Volunteer gathering point is a supermarket on the way out of Kyiv. At eight oʼclock in the morning there are already dozens of cars. People come in large groups or small families to buy coffee at a recently opened kiosk and discuss the latest news. Volunteers are met by coordinator Alyona Osipova. Everyone glues a leaflet with the "Volunteers” sign and goes to Irpin in an organized column. About five hundred meters to the city sign we stop, leave the cars and walk to the city.
— Where do you plan to go, on the streets or to the Fora supermarket to clean blockages? — Yaroslav, a man in his forties, asks. This is not the first time he has come to Irpin to help. The Fora he talks about, located at the entrance to the city, was smashed by a shell missile.
— If itʼs your first time here, itʼs better not to go to such blockages, because you wonʼr get out of bed tomorrow, — Roma and Denys, with whom we approach Irpin, laugh.
They are both from Kyiv. After the liberation of Kyiv oblast from the occupiers Denys went to Borodyanka and Gorenka settlements, took out the corpses of dead dogs.
— I will remember Borodyanka for the rest of my life, — he says briefly. — [Carrying] 40 corpses in one truck at a time, and doing it ten times in a row.
On April 3, Irpin Mayor Oleksandr Markushin wrote that the city needs help — large equipment to dismantle the debris and people ready for physical labor. On the same day, thousands of people responded to his call.
— Irpin mayor addressed me and asked: "Alyona, can you help us?", — the volunteers coordinator Alyona Osipova tells. — I have my own relationship with Irpin — I volunteered here during the [peak periods of COVID] pandemic, helped to deliver food. Thatʼs why I agreed now.
All coordination is in a Viber chat with 1,200 people. Every night Alyona draws there up a plan for the next day, people gather in groups to get there. Hundreds of volunteers come to Irpin every day. The most, says Osipova, was on Sunday, April 10. 600 people arrived at that day.
— I call my team Volunteer Battalion, because there are already more than a thousand of us, itʼs definitely a battalion! — She laughs. — The absolute majority are Kyivans who are very eager to help, They understand that thanks to Irpin and other cities [in Kyiv oblast] the Russians did not reach the capital.
After a brief check at the entrance, the volunteers split up: those who will work on the rubble stay, the rest get on the bus and go to the city center, where they can get equipment they may need. In front of the half-destroyed Romanivsky Bridge there is a shot billboard advertising a residential complex, burned cars can be seen under the bridge and a little further in the parking lot. During the fighting , this path — on foot across the bridge — was the only way out for those who wanted to escape Bucha, Hostomel, and Irpin.
Our group of 20 people is being sent to clean up Pravyka park, which must be reached by the main Soborna Street. The local Dima shows us a way — he left Irpin on March 15, and now he has returned and also coordinates the work of volunteers.
— There is no heating, no electricity, five degrees above zero in the apartments during the night, — he says. — But Iʼm a backpacker, so Iʼm used to such conditions. Get myself wrapped in a sleeping bag — and everything is fine.
— Is you house intact? — I ask him.
— My house is right there, — Dima points to a high-rise building behind the houses on the avenue. — Strong battles did not reach there. They didnʼt hit my apartment, though the missile flew in the next one. Its windows were smashed.
The houses on the avenue are mutilated chaotically. In one of the high-rise buildings, the whole floor was destroyed, but the neighboring apartments were not affected, even the glass in the windows is intact. In the mall we see a destroyed cafe — and a store on the same floor with no signs of damage. The inscription on the door to this shop says: "There is nothing here." A man next to it is talking on the phone, shouting: "Iʼm in Irpin, yes, I came, Iʼm home!" Dima points to the local hospital — it has almost no windows, red crosses are painted on the walls.
The main type of garbage in the park is polyfoam. There is a lot of it in the city in general — as are the remains of the cladding of houses that were smashed during the fighting. Seeing something white on the lawn from afar, I go there to clean up, but a volunteer calls me in time and tells me not to touch it, because this "something" looks suspicious. We take a closer look: itʼs a parachute on a rope that goes into the ground. Thereʼs a mine. Irpin was almost demined, but such "gifts" still occur. On the day when we worked, two locals were blown up due to a mine in an apartment building.
In the middle of the park there is a burned-out coffee shop. In its metal box for popcorn there are burnt corn kernels. Branches of shot trees and wires are scattered around. The paths in the park are covered with glass — we carefully rake it into a pile. In a few hours the park looks flawless.
— Next time Iʼll go to clear the buildingsʼ rubble, — Denis says unhappily as we rest on the benches. He twists the found fragment of a shell in his hands. — It looks like we helped here, but in fact we just cleaned the park.
— Imagine: people will come back here, see their houses destroyed, and then go out to the park — and everything is clean there, like in the past life, — Roma answers him, leaning on a shovel. — Maybe they will feel better from this.
Volunteers are fed in one of the buildings of the Academy of Internal Affairs. There is a kitchen and a headquarters where humanitary aid for the locals is collected. The windows in the building are broken, there are holes from the shells. Next to the torn case is an undamaged billboard with the inscription: "Grandma, I finally had a good rest." In the building with the dining room, patriotic drawings and postcards hang on the walls, where childrenʼs handwriting reads: “I wish you good luck and victory. From Lilac for the soldiers".
For lunch volunteers get corn soup, a choice of dumplings or cabbage rolls, crab salad, cakes and even pizza. The fast elderly woman picks up the dirty plastic plates and puts them in the trash. She is local. We ask if she needs help.
— Oh, they brought us so much food that we canʼt eat it until the end of our lives, — she laughs and points on the table. There are home-made and canned food, cardboard boxes on the floor are full of condensed milk, cookies and chocolate.
Volunteers work in Irpin until 4 p.m. We meet with Yaroslav, who spent the whole day dismantling the debris, and exchange impressions of who found what. Denis shows a fragment of a shell. Yaroslav looks at him and smiles sadly — their group found the body of a territorial defense unit fighter under the rubble. In the park a block away from the one that we cleaned the volunteers saw two graves of civilians.
While we are talking, two mongrel dogs run up to us and start caressing us. We feed them, but they eat lazily and more want to be petted. Mongrel dogs are friendlier than purebred ones, which also run around the city because they have been left without owners — they are almost donʼt come close to people, but are willing to eat the food left for them on every corner. We take pictures of dogs and publish them in chat groups where people are looking for their pets. Several people have already managed to find their animals this way.
— But theyʼre not hungry, — an elderly man who watches us try to feed the mongrel says. — They live here on the former construction site, so everyone feeds them there.
The man came to the park to gather firewood. He lives nearby, a few blocks away. He says that he did not leave Irpin.
— We have two houses. The first oneʼs yard the bomb hit — bang! — He tells willingly. — And in the second house the roof went up. Something exploded close to us, the roof levitated a bit and then fell into place.
— How are you feeling now?
— Quite fine, thank God! There is humanitarian aid, there is water in the well, now I am gathering branches, so it will be warm [after I light the fire]! The main thing is that these bitches (Russians) do not come back again. Because you have already cleaned so well here! Theyʼd better not to get here again.
On the way out of Irpin we are stopped by a military vehicle. The smiling soldier hands out a yellow tulip to each of the girls and "gives a fist" to the boys. In farewell, the soldiers wish us to take care of ourselves, drive a hundred meters and pick up an elderly woman with suitcases. "Thank you, boys," she says shyly and calls someone, "Everything is fine, Iʼm home."
Babel works to get you all the information about the war — and good deeds as well.
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