When Lazar Radkov set off from Bulgaria for Ukraine in mid-January, he thought it might be his last trip as a volunteer. But after his aid convoy was indirectly hit by Russian shelling outside of Kharkiv on January 20, killing one of his fellow volunteers, he decided he had to continue his work in the war-torn country.
"This is how it is in war. These things are created to kill and maim, and one must have no doubts about that. Everyone who goes there realizes he may not return and considers every day as a gift," Radkov told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.
Radkov is the 39-year-old entrepreneur behind the Caps For The Future organization, which collects plastic bottle caps and metal cans for recycling and, with the proceeds, donates medical equipment to hospitals across Bulgaria. In a dedicated campaign, the charity also delivers generators -- 70 alone on the last run -- to hospitals, schools, nursing homes, and residential housing. With this restored access to electricity, people on the front lines can keep warm, charge their phones, and enjoy hot soup.
The volunteers cover roughly 5,000 kilometers per week.
On January 20, Radkov was traveling with nine other aid workers in two buses provided by the brothers Ivo and Kaloyan Kumaov, who own a company specializing in high-tech agricultural equipment. The two have been instrumental in Caps For The Future and succeeded in raising 100,000 Bulgarian lev ($55,500) for one of the ambulances.
'A Very Good Man Passed Away'
It was almost curfew, and the buses -- clearly marked as "volunteer" -- were near a village in the Kharkiv region. The first of the buses contained Radkov and six Ukrainian volunteers. It bore the brunt of the shrapnel and the shock wave that came tearing at them from just 2 to 3 meters ahead.
Radkov, who documents much of his work in Ukraine on social media, immediately posted that they'd been hit by a mortar. Later, however, they were told by Ukrainian soldiers that there was Russian drone fire in the area at the time and that they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
"There were pieces flying over our heads," said Radkov.
One boy, he said, had just bent over to throw something in the garbage. After they were hit, they said his seat was riddled with shrapnel. Radkov himself found shrapnel in his windbreaker that he said was stuck in his body armor, but he escaped unharmed.
The driver of the first bus, Ukrainian pastor Sasha Andreev, was not so lucky. He'd met the flying shrapnel head-on, and by the time Radkov got to him with his paramedics' kit, he'd already turned yellow from his wounds, which had thread and fabric sticking out of them where the shrapnel had pierced through his clothing.
"He was screaming in pain. In another situation, I would have taken his pulse, saturation, and blood pressure and tried to get an IV going. But we were riding in the back of a bus, with him laid out on boxes, and the driver was going full throttle on roads that were slightly less than a lunar landscape," he said.
"It was all we could do to make sure we didn't fall out and end up on the road," he added.
They reached a hospital about 10 minutes later, and the driver was taken for an emergency operation to remove his spleen. He was transferred to Kharkiv for further surgery, but the group later learned that he did not survive.
"A very good man passed away," said Radkov. "He helped many people, both with humanitarian aid and with the evacuation under fire last spring. He was a true pastor, like many there [in Ukraine]. The church works miracles."
'Taking That Risk'
Before he left on the mission that came under Russian fire, Radkov says he had a premonition about the trip and wrote to several close friends with instructions in case he didn't return. And he told them he loved them.
He says his family in Bulgaria constantly worries for his safety and that everyone is relieved and happy when he comes back alive -- especially his 7-year-old son, with whom Radkov tries to be completely honest about what he's witnessed in Ukraine.
He's gotten a lot of support from people online, too, on the social networks where he posts frequent updates and photos to highlight the work his organization is doing. However, there's a faction of critics who accuse him of misappropriating funds from Cap For The Future by running aid missions to Ukraine, instead of solely within Bulgaria, and who say his social media posts from a war zone are shameless PR.
"I was called a bastard because I took a week of my life and campaigned to help people who have no food supplies, who yesterday had tanks outside their houses and shells were falling around them or directly on them," he responded online.
He says these people are missing the fact that 99 percent of the time he works for causes in Bulgaria, and 99 percent of the funds he collects go to Bulgarian children.
Radkov is adamant that the campaign for Ukraine is completely separate from Caps For The Future and is conducted via the Cauzi Bg foundation; he even published a report detailing collected and spent amounts, some of which are his personal funds. The rest was donated specifically for this mission.
'I'm Not Selling Anything'
As for the accusations that he's merely advertising his organization with his social media posts, he says, "You go and have mines hurled at your heads and do as much PR as you want. And for what? I'm not selling anything."
Radkov started Caps For The Future in 2017, and his first success was providing incubators for premature babies for several hospitals in Bulgaria. He then raised funds for four neonatology ambulances, which can now also accommodate newborns, and the campaign for a fifth is under way.
The organization has also provided an off-road ambulance in Bulgaria that brings fire hoses to mountainous areas and evacuates people during floods. In addition, Radkov organizes free first-aid training for students.
Radkov says that, since the January 20 attack, he's been debating changing how he volunteers in Ukraine -- maybe more from a distance. But he views the inherent risk of traveling across the border as a necessary danger.
"It is in every person to help -- in their soul, in their psyche," he says. "For some, it manifests itself less often; for others more often, despite the danger. Some people, unfortunately, leave. But I take that risk, whatever the Lord has planned for me."