АвторAuthor: Yuliya Osadcha | Translation: Kateryna Doroshenko
21 July 2022
Alyona Zaporozhets is a photographer from Kyiv. The woman has been engaged in wedding photography for more than ten years. However, after the start of the full-scale invasion of russia, she realized that she wanted to bring the maximum benefit to the Ukrainian army and the civilians. Therefore, Alyona transformed herself into a volunteer. Read more about the story of Alyona’s development as a volunteer.
I spent the first eight days of the war together with my friend at her relatives’ house in the village of Yuryivka in the Kyiv region. After all, after my boyfriend left for the war on February 24, I simply could not stay alone. But these days were my personal genocide. It was very difficult for me: each of these people did not match my values. While everyone fell asleep in the cellar and did not care about anything, my beloved one slept somewhere in a trench, in a swamp…
I believe that everyone has their own scale and locality of war. Before the war, I was a person of the type “well, I can do everything myself, why can’t others do the same?”.
“Now I understand how much the war raised me, how much it kicked me and hurt a lot, until I realized that not everyone can risk their lives so much, not everyone is as strong a patriot. Everyone has their own psychological limit”.
I tried to pull everyone under my limit, then I realized that the longer I spent on this effort, the worse I felt. And I would meet people with my limit. You just need to leave those who can’t go with you alone and move on.
These people just happened not to have enough resources. On the eighth day, everyone with whom I was in the village left. These were three families. They really insisted that I would go with them, saying that my Denys would be killed first, and I would be raped. There was a lot of pressure. It was very difficult psychologically. I was torn literally, especially psychologically.
I decided to return home, I understood that this would cure me. I needed native walls. Therefore, everyone went from Kyiv, and I, on the contrary, went back to the capital.
I had to fix myself, like a car coming in for inspection.” And so I stay in Kyiv and make a decision. “That’s all. The country needs me, I have to get myself together.” It was necessary to transform from a wedding photographer with ten years of experience to a person who did not yet understand who she was.
And so it happens that the family with whom I lived in the first days of the war has been selling tulips for 15 years. This is their business. Everyone left in this family, and only two parents remained. And they have ten greenhouses with 15 thousand tulips. People were not preparing for war, they were preparing to make other people happy on March 8.
And I offered to help them, because in the past years twelve people were engaged in sales, and now there were only two of them left. Of course, they would not be able to sell. We didn’t talk about selling at all, we just had the question “let’s just give people spring”.
I turned to my Instagram account and started writing posts about tulips with the inscription “Let your eyes shine at least a little and you smile. Even in such a difficult time. To be in spring, not war”.
I started actively selling tulips: I created posts, I did mass mailing, I started asking about tulips everyone I knew. And it was a shock for me, because my entire audience, at that time 14,000 people, only read the news: about horrors, horrors, horrors of the war…
All these days we were engaged in selling flowers: we transplanted, carried, cut them. And then I took a photo of me standing in the truck, and there were beautiful colorful tulips below. There were about two thousand of them. And I wrote “Something from another life”. Everyone started liking and sharing my post.
That is, people needed to feel some kind of involvement, that they were close to the country, that they were doing something, not just standing aside and watching, and they needed at least three or four hours a day not to read the news, but to do something else.
So I created a team. I put people at different points. People simply gave and sold flowers in various parts of the city. New acquaintances kept appearing every day, because all my acquaintances who were there before the war had already left the city. There was not a single person with whom I communicated well before for several years. There was only Denys, who fought and appeared for only 30 seconds. It was clear that something needed to be done in order not to go crazy.
On March 6, we had training. I just started giving tulips when I saw women, grandmothers and little girls on the street. There were very few of them. The streets were empty. But when I gave flowers, they left with hope in their eyes and with a painful smile.
Grandmothers cried, children smiled, passers-by simply helped, strangers were my helpers. People carried on driving to us from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. every day! And it seemed that then Kyiv became my Kyiv as it always was before: lively and sunny, a temperamental city and with its own character! With the character of the capital.
