Lyudmyla Yankina, 38, a volunteer in Kyiv. Sarah Easter/CARE
Ukraine: No matter what happens, Lyudmyla stays to help
War has been raging in Ukraine for more than 50 days. More than five million people have fled across the border to neighbouring countries. But many people stay behind because they cannot flee: the elderly, people with disabilities, the sick. And people like Lyudmyla Yankina remain.
She lives in an emergency shelter in a basement in Kiev, Ukraine's capital. The road into the city is lined with bombed-out houses and burned-out tanks.
Lyudmyla had to flee the Donbas region back in 2014. But now she says:
"It’s enough. I'm not running away again. I'll stay here and help people."
Lyudmyla trained as a nurse and has now made it her mission to help people living in areas that are completely cut off from supplies. She transports food, medicine, and other much-needed supplies.
"I have 200 people that I visit at home because they need medicine on a regular basis. Among them are very many elderly people who are alone and have no one. Many are also hungry. I visited a 90-year-old woman who hadn't eaten in a week. Among these people are also some with cancer, for whom it is vital that they get their medication," Lyudmyla said.
A one-woman charity
At first, Lyudmyla paid for the supplies she provided to those in need with her own money. When she ran out of money, she put out a call for help on Facebook, where she has since received many donations. Every time a donation arrives, she calculates it in her head, "0.25 euros is a sandwich. 5 euros will take me a few kilometers by car."
Every day, Lyudmyla drives 100 to 150 kilometers to reach people who have no one else to care for them. The west of Kiev was completely cut off from supplies and it often took more than six hours for her to cross the city. The villages and suburbs of Kiev are also difficult to reach, as many mines have yet to be defused.
"I pray every day that the missiles lying on the roads don't explode while we are driving along there," Lyudmyla tells us. “Every time I see a collapsing building, I start crying because I know how many of the residents and inhabitants there are still under the rubble."
Hot meals for thousands of people
Lyudmyla partners with restaurants in Kiev and, with other volunteers, delivers up to 2,000 meals a day.
"We help those who have survived. People start crying when we bring them a hot meal because they have nothing left."
In Kiev itself, she has already helped up to 400 people, and in the villages and suburbs, more than 1,000 have received assistance from her.
Before people can hold their hot meal in their hands, Lyudmyla considers what is needed every day.
"I need to find the potatoes, I need to find a place to prepare the food, I need something to transport the food in, and I need gasoline for the cars. Every day I think about whether to buy gas for two cars or one. Two cars can feed more people, but if I save the gas for one car, I have more money for more meals."
Many of those who have fled contact Lyudmyla and report that they have been out of contact with their loved ones for several days. They have either had their cell phones taken away or are living in areas where there is no electricity or network connection.
One young woman sent Lyudmyla the last known coordinates of her mother. Lyudmyla could not travel to the house in question for four days because every access route was full of mines. When she found the mother, Lyudmyla directly recorded a video for her daughter. Then she loaded a trunk full of food, generators, chargers, a radio, a cell phone, gasoline, and other things the mother needed.
"I asked the mother what she would like to eat, and she asked me if I had any cookies. I then recorded a video of the mother talking directly to her daughter. I am the only bridge between families.”
Deciding to stay
Not all of those she finds have survived. Lyudmyla bought 1,000 body bags to bury the dead with dignity. Cemeteries were under attack until recently, factories that made coffins were destroyed. Every day she writes in her notebook the names of those she wants to find and to whom she brings medicine or food.
Lyudmyla goes to areas where fighting is taking place every day, putting her life in danger.
"It was my decision to stay. As a nurse, I have skills that are needed. My friends tell me to get to safety, but I can't imagine leaving these people behind. If you find people who have been hungry for a week, I can help them," Lyudmyla reports.
What drives Lyudmyla?
"I'm not a heroine. It's not an adventure. I'm always afraid. Every day could be my last. We need help. We are dying here," said Lyudmyla.
She is one of many Ukrainians who, as volunteers, help many affected people every day. She hopes that this strong cohesion will continue through the war.
"For the future, I wish for peace. For myself, I wish to have my own home again someday."
In Ukraine, CARE supports a number of partner organizations that have a proven track record in development cooperation and humanitarian aid. Volunteers like Lyudmyla and smaller local initiatives receive financial support to help flexibly on the ground. In addition, CARE provides shelters and safe spaces for women and families, distributes food, water, hygiene items, and provides psychosocial support and cash assistance. As always, CARE considers the needs of women and girls, as well as young children, the elderly, and those with disabilities. Together with our partners, CARE aid will reach over 150,000 people in the next six months.