanitarian and medical aid for most of the women interviewed in this blog. Anya, however, raises money herself, for military purposes. You can find the @independent_nation fund here (in Ukrainian).