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Eyewitness

Three more stories from Ukrainian Wikimedians

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By Anton Protsiuk and Vitalii Petrushko

Recently we marked the first-year anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainians are continuing to fight back the invasion, and the Ukrainian wiki community keeps on working, despite the challenges like blackouts arising from Russian attacks on civilian energy infrastructure. We've reported for The Signpost before on stories of Ukrainian Wikimedians during the war – serving in the army, volunteering, and just trying to go about their daily lives. Here are three new stories.

Why Anton Senenko spends all his free time volunteering

Anton Senenko, first to the right, at the awards ceremony for the Science Photo Competition in 2019

Anton Senenko is a scientist and prominent Ukrainian science communicator. His main job position is senior research fellow at the Institute of Physics of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences. In the Wikimedia movement, he is a long-term member of the jury for the Science Photo Competition in Ukraine.

For a year now, Anton spends almost all of his spare time volunteering on the ground. At the beginning of the full-scale invasion in early 2022 he helped evacuate civilians from Irpin and Bucha – towns in Kyiv Oblast that were attacked by the Russians. After the region had been liberated, Anton focused on delivering vehicles for Ukraine's armed forces and humanitarian goods in wartorn east and south of the country. Here's his story.

First month of the all-out war: rescuing people from Irpin and Bucha

When Russian forces openly invaded Ukraine on February 24th of last year, Anton first focused on evacuating his wife and young son from Kyiv to the safer western part of the country. Then he started to consider where he would be most useful.

In Lviv he met Andrii Piven, a volunteer and an old friend, and on February 28th they went back to Kyiv. Anton says that their initial idea was to sign up for Kyiv's territorial defense forces, but it proved almost impossible – there were so many volunteers that the territorial defense unit didn't have enough space for them. So they decided to focus on volunteering on the ground.

In the first few days Anton and Andrii delivered food packages across Kyiv, which was under direct Russian attack at the time, and helped the local territorial defense force. But soon they were invited to join the convoy that was bringing humanitarian aid to Irpin.

They entered the city for the first time on March 3, when shelling was already taking place there – they brought humanitarian assistance, and the convoy took one woman and her child to nearby Kyiv, which was safer. The next time they managed to get to Irpin was on March 5; then the volunteers witnessed a large-scale battle between the Ukrainian defenders and the occupiers – and barely made it back to Kyiv, losing their transport on the way.

Since then, Anton and Andrii went to Irpin or the surrounding villages every day for almost the entire month of March and evacuated people. They developed a routine: the volunteers received and analyzed messages from people who had no contact with their relatives, prepared a route every evening for the next day, and cleared the route with the military and security forces.

Overall, Anton and Andrii evacuated dozens of people in their car on their own and helped several hundred more people leave. Later, together with like-minded people, they brought aid to the northern city of Chernihiv, which was also under attack by the Russians.

Before the full-scale invasion Anton had been a popular blogger on Facebook and had some 30,000 followers, writing mostly about science. It was extremely helpful in the first weeks of the all-out war. When Anton and Andrii lost their car on March 5 during a trip to Irpin, just one Facebook post helped find several replacement cars in a matter of hours.

Volunteering as a second job

A building in Irpin damaged as a result of the Russian invasion

When the Ukrainian army liberated Ukraine's north in the spring of 2022, and life in the capital more or less normalized, Anton changed his focus to regular trips to the east and south: Kharkiv, Donetsk Oblast, Zaporizhzhia, and recently also Kherson Oblast.

During working hours, from Monday to Friday, Anton works at the National Academy of Sciences, but he devotes almost all evenings and weekends to volunteer work. He is part of the "Gurkit" charitable foundation, created last year. Every Saturday early in the morning, Anton leaves Kyiv by car or bus, which his foundation sends to the east or south, and returns on Sunday.

Since June, they have transferred over 40 cars to the front (including only those cars that have gone through a "full cycle": volunteers found them, repaired and equipped them, and then transferred to the front) and helped transport another 20 cars.

