Novoiavorivsk, Ukraine — Novoiavorivsk, Ukraine is not a big place. With a population of just 32,000, it’s comparable to Innisfil