I felt that it was working. I first checked my ideas, because I’m not a tulip seller, I’m not a florist, I didn’t know how to make beautiful bouquets. But I am an organizer and can turn anything into an interesting event.
Therefore, this event took place in this way: on the eve of the holiday, on March 7, we began to go and give tulips to hospitals and maternity homes, the territorial defense members (TRO in Ukrainian) came to us and the members of the Ukrainian armed forces began to come too. One day, we had such a famous name. In our country, I mean, that’s exactly what my friend’s family did, it’s their job. And I am only a mediator.
There was already a queue on March 8. I wrote down the address in advance and informed people that we would start at nine in the morning, and at eight in the morning there was already a queue. The queue was simply very, very big, disastrous. The elevator in my house was disabled. I took the tulips to the basement so that they would be preserved longer and survive. It’s great that our house has a good basement, because I didn’t even know it existed before.
Beginning at 8:00 a.m. on March 8, I distributed, gave, and sold flowers all day. At the same time, I launched a promotion for people, especially for men who were not in the city. They could transfer the money to my card, and I, in turn, promised to present these flowers to other people on their behalf. I was constantly photographing people.
It worked so well that there were no tulips left. The family with whom I lived in the first days of the war said: “It’s a pity, but we will have to throw away the flowers. It’s not the right time for it.” I was like, “Wait, let’s try to do something about it”. And so we did.
We really gave spring to people then as a present. We delivered beauty. They set the price for one flower at 15 hryvnias. This is the cost of one bulb. Then there was still such a snowfall. I shouted that these funds would go to help the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the family that was involved in this. With the remaining funds, I bought ammunition for the military. Personally, I managed to earn 50 thousand hryvnias: 25 thousand for my family and 25 thousand for ammunition. Even on the ninth of March, people came to collect the flowers that were left. I was lucky that people appeared on the streets of Kyiv on March 8.
Thus the story with flowers ends in such a way. It was the best March 8 for me. And for me, this was the push to begin volunteering. For me, everything is highlighted in the course of events. I just have to feel where I should go. That moment I felt that I had to go in that direction.
And on March 9, I reported on what we sold and where we spent the money. All the money, I mean. From that time and now on I am a volunteer. I wrote on the social network that I was looking for volunteer centers. I asked who was doing what, and asked me to send the options for me. I began to be noted in various publications on a level with millionaire bloggers: Sasha Bo, Tanya Prentkovich, Valeria Borodina, Nadia Dorofeeva.
“At that moment, I understood that Alyona Zaporozhets is a new type of blogger in the war – those who did not go. I don’t have anything against those who left, but here I show the events from the inside. I showed Kyiv, Maidan. People wrote to me that they cry when they look at their hometown, as if they are walking with me”.
The next morning, I was already given 50 options to volunteer, among which was the volunteer center “Volunteers of Obolon”, that’s where I went.
I live in the Holosiiv district of Kyiv, from there I went to Obolon. And Holosiiv district was the most protected. If you look at the map of Kyiv, it is located on the opposite side, closer to the Odesa highway, and it was the least likely to be affected. All the terrible events that happened were on Obolon.
From that side the column of occupation came from Chernihiv, from Chernobyl, from Belarus. This column captured Irpin, Bucha, Vyshgorod and Obolon – it took the blow to take people away. Everyone drove that route. Everyone there welcomed people. Therefore, I understood that there would be the largest centers. Every day I drove 35 km. I drove 40 minutes there and 40 minutes back even during air-raid alerts.
My husband was categorically against my trips to the volunteer center and the column “Relationships on the edge” he used to say. He cried “Don’t go, don’t think about it.” And I said that I couldn’t, because he loved such a crazy person like me even before the war. And I loved him as a soldier. He shouted at me that I was a photographer. Instead, I said: “No, I’m not a photographer anymore, but a volunteer”.
This was my first center. A lot of different help was sent to them. The humanitarian came from abroad, especially from Poland, they received trucks, and a lot of things were taken along with them. A hundred tasks per second were received. It was all headed by two men who had worked in logistics in the past.