The charitable foundation also helps with drones, thermal imagers and other optics equipment, as well as other equipment such as generators. They focus on helping the military, but they also help civilians; tens of tons of humanitarian goods were transported thanks to their efforts.

What motivates Anton

Anton recalls that the most difficult part of his volunteer work is to realize the terrible reality in Irpin and Bucha in the first weeks of the invasion, and also to forget those people who could not be evacuated from there.

However, there are also many things that motivate him. Most notably, a realization that his work is bringing about Ukraine's victory – and the sooner it comes, the sooner Anton will be able to see his wife and child, who are now abroad. That's why he says that he is absolutely happy to use all his free time for volunteering.

Science and art during the war – the story of Yana Sychikova

Yana Sychikova with her co-author Serhii Kovachov
Micrograph of nanopores in an etced section of porous silicon, obtained using a JEOL scanning microscope, by Yana Sychikova and Serhii Kovachov, that won the first place in the “Microscopy” category of the Science Photo Competition on Wikipedia in 2020

Yana Sychikova is a regular participant of the Science Photo Competition on Wikipedia, vice-rector of Berdiansk State Pedagogical University and author of the project "Nanoart. Science is art" (nanoart.ukraine). With the beginning of the full-scale invasion, she had to leave her city of Berdiansk in southern Ukraine, which now is occupied by Russian troops. Here is her first-hand account:

On February 23, 2022, I worked late. Many important things were planned for the next day. I made lists of tasks and wrote down the time for their completion. I was afraid that I would not have time to complete all the planned tasks.
On February 24, Berdiansk, like other cities of Ukraine, woke up to explosions. At 5 a.m. I was sitting in the kitchen and reading the news on my smartphone, which completely changed my life. I had no more important plans. I called my university's rector. "What are we doing today?". He replied: "I will be at the university. Other managers can come at their own discretion. All other employees should stay at home."
We were sitting in his office in silence. Then we began to think about the work of the university. Should they stop studying? What to do with students who live in the dormitory? How to work in general? We did not understand anything. Everyone said that this war would end in three days. We also believed in it.
On February 27, the occupiers entered Berdiansk. The first thing they did was to bring down the flag of Ukraine at our university. It is interesting that they were less interested in the flag on the city administration building – it was removed only a few days later. This shows that any occupying power is primarily focused on destroying the culture, ideology and national identity of the conquered people.
On March 2, Russians with weapons came to the office of the rector of the university. They kidnapped him and offered to head the new Russian Berdiansk University. They received a categorical refusal. From that moment, we realized that it was risky to be in the university building. After that, we met in the city park.
On March 24, the Russian ship Saratov was destroyed in the port of Berdiansk. The student dormitory of our university is located near the port. Occupants broke into the dormitory 20 minutes after the explosion; they interrogated students and beat some of them. They also stole the university's servers, and damaged the building of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics, where our “Nanoart Gallery” was located.
For the first three months of the war, I lived in occupied Berdiansk. To be honest, at first I did not understand what to do. Evacuation of the population was not organized, this was impossible under the conditions of occupation. We were not able to save university property or help our colleagues leave. In the first weeks of the occupation, there was no food, medicine, or hygiene products in the city. It was very cold in the houses because gas was not supplied to the city. Russian vehicles were driving everywhere.
After three months of occupation, we were able to evacuate. It was then possible only through filtration in Vasylivka, which is called the "road of death". There, people wait for permission to leave, sometimes up to 10 days, often without food or water. We spent the night at a bombed gas station, we were not allowed to get out of the cars or turn on the lights or the phone. All night from this place, the occupiers shelled the neighboring villages, and we were like a "human shield".
In the morning we went to look for a detour; after several unsuccessful attempts we found the way and arrived in Zaporizhzhia by nightfall. We drove along mined roads, completely burned villages and understood how close this war was. It has been in every cell of the body. The war forever changed the life of every Ukrainian.
During the war, I realized that everyone can contribute to our future victory. So now all my energy is focused on work. There are no weekends, vacations or holidays for us during the war. Every day is another step towards the victory of Ukraine.

