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On The Road With Volunteers Supplying Ukrainian Troops

At Slovyansk's animal-feed factory, where a Ukrainian National Guard unit is stationed, one of the men poses dressed in a camouflage cloak he's just been delivered, holding a sausage and a bag of oranges.
At Slovyansk's animal-feed factory, where a Ukrainian National Guard unit is stationed, one of the men poses dressed in a camouflage cloak he's just been delivered, holding a sausage and a bag of oranges.
Working as a courier is usually straightforward. You get a parcel, you get an address, you hit the road.

But it's a different story altogether when your destination is a military checkpoint outside the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk, the epicenter of the smoldering separatist conflict, and your vehicle is packed to the brim with military equipment, medical supplies, and food products for Ukrainian soldiers.

I embarked on such a trip with activist Oleksandr Nazarchuk and his friend Andriy.

This is Oleksandr's sixth trip. He says he hasn't had any problem so far. This is reassuring, although there's a first time for everything.

We leave from Izyum, a town bordering the Donetsk region. You could never tell a full-blown military operation is raging just 40 kilometers from here.

Our first stop is the village of Barvenkovo. There's a checkpoint there where we must deliver equipment and medication to treat gunshot wounds.

Both Andriy and I are wearing bulletproof vests. It's also his first trip. We have helmets, too, lying close at hand. Oleksandr is traveling without any protection.

I'm not convinced the vests and the helmets will help us in an emergency, but having them is reassuring.

'For The Children'

There are several organizations currently raising funds for Ukraine's cash-strapped, ill-equipped army. Finding volunteers to deliver the shipments to eastern regions, however, is more difficult.

Andriy works for a software company. He has two small children. I ask him why a father of two should be risking his life like this. "It's precisely for the children I'm doing it," he replies. "So they can live in a peaceful country. I just can't sit and watch all this happen."

Oleksandr, too, has two children. I don't ask him why he is here.

We're already far from Izyum. The roads look like they've been shelled, although it's just the usual potholes, a byproduct of rampant corruption and mismanagement.
There are many checkpoints along the way.
There are many checkpoints along the way.

In some areas, armed men in camouflage line both sides of the road, which makes me nervous. My T-shirt is soaked under my bulletproof vest. It must be the heat, I tell myself.

We reach the first Ukrainian checkpoint on our delivery list. Everything goes as expected. Our documents are checked, the car is inspected, we are asked the purpose of our trip. Oleksandr and Andriy unload several packages and boxes out of the car. Oleksandr also hands the soldiers children's drawings. For a short while, they forget about the shipment and admire the drawings. We leave after taking a mandatory photo of the unloaded goods.

Former Foes Join Forces

We drive through several villages. Children cycle past on their bikes, elderly women sit peacefully on benches outside their houses. In a roadside cafe, a group of revelers are celebrating a wedding. We pass a lake where a crowd of youngsters are bathing. We feel awkward in our bulletproof vests. Andriy and I trade a few jokes about our vests, but we still don't take them off.

Our next destination is the television tower on Mount Karachun. Hardly a day goes by without reports of clashes in this area. The tower is strategically very important, as it's the highest fortified outpost of the Ukrainian Army.

One of the men manning the site agrees to show us around. He points to the damage caused by the latest shoot-out with separatists, a few hours earlier. The pavement is pockmarked with bullet holes, there's a hole the size of a soccer ball in the booth containing the power transformer, the tower's walls are riddled with shrapnel.
Soldiers enjoy the children's drawings they've received.
Soldiers enjoy the children's drawings they've received.

We have three more checkpoints to visit before nightfall.

We're headed for Slovyansk's animal-feed factory, where a Ukrainian National Guard unit is stationed. The factory was famously attacked last month by separatists using an armored personnel carrier.

Today, the place is quiet. Several men guard the entrance. They are obviously former officers from the Berkut riot police. They refuse to let us through until the person expecting the shipment comes out to meet us. He is a former Maidan activist.

Several months ago, they would have been ready to kill each other. Now, they are fighting side-by-side.

WATCH: Some former members of the disbanded Berkut riot police have joined Ukraine's newly formed National Guard. Soldiers at a checkpoint outside the eastern city of Slovyansk tell RFE/RL they are willing to overcome their differences to battle the common enemy in a pro-Russian, separatist stronghold.
Former Maidan Foes Fight Side By Side Against Slovyansk Rebels
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0:00 0:01:20 0:00

I ask him how things are going with the Berkut men. "Good enough," he answers. "Of course, we have different views of the situation, but I've met some very decent people here."

The men are happy to receive our parcels. We take a picture of one of them dressed in a camouflage cloak we've just delivered, holding a sausage and a bag of oranges.

End Of The Road

It's getting dark already, but Oleksandr and Andriy decide to keep driving.

We stop at another checkpoint, where I met several more former Maidan activists, before entering the highway. We're the only vehicle there.

Suddenly a light flashes ahead of us. We are being stopped by Ukrainian soldiers, an unexpected stop before our final destination. Oleksandr gets out of the car. A voice orders him to walk with his hands up. Oleksandr returns after several minutes. The soldiers don't believe us, they are going to search our car.

"Looks like this night is going to end in a shallow grave," Oleksandr jokes. Nobody laughs.

After closely examining our documents and contacting the people waiting for our shipment, the troops finally let us go. But we can't drive any further. "There's a separatist checkpoint ahead," explains one of the soldiers. "If they catch you with these supplies, you're dead."

Several rounds of gunfire erupt close by. We don't insist.

Oleksandr offers to bring the remaining supplies to the local army headquarters the next day, from where they can be shipped by helicopter. This solution appears to suit everyone, me included.

On the way back to Izyum, the mobile-phone network finally comes back on.

Oleksandr has a dozen missed calls from one of the soldiers manning the last checkpoint. Reports of a separatist roadblock further up have been confirmed. He'd called to warn us that the rebels had taken up positions and stood ready to open fire.

We'd have been driving straight at them.
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    Levko Stek

    Levko Stek is a multimedia correspondent for Donbas.Realities of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service. He joined RFE/RL in 2013, one week before the Maidan protests began, which he exhaustively documented, along with the shoot-down of MH17. He covered Russia's forcible annexation of Crimea and documented some of the most intense fighting during the height of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

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