Then I brought help from myself: I collected food, things, etc. They said, “Thank you, goodbye.” To which I refused, “No, you don’t understand, I’m not going anywhere. I’m here and I want to help. I asked them to give me any task they had at that time.”
They told me to do whatever I wanted, just not to touch them. I could quickly find a place for myself. I started packing pies. At that time, the plant made them in unreal volumes – five or six thousand. There were baskets of salty and other salty ones. They had to be packaged to be given out to our soldiers.
Meanwhile, I was looking at the pies with one eye, and with the other I was studying the internal structure of the association, which was unknown to me before.
I never worked in a team before the war. I built my photography business entirely on my own. It was even difficult for me to delegate a task to someone, because I knew that I would do it three hundred times better.
And here was a challenge for me in the sense that I had to learn to delegate responsibilities, I had to understand that I could cover five points, ten packages, seven hundred loadings in a second alone and I came to the bosses there and said, that I could continue packing pies in the future, but I could be of much more use logistically, I could be their brains, so to say. I said that I would bring my computer the next day, and I asked them to give me lists of everyone to call and talk to.
I tried in various ways to be useful there, but soon decided to leave. Why did I leave that place? I had one condition there – if our priority is the Armed Forces, then I will directly help the city of Vasylkiv, because that is where my Denys serve. I wanted to go there myself, to deliver humanitarian aid. I knew that Vasylkiv was closed to everyone. I knew that no one would help Denys except me. Denys was categorically against it. He is one of those people who said he didn’t need anything.
It was like my salary. I worked hard the whole day, and at the end of the day I asked for something. Basically, there was a lot of everything, we didn’t have time to process all the applications. And the applications were different: for example, a missile battalion standing in a field, 60 men, they needed food and things, or a man who just drove back by in a car from Irpin and said “I am in one pair of slippers and a T-shirt, I barely survived with family, give us at least something.” Very chaotic applications from people.
The pain of volunteering is that you work around the clock, you don’t sleep, you don’t eat. It seems that you work 22 hours out of 24 hours. I was processing applications, looking for what we could get. At the same time, I realized that before the war I had a very different audience, all whom I photographed were people from completely different fields of life. Someone runs a restaurant, someone is a lawyer, someone is a pharmacist, someone is a psychologist.
The rule of seven handshakes was always in effect. I gave myself a chance and thought that if I was given a task, I should do it to the best of my ability. I set priorities.
For example, when a soldier’s wife writes to me and asks for an armored car for her husband, I first of all start looking for it, because I understand that it is very important. If I understood that Denys needed something, I dropped everything and looked for it for him. At that time, I had two profiles in social media: the first profile was volunteering, helping everyone who was evacuated from hot spots (Bucha, Irpin), helping those who stayed here.
There was a story that there was a house on Bohatyrska Street where we took aid, and the next day a rocket got into it. And that’s it. There is no house anymore. Obolon was constantly bombed. I lied to Denys that I was not there, but in fact I kept arriving there at 8 in the morning and went back at 6 in the evening.
In total, I stayed there for three weeks and such a situation occurred that the entire backbone of the center (male 20-25) lived in Obolon. I was like a dark horse who drove her car, arriving 35 kilometers away. They did not understand why I was doing this, secondly, they saw me as a threat. I was on my own for the whole war.
“I really like Tina Karol’s phrase, ‘Some passengers sometimes swim along with me in my boat.’ This is definitely about me”.
I used to come, but if I had a day to find body armor for my husband, then I wouldn’t come. Few people could understand me. After all, in order to understand me, you have to be the wife of a military man. Everyone has their own pain, for some people – that I had to arrive at 8 in the morning, I explained that I didn’t even live there, I didn’t even have money for gas to get there at 8 in the morning. All they had to do was to cross the road and they were already at the headquarters.
Half of the people who remained in Kyiv are the most traumatized and, as I understand it, low-income people. I saw it. Half of them did not have cars, they lived in poor conditions. And such a story began that the humanitarian began to be robbed. I saw that.