The story of Dmytro Ostapchuk – a teacher from occupied Mariupol

Mariupol downtown street destroyed by the Russian siege

Dmytro Ostapchuk (User:ДмитрОст) is an administrator of the Ukrainian Wikipedia from Mariupol, a city in southeastern Ukraine that become the target of the three-month-long siege by Russian invaders almost a year ago. Dmytro is also a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature, philologist and literary editor.

Dmytro was born in Kyiv but spent almost his entire life in Mariupol, which became his hometown. On February 24, he met a full-scale Russian invasion there.

"The first days of the all-out war, when there were no strong explosions yet, people continued to live their lives, go to work", Dmytro Ostapchuk recalls. Everything changed on February 26, when the city lost electricity and mobile connection for the first time.

During the first days of fighting for Mariupol, Dmytro stayed in his apartment with his mother. Later, Dmytro's brother and his family joined them. To do this, they had walked for three hours to the other end of the city under artillery fire.

When, on March 4, a cannonade of Russian BM-21 “Grad” exploded near Dmytro's apartment, he and other residents of the building went down to live in the basement. Up to 80 people lived in this shelter at the same time.

The bomb shelter was quite well adapted, so not only the residents of the building above it lived there, but also people from the neighboring buildings. From 6:00 pm to 6:00 am, the entrance to the basement was closed. One of the shelter's technical rooms was converted into a toilet.

The basement was lit by candles, flashlights and a lamp powered by car batteries. There was no water in the city; Dmytro used to walk for five blocks to a well in one of the city parks near Azovstal.

Dmytro says that soon the city was engulfed in anarchy, and looting of shops and supermarkets began. Some shop owners opened the doors themselves and allowed people to take goods but asked not to smash the windows. First of all, people were looking for food, batteries, flashlights, hand tools etc. No one knew how long the Russian siege of the city would last, so everyone tried to stock up as much as possible: "People understood that if there is no light, no water, no heat, no anything, then it's better to have at least some food".

In early March, when Dmytro was sleeping in his apartment, he was awakened by a loud explosion. The blast wave shattered windows throughout the house, and one of the shells punched a large hole in his apartment. At that time, it was very cold outside, so Dmytro had to cover the hole with an industrial tarpaulin to protect the house from wind and snow. Despite this, the apartment was constantly at sub-zero temperatures.

In the third week of the siege, the cannonade increased significantly, and Mariupol was constantly bombarded by Russian aircraft from the sea. Fires from shelling broke out in the city.

"People quickly packed their valuables and tried to leave the occupation in the direction of Zaporizhzhia," Dmytro recalls. They moved across the front line, and therefore, for security reasons, the Ukrainian military often didn’t allow passage. However, some people were ready to risk their lives just to escape from the besieged city.

Dmytro's mother categorically did not want to leave Mariupol. I was born here, and I will die here, she was saying. Only at the end of May, after seeing the completely destroyed city, did she agree to the evacuation. Meanwhile, Dmitro had to stay in the city. He is a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature, so it was risky to leave the occupied territory through the Russian filtration camps.

Dmitro had to live in occupied Mariupol all summer. There he received a SIM card from a Russian-controlled mobile operator. This is how he was able to maintain contact with the world, in particular with his mother and some members of the wiki community.

The opportunity to leave Mariupol appeared in the first half of September 2022. "On September 11, we left Mariupol, passed the 'filtration' in Manhush, and then went to Berdiansk. The next day we arrived in [Russian-occupied] Vasylivka, where we passed another 'filtration'. So, 20 Russian checkpoints later, we arrived in [Ukrainian-controlled] Zaporizhzhia."

The story of Dmytro's escape from Russian occupation ended successfully – today he lives in Kyiv and even continues to actively contribute to Wikipedia.


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