“You have to act, otherwise everything seems terrible.” Correspondence from Kharkiv

Paweł Pieniążek from Kharkiv – 03/23/2022. Originally published in Tygodnik Powszechny.

There is a horseshoe-shaped queue at the bus station. Several hundred people wait here not for departure, but for humanitarian aid. They have been standing here since the early hours of the morning. They are not put off by artillery fire or the fact that a munition hit the building one night. It left small holes in the metal barracks.

People spend many hours here because volunteers and postal workers must wait for the train with aid to come, its contents then delivered to points that will dispense it. Usually this doesn’t happen until around eleven. Separated by a metal fence, people watch as bread is unloaded from a van into plastic crates.

Local residents who have banded together to keep order stand at the gate. “Car, car! Stand back!” — they scream. A truck that only recently delivered packages drives in. Now volunteers unpack that which was brought by train.

72-year-old Lidia only managed to reach the gate at around eight. She had covered about 7 kilometers on foot and will return in the same manner. She had walked from Oleksiyivka in the north of the city. It is primarily the northern and eastern districts of Kharkiv that have come under heavy fire.

“I walked over the bridge. I thought they would shoot and kill me, but I had to go to find some food,” says Lidia.

Since Russia launched a full-scale invasion on February 24, a significant proportion of the city’s population has left the city. According to the mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov, 1,143 buildings have been destroyed. A rocket likewise fell near Lidia’s house.

“The house swayed left and right. It broke the windows. It is impossible to live there,” she says.

Nevertheless, she stays. Although she still receives a pension, she cannot find a place in Oleksiyivka where she could withdraw money from her account. She is penniless. There are no functioning ATMs or banks in the city. It is possible to pay by card in open supermarkets and pharmacies, provided that there is electricity.

“I spent the cash I had at home to the kopeck,” she admits.

That is why she set out for humanitarian aid. Although city authorities have prepared an interactive map with points providing support for residents, Lidia does not know how to use the Internet. She came to the vicinity of the bus station because she learned that you can get free food here.

Today the needy receive a loaf of bread, eggs, vegetable oil, water and wet wipes. Lidia is unlucky, because yesterday there was also chicken and ham, and in the morning you could get potatoes. Sometimes there are apples too. It all depends on what will arrive by train.

Mykhailo, 37, is one of those who puts bread into boxes. He got involved to help the day after the Russian invasion started. He and his wife, who is five months pregnant, distributed food to hospitals. When help began to be distributed at the bus station, he volunteered. He helps unload, sometimes helping to coordinate the entire process.

He complains that the same people come to receive aid over and over. Faces are hard to remember in such a crowd so people line up several times, sometimes in groups, and then try to sell the items they received. That is why volunteers issuing humanitarian aid introduced a list of names to protect against abuses. But Mykhailo is not discouraged. Together with the rest of the group, they help at least 1,000 people a day.

“As long as I can help somehow, I will stay,” admits Mykhailo. “You have to act, because when you sit idle at home, everything seems terrible.”

He adds that as long as he has electricity, water, gas and a roof over his head, he will stay in Kharkiv. He only sent his son abroad.

As the hours pass, the line basically does not get shorter. The last people on line have no chance to get any food today. They will go home empty-handed. Perhaps they will have better luck tomorrow.