When I came again, a curfew was announced in Kyiv. It was done to identify saboteurs and there was a sweep. At that time we could not work.
It was as if we were working for the same goal, but we did not fit. We realized that we were out of luck. Everyone was so worried that russia was trying to capture us, and I was worried about how much horror was left in the Ukrainian people. Everyone thinks about their own existence, wants to grab something for themselves. Plus you can add unreal, huge fatigue, that was felt by people. Then I heard a cool phrase “moratorium on scratch” (“the allowance to fight”). That is, “Ukrainians, russia is trying to get us to kill each other.”
That’s why I realized that I was spending my energy in the wrong place, I couldn’t help Vasylkiv in any way, I had to report for everything, as if they saw me as an enemy. And so I left. A part of the “Volunteers of Obolon” split off and made its own center. Even then, I stood not as a person who packs pies, but as a co-owner of all this.
My logic was as follows: we are creating our own separate center, we help ourselves, we do everything ourselves, but the backbone of the people remains the same. This was the problem of the second volunteer center.
I had Anya Plekhanova with the call sign “Yellow Beetle”. She came to me in the same car as mine. We united, began to live together. I clung to each person as an inner salvation. It became much easier for me when I realized that I had found a person with the same values.
“I used to be wrong about people. They all left, and I just couldn’t hear how someone bought sushi, and I don’t even remember the last time I ate them. I began to feel that there was too much anger and aggression in my heart”.
I saw it myself. At that time, I felt that I had to isolate myself from people who put pressure on me or put some kind of threat to me. Those who wrote “Alona, you will all be killed, Kyiv will be stormed.” I mentally pressed the “isolate” button on them. Now the same people who have already returned to the capital and began to say that we didn’t have to leave.
Sometimes really amazing stories happen to me. Yesterday I found a cure for epilepsy in such a way: I got a call from the Cancer Institute and they said: “We know that we have you. We know you need medicine for people. We bought tulips from you on the seventh of March.” This proves that everything I have done resonates with me.
As for the second center, we thought about what to call it, everyone sat down, and we had an idea. We all said that it should be word of mouth. A word we hear every day is “tryvoha” (which in Ukrainian means both: “anxiety” and “alarm”). We had a meeting, everyone said something and I say “Stop Tryvoha!” and it was 100% the right name.
Anya and I were among the young people who took everything to their responsibility. The rest of the people were people who rested one day and worked the next day. These were all people who at that time could help us with documents and funds. After all, when a truck comes to you, you have to say that you are not just a random guy, say Vasya, but that you are from a charitable foundation. We had a volunteer organization under the patronage of the charity foundation “Hand to Hand”. This is a charitable foundation that helps us. Any questions that arise from the authorities, from the Armed Forces of Ukraine or from those who provide humanitarian aid, we immediately show the letter.
There are two options: one should create a charity fund themselves. I planned to do so, on my own. But some people explained to me logically that in a state of war in the country, making a charity fund on your own is an unrealistic risk, plus it takes a very long time, it can last for months. Therefore, I understood that it was necessary to choose a charity fund that was created before the war. We found a man who created this charity fund “from hand to hand” and has been active for 10 years.
You know, I test every person in the war with the question of whether they can be useful. And this man came, said that he had nothing, and lived in a single house. I thought “so what can you give to the country?” I saw that he would not be of any use to us. So it happened. We left from the second center. They took “Stop Tryvoha” with them, left the patronage of the charity fund. There were two reasons for this:
“The biggest plus of volunteering: you meet like-minded people with the same values. They don’t feel a threat to their lives that way”.
The biggest minus: all these people were completely untested by you before the war. Everyone has their own motivation, everyone has their own goal. You don’t know what to expect from them. For example, my main motivation is my man at war, for other people, I want to get help to Kharkiv, because my family is there, others just want to make money, others just take a grocery package home every night, someone else starts to change into humanitarian clothes and says “look how cool, suits me.” Different people, different motivation.
