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Ukraine: no matter what happens, Lyudmyla stays to help

Portrait of Lyudmyla Yankina, writing in a notebook.

All photos by Sarah Easter/CARE

All photos by Sarah Easter/CARE

A one-woman charity makes all the difference for people trapped by war.

A relentless war has been raging in Ukraine since February. More than five million people have fled across the border to neighboring countries. But many stay behind because they cannot leave: the elderly, people with disabilities, the sick, or those too weak to take on the journey. 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. Places like Bucha and Irpin, whose names have gone around the world, are just a few kilometers away.

Lyudmyla, 38, fled the Donbas region back in 2014. In 2022, she said, “It’s enough. I’m not running away again. I’ll stay here and help people.”

She trained as a nurse and has now made it her mission to help people living in areas that are completely cut off. 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,” she said. “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.”

A one-woman charity

At first, she paid for it all with her own money. When she ran out of money, Lyudmyla put out a call for help on Facebook. In the meantime, she has 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.”

I pray every day that the missiles lying on the roads don’t explode while we are driving along there.

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 a 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.

On the road, Lyudmyla keeps seeing the effects of war. “We once passed a car that still had the bodies of the children inside. 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,” Lyudmyla says.

Portrait of Lyudmyla speaking to CARE staff at a coffee shop.

Hot meals for thousands

She cooperates 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.

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.”

In the meantime, many of those who have fled and been displaced contact her 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 location 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’m not a heroine. It’s not an adventure. I’m always afraid. Every day could be my last.

“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.” Lyudmyla brought her the cookies as well. Lyudmyla gets the radios because she often talks to people in these areas who have been cut off from any information for several weeks. “A father once asked me if Kyiv was still standing. He was told that Kyiv had fallen,” Lyudmyla says.

Last dignity for the dead

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. “Next to each person I find, I write ‘alive.’ I need that so I can see that something good happened today and that person doesn’t need a body bag.”

Lyudmyla goes to the contested areas every day. Every day her life is 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” she said. 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.”

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