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Wojciech Czuchnowski, Wyborcza’s political journalist, reporting from Kharkiv– Dvorichna, Ukraine.
When another one of our humanitarian aid convoys arrived in eastern Ukraine on November 14, we found out firsthand that the red cross emblems with which we marked our cars provided no protection against enemy fire. On the contrary - as residents of Dvorichna have told us, we were fired at precisely because we came to help.
Dvorichna is a small municipality in the Kharkiv Oblast, north of Kupiansk, not far from the Russian border. The front line is only about 1 kilometer away. There seems to be nothing that would explain why this particular place has become a ground of fierce military combat: there are no industrial plants or critical infrastructure.
On the outskirts, we see a landscape of white brick housing blocks, half-ruined by persistent shelling. Nearly 4,000 people lived here before the war. Today, it is less than a thousand- mostly elderly people who did not have the strength to flee. The few young people who decided to stay are taking care of their sick parents and grandparents.
We are joined by Paweł Suszka, a deputy of the Ukrainian parliament, who regularly visits the war-torn regions and has himself established a fund to raise money for humanitarian aid.
Our white buses carrying food, clothing, and medicine are marked with large red cross emblems on each side. In Dvorichna, outside the municipal office building, Galina, the local mayor, is waiting for us joined by a small group of residents. The others are waiting for her signal.
We get out of the vehicles and prepare to distribute the aid packages, but we are immediately interrupted by a loud blast and violent shaking. The missiles fall close enough for us to feel the force of the blast (a few people are thrown on the ground) and smell the gunpowder. We then rush to the nearest basement serving as a bomb shelter.
The experience is nerve-wracking. Even the soldiers who accompany us did not expect such close shelling. They communicate over the radio. Apparently, two kilometers away there is a tank firing at us.
Fortunately, because of the trees and bushes in front of the building behind which we are standing, the tank’s aim is off. And most importantly: to not become a target itself, the tank has to constantly move; it changes position after every four shots. It manages to hit the building where we take cover twice. If not for the constant movement, it would simply tear it down and hit us or our vehicles.
In between rounds of shelling, we leave the basement and rush to form a chain leading from the cars to the door so that we can unload the aid packages. Soldiers will then distribute them in nearby villages. Our cars remain largely unscathed, but one of the windshields has three bullet holes in it, and another car has a hole in the body. Inside, we see shrapnel or rifle shells. In the first bus, a bullet went through the driver's headrest. Wojciech Kądziołka, a spokesman for InPost, the company that provided us with three buses for the trip, was sitting there just a few minutes earlier.
Getting the cars for our second humanitarian aid convoy was not an easy task. We wanted to rent them commercially, but none of the rental companies would agree to give us cars for a trip to Ukraine. Insurance companies were against it.
The problem was finally solved by Rafał Brzoska, the owner of InPost. He paid almost PLN 400,000 security deposit for three Ford transporters.
We hide in the basement for about 2 hours. Every now and then, soldiers give us a sign to continue unloading aid. Unlike the locals who help us, we wear bulletproof vests and helmets. Soon, we will leave and go back to Poland. They will stay here, without electricity or running water, in houses heated with iron stoves.
When we ask why the tank was shooting at a humanitarian convoy, Galina says the idea is to scare and discourage similar initiatives. And to displace the people who live here. Soldiers tell us that the tank crew must have spotted our cars on an open stretch of the road, but apparently didn't have the time to open fire.
One of the soldiers is counting the number of explosions. Fortunately, the shots are less and less accurate and fall ever further away from the building, devastating the already poverty-stricken farms. The number of fired shots is an important detail. Once it has reached 42, it means we are free to go. Apparently, the tank has only that much ammunition. Despite the many potholes, we are supposed to rush back as fast as we can, especially while driving through the exposed patch where we have been initially spotted.
We do exactly as we are told. Without making a single stop we reach Kupiansk, the largest town in the area, liberated in early October. Here, the sounds of war are much quieter. Several buses with aid stand in between destroyed houses. One of them is serving pizza.
The convoy, which was hit in Dvorichna, carried the second tranche of a November humanitarian aid transport organized by "Wyborcza". Our readers donated more than PLN 183,000 to the cause. The money was used to buy food, household chemicals, thousands of candles, warm clothes, shoes, and thermal underwear. The first part of the convoy left on November 9 for Petropavlivka near Kupiansk, Izyum, and Lyman. In total, we delivered more than 6 tons of humanitarian aid.
The second one left on November 12. Three Ford Transits loaded with about 400 packages, each weighing 10-12 kilograms, and three diesel generators. We received the latter from Arkadiusz Malicki, an entrepreneur from Silesia who has been personally delivering humanitarian aid to Ukraine since the beginning of the war.
In addition to the author of this text and Mr. Malicki, our team included Wojciech Kądziołka, Tomasz Barnat, and Arkadiusz Szczurek. For Mr. Malicki, it was already the 30th trip, I was there for the seventh time, and Kądziołka accompanied the truck transports ten times. Barnat and Szczurek were there for the first time.
We return to Kharkiv but it is too early to call it a day. The aid we brought from Poland has been already largely distributed (all that is left is some medicinal supplies and food packages for the hospital in Izyum), so we go around some local supermarkets and buy a hundred bottles each of edible oils, all the available canned meat and fish, chocolates, coffee, pasta, porridge, and pastries. There are only 28 candles. They are a scarce commodity.
After that, we take the goods to MP Sushka’s office. There, a group of students led by Ms. Olga helps to pack it. It happens in no time. Meanwhile, soldiers arrive at the office to pick up warm clothing from the donations.
The day ends after 10:00 pm. In the morning, we make our way toward Izyum. Destination - Oleksandrivka, a completely destroyed village with only 150 remaining residents. They are already waiting for us. It turns out we are the first aid convoy to ever arrive there.
Everyone takes one package. The village governor makes sure everything proceeds in an orderly fashion. She says who can take more than others - for sick neighbors, for example. The goods run out quickly, but we still have a large supply of sanitary pads and diapers which we distribute to the women.
The last stop on our trip is Izyum- a liberated town where Ukrainian soldiers found a mass grave with nearly 500 bodies. The hospital complex includes several buildings, some of the newer ones completely destroyed by Russian rockets. There, we unload medicine and food supplies, and the staff carries them on stretchers.
As we are about to finish, an elderly man approaches us, saying that he absolutely needs to show us something. His name is Vishan Islamov and he is the CEO of the Izyum grain plants. Or rather, he is the CEO of what's left of the plants. Russian occupiers, who were stationed on the company's premises from March to September, left the entire place devastated.
What the Russian troops failed to devastate or steal, they left completely destroyed: entire rooms, machinery, elevators, equipment engines.
Most impressive were the mountains of grain: wheat, rye, and corn dumped in front of the plant gates. Now and then birds would fly by and try to peck at them. But the fleeing occupiers made sure that the grain was not fit for consumption. They poured oil over everything and tried to set it on fire.
The birds flew away confused, but new ones kept coming.
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