The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The will of Ukrainian volunteers shows how we will prevail over Russia

Ukrainian volunteers make a camouflage net for the army in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Aug. 4 amid Russia's military invasion. (Sergey Kozlov/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Iuliia Mendel is a journalist and former press secretary for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Most schools in Kyiv sit dark and empty these days. Russia’s invasion in February sent children back home for online learning, and then the summer vacation started. But this school gym is packed — not with students but with women cutting pieces of cloth, weaving, chatting.

“We do this for you, you should tell us what you need,” a woman tells a man with a military uniform.

The gym equipment has been pushed to the side, and fishing nets and colorful rags are stacked on the floor — when the women are done, the nets and rags will become camouflage for equipment and troops in the front.

“When the war broke, we were sitting in our apartment and needed to do something," says Valentyna Hushchyna, 52, a former clothing saleswoman and seamstress. “I called all those who stayed, many of them elderly, to bring old clothes and fabrics and to get ready to weave. Our first net was 24 meters long and six meters wide and was very heavy. It hung from the eighth to the first floor of a building and people weaved on every floor. Now, we weave them here.”

This is one of the many ways regular Ukrainians have stepped up to aid the war effort. Very quickly, neighbors organized and learned how to make camouflage more professionally to fit the army’s needs.

“We have a night vision device that we use it to check that the cloth does not glow at night,” Anna, 39, tells me. “We get fabrics from whoever we can. Someone even unraveled sweaters for the threads. If necessary, we also repaint fabrics.”

“We do it every day, so Putin doesn’t win,” she adds.

Ukrainian volunteers have shown the world what a united front looks like. The Volunteer Platform, launched back in March 2021, lists more than 1,150 volunteering opportunities in Ukraine. The country’s volunteering efforts were strengthened by the war in Donbass, which started in 2014. Since it was launched, the platform offered help to victims of the war, particularly psychological support for youth. But the numbers have increased three times since Russia’s invasion this year. It currently connects more than 400,000 users with more than 500 organizations, UNICEF reports.

Many Ukrainians volunteer without officially registering. We see the effects of the war every day — the casualties, the fatigue — but people refuse to give up.

“I think the whole world is already tired, because no one thought it would last this long, but I believe in victory,” says Marharyta Liashuha, 30, a doctor who has devoted herself to delivering medical supplies. Liashuha’s husband is in the military and spends a lot of time on the frontlines. Liashuha, for her part, developed a network of international contacts and delivers the aid to hospitals.

I met her in a large office stacked with boxes of medicines and medical equipment. Liashuha knows what is in every box, though she never thought she would have to handle so much donated material for the war effort.

“I’m already calling the chief doctors directly and asking what’s needed. In the early days, I would just randomly ask my friends at the hospitals what was missing and try to get it,” she says.

Liashuha got her driver’s license during the war (she didn’t see the need to learn to drive before) and has already brought several ambulances into the country. She says she will always remember how she had to cross on foot into Poland to pick up her first ambulance and get behind the wheel of a vehicle like that by herself for the first time. “It was very scary, but what Russians were doing in my country was even more scary,” she said. “Since then, my colleagues and I have delivered 17 ambulances — all went to the military hospitals and the frontlines.”

The southern city of Mykolaiv has come under heavy attack in recent weeks. One day, Oleksandr Tkachuk woke up to explosions instead of his alarm clock. After sending his family to western Ukraine, he began distributing tactical equipment to local self-defense units from his gun store. He then used his contacts to distribute night vision devices and other gear.

“I am hopeful because I see the successes of the Ukrainian army in my hometown,” Tkachuk tells me. “Russian artillery no longer reaches the neighborhood where my house is located. For me this is the biggest proof that everything is not in vain.”

Yes, Ukrainians are tired, but we can’t afford to rest. Russia is threatening our very existence, testing us every day. For many, volunteering is more than act of solidarity — it’s about survival.

“I get the feeling that the more I help, the faster the victory will come,” Liashuha tells me. “And the sooner I get back the life that I thought was calm and perfect.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russian President Vladimir Putin signed decrees Friday to annex four occupied regions of Ukraine, following staged referendums that were widely denounced as illegal. Follow our live updates here.

The response: The Biden administration on Friday announced a new round of sanctions on Russia, in response to the annexations, targeting government officials and family members, Russian and Belarusian military officials and defense procurement networks. President Volodymyr Zelensky also said Friday that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO, in an apparent answer to the annexations.

In Russia: Putin declared a military mobilization on Sept. 21 to call up as many as 300,000 reservists in a dramatic bid to reverse setbacks in his war on Ukraine. The announcement led to an exodus of more than 180,000 people, mostly men who were subject to service, and renewed protests and other acts of defiance against the war.

The fight: Ukraine mounted a successful counteroffensive that forced a major Russian retreat in the northeastern Kharkiv region in early September, as troops fled cities and villages they had occupied since the early days of the war and abandoned large amounts of military equipment.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

Read our full coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Are you on Telegram? Subscribe to our channel for updates and exclusive video.