28 March 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.
Feeding the Troops
Soldiers on the front line often don’t eat very well. They tend to get tushonka as a staple. They receive sporadic random donations, such as the energy bars made by Freefilmers, or boxes of food packed by volunteers and including such delicacies as chocolate and coffee, but in small amounts. Fresh vegetables can only be dreamed of.
But if a battalion is lucky, they might be stationed somewhere with access to a volunteer canteen. We visited one in a former community to talk to Nadiya, a teacher who for the past year has been overseeing an operation to feed hundreds of soldiers every day. Names have been changed, and locations/photos kept vague, for security reasons.
‘We serve breakfast, lunch and dinner,’ Nadiya told me. ‘Today was quiet, because it’s a weekend, so we only had 220 people. On weekdays it can be as many as 350.’ And they’re all soldiers? ‘Yes. At the start of the war, we sometimes had hundreds of IDPs as well, but we needed financial support from a humanitarian organisation, and the funding dried up for some reason. Now the army supplies most of the ingredients for their meals.’
Freefilmers have contributed a little here too, when they dried peppers to donate to Nadiya. But that was only enough to make one round of borscht for 200 soldiers. The canteen gets through a lot of supplies. Here’s a grain or two of rice that had arrived the day before:
I guessed that running the canteen must be a lot of work. ‘There are eight of us volunteers, and four are in the canteen at any one time. Most of the work is cooking but sometimes we have to do other jobs such as unloading.’ Nadiya nodded at the sacks. But at least rice can sit and wait until you need it; when there are big deliveries of perishable ingredients such as mushrooms, the women have to spend hours canning and bottling.
Then Nadiya revealed what from a soft urbanite’s perspective is the true horror: ‘We work from three am to three pm, every day of the week. Sometimes we get six hours’ sleep, but it’s usually less.’ But not to worry, things are easier now than they were. ‘During the winter blackouts we used to start at midnight, because there were fewer power cuts at night.’
On the day we visited, the volunteers present were Nadiya and three other teachers whose specialities were PE, kindergarten, and geography and biology. They all continue their normal work, now online, as well as volunteering, and tending their own kitchen gardens to produce and store food for next winter. In front of the canteen building are small patches of strawberries and melons used to teach the local children how to grow food.
What I’ve often seen in Ukraine, and in Ukrainians abroad, is that the key to stability and a meaningful life, if not precisely happiness, is to find a useful niche and work there steadily. I find this too, in my own small way: it took many months but once I focused on the specific tasks of sourcing second-hand devices, attending Whitehall demonstrations and donating a set proportion of my income to particular recipients the sense of helplessness and feeling that I wasn’t doing enough for my Ukrainian friends – and by extension, the world, given that Ukraine is currently holding back the aggression of a rogue state – receded.
The locals here had to pull themselves together a lot faster than that. ‘The centre first opened in early March 2022,’ Nadiya explained. ‘At first everyone in the village volunteered, though some of them have had to drop out because they have too many family commitments.’
Did she consider leaving? Not seriously. ‘When the war started, my sister panicked. She fled to Poland, and she wanted me to leave too, but I thought I could be of more use here. At first I had a grab-and-go bag ready, but – well, was I supposed to carry it everywhere when I’m volunteering all the time? And I didn’t want to just sit watching the news and worrying. I wanted to be active. So I unpacked the bag and decided to stay.’
Nadiya was pleased to hear of the approach taken by this blog. ‘Most journalism about Ukraine is all about trouble, trouble, trouble. People crying. But people aren’t crying everywhere! We have normal life too.’
Nadiya and her co-volunteers treated us to a taste of their catering. The facilities don’t look that inspiring: the institutional green paint and aluminium serving station will probably give British readers flashbacks to grim school dinners. But in fact that bowl of solyanka and the crispy fresh salad could have been served in a restaurant. And everything is geared to the needs of fighting men. Nadiya recalled, ‘Once the soldiers took our borscht back to their base and said they hadn’t bothered to do the washing up. We asked them why and they said because it was so tasty they’d licked the bowls clean!’
Are the soldiers allowed seconds. ‘Yes, if they want. But actually they sometimes ask for smaller portions, because the food has such high nutritional value.’
Here’s the basics of classic solyanka.
Breakfast at the canteen is often buckwheat porridge.
The Freefilmers’ peppers didn’t go very far, but over the past few months we’ve been able to provide medication for Nadiya’s husband, who suffered a stroke. Now a colleague has been diagnosed with cancer. This woman is dear to Nadiya, who was her pupil before becoming her colleague. ‘She became like a second mother to me when I moved to the village from Zaporizhzhia. She’s an excellent teacher – in my year we all got As and her pupils become lawyers and doctors.’
Freefilmers have purchased the medication for Nadiya’s colleague, and we hope to buy one more round of medication for her husband. This hardworking community needs to stay healthy.
Although they might hope for it, nobody in Ukraine realistically expects the war to end very soon. Volunteer near-frontline operations like Nadiya’s canteen ensure that the army has the support it needs to continue defending the country.
And as for Nadiya’s sister? She smiles at the question. ‘She came back after two months! Only three families from our village – women with children – have gone abroad and not returned. People feel useless there, and women who have a home to come back to would rather be here helping.’