At first, these people work perfectly with you. Your moods fit each other perfectly, and then you work longer, but understand that you’re different from each other. There is a clash and a quarrel, you don’t get along. I stick to one idea, others to another. My offer was “let’s make a page on social networks “Stop Tryvoha”, we would tell everyone about us, but the people who are 50 years old or older, who heard the word “Instagram” only somewhere from their children, would say “why not to rest today and go get a drink.” The more such encounters there were, the more I understood that we were not on the same page.
This does not mean that we hate each other and remain in a bad relationship. We just walked together for a while, then our ways separated, we saw everything in different ways.
During the war, I learned to say goodbye to everyone very quickly.
And we split off. And the final sign was as follows: every volunteer headquarters must have a warehouse where humanitarian workers show up, because there are a lot of them. We had a large line, “Stop Tryvoha” had already existed for two weeks. Senior people from our headquarters found the premises. Our task with Anya was to import tons of humanitarian aid. We did not have time to complete the documents, one day the Armed Forces knocked on the door and explained: the military cannot be based in kindergartens and similar places, so the authorities provided a warehouse for them. In other words, we had to take everything out literally in two days, and it was unclear where the children were.
That’s what pushed Anya and me to leave. We split, we fell apart. We saw that a lot was brought to us, and we could not control where it went, that is, humanitarian aid was lost again. People started stealing.
The longer the war went on, the more people kept the phrase “those who can survive will survive” in their heads. You can understand why, because they save their lives, therefore, they recruit to the maximum, but I cannot understand, because it is simply unfair. Someone’s family was killed, there is no house left, and someone simply does not have a job…
My position is that I don’t want to start conflicts among our people and myself during the war. 70 percent of people probably do not see how wrong everything is inside. For example, I don’t understand where the weapons that are supplied to us go.
There are massive, huge trucks with humanitarian aid, as a result there is zero reporting, photos, videos. After that, Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic are simply disappointed. Now, until 10 more rockets fall and hit our houses, we will not be helped. Now everyone is getting used to Ukraine living in a war, everything is getting used to it.
When the warehouse was taken from us and they said that we have to leave, we gathered people and said that we don’t want to stay in bad relationships, we want to live as partners. But our re-profile was like this – they are engaged in Obolon. We could not bear to drive 70 km. In short, we had many reasons and it was clear that Anya and I are moving on. We leave them.
We left “Stop Tryvoha” and pages on the Internet to ourselves. We needed a team of young people. The same crazy people in a good way, as we were. So they appeared eventually. The whole team, our new team, are people who found each other.
The rule of seven handshakes was back on. We have a new, much larger, charity fund “Army. Your guardian”, which we already created ourselves at that time. Currently, there are 15 of us. We all have unrealistically strong characters, and finally, after going through two volunteer centers, I met the same people as myself. For us, the task is as follows – we are all partners, we do not have a director, we are all equal.
I think I will not stop there. All this time I was coming to someone and going somewhere, I felt that I must constantly move and the war would show me my direction. I do not believe that I am 100% here and will be here all the time.
My dream is to create my own social project or company that will deal with a social direction that will be relevant both during the war and after the war. I am looking for a direction in myself, in which direction it will take me.
Volunteers will be very important in this war, after the war they have to understand that either they go back to their peaceful human life, or if they can’t go back, they look on. I know for sure that my activity must be relevant even after the war.
I came up with the idea of taking stories from the wives or daughters of the military. I see that it doesn’t get a lot of attention in the media. I can photograph them. So far I have a very traumatized side where I am a wedding photographer. I can’t go back and make people happy in this direction yet, it hurts and I can’t think about it.
I began to react very aggressively to the word “photographer”. At the beginning of the war, everyone told me “everything will be over soon, we will return to peaceful life and you will take pictures of us”. And it’s like I’m not there anymore, it’s like I dropped my cameras and lenses somewhere on the rock, because they were pulling me down. I discovered a new direction and ran in the other direction.
I’ll go back to photography when I’m ready. I changed my professional direction in life and don’t remember my past. Therefore, the photo will most likely be later.
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Yuliya Osadcha | Translation: Kateryna Doroshenko