WITH OUR WORDS
Yevheniy Vasilyev — Chairman at “Vostok-SOS”
I joined Luhansk Maidan in January. I saw footage on a local TV channel and realized that it was already a point of no return, and I should be there. It became the start of a new life for me. Before that I was not very interested in either politics or human rights; I was not involved in any organizing activities… And here I started organizing various actions, trying to influence people who were already infected with indifference. In 2013, there were about ten people at Luhansk Maidan and even fewer at the Antimaidan. I was trying to tell people that if they won’t get involved, soon it will be too late. In a way, it was more like a street university. We would gather by the Shevchenko monument with speakers and a microphone and talk. There was a free microphone, and those who came from the Antimaidan were also allowed to speak.
At first, we seemed to have similar goals: we were equally annoyed by corruption and poverty. But the people at Antimaidan saw the solution to these problems in Russia, and we saw it in the movement to the European Union. Still, there was a chance for dialogue, we were only armed with our words, and it all depended on the arguments we chose. But when they came with firearms, the discussion changed: now it was about how to prevent casualties. At one point, the conflict of arguments escalated into an armed conflict. For me, the starting point was April 6, the capturing of the SBU building.
In the beginning, we opened a simple “hotline” for people from the East. We have just moved to Kyiv, bought some sim-cards, and posted on social media that we are providing help with relocation from the conflict area. People from Lviv, Ternopil, Kharkiv were calling us saying that they can host some people from Non-Government Controlled Areas. Also, people from Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts were calling for help with relocation. We worked ad hoc – depending from requests, which were different every time, At first people addressed us for help with finding apartment, safe relocation, and then they started to call us for legal aid, for example how to relocate a child without father’s formal approval if he joined armed groups of the so-called “Luhansk People’s Republic”.
Many callers asked to come and pick them up. We decided to do just that. Together with the volunteers, we found buses and went east, to the cities where fighting was taking place at the time. We arranged in advance with the people who lived there, at what hour and where we would pick them up. We asked everyone to be prepared and waiting by then because there was often no mobile connection. Some people asked us to come for them another day, some changed their minds and decided to wait out. And that’s when the shots were fired every day! Almost every family who decided to leave took a TV with them. Somehow, for most of them, this turned out to be the most valuable belonging. They tucked their TVs with towels to save them from breaking.
When we arrived with humanitarian aid, everywhere we saw inscriptions on the fences, and plaques on houses: “People live here,” “This house is guarded by the Ukrainian army.” I even have a collection of photos of those. The residents were trying to protect themselves and their homes from looting and attacks. Something inside you squeezes when you drive by and see those inscriptions.
The most moving trips are before the New Year. We always try to come up with something special for the holidays. Two years ago, by the end of December, we went to greet children of the near-front zones. There were a lot of us, so we found a role for everyone – there was Santa, Snow Maiden, and the rest became deers. The children were immensely happy, they danced and recited poems for us. It was incredible! Last year we changed the format a bit, for the older children we had a science show “Crazy Scientists,” with various experiments and tricks with liquid nitrogen, soap bubbles, and musical instruments. For the little ones we invited animators, and they had never seen one before! It felt magical to create miracles for others.
We introduced education projects in 2016 when it became clear that we won’t change society just by providing humanitarian aid. It is necessary to work with local people, to free their minds, to provide knowledge.
Our organization is the largest working on this in the Donbas. We hold joint cultural events with local artists, provide training, mainly on human rights-related topics. Our Festival of Thoughts is one of the largest festivals in the Donbas region. This year, 24 topics were selected to interest all kinds of audiences. We brought experts from around Europe – Estonia, Czech Republic, Germany … People were interested in all manner of things: from public toilets, which just don’t exist in Severodonetsk, and to state reforms.
I want to believe that the work we are doing, the laws we are developing are still affecting the Donbas community. It is important to me that people who went to the referendum and sought autonomy have since changed their attitude towards Ukraine. I do not ask them how it happened, because I do not want to get into their heart, but I am glad that they have changed their life position, partially, thanks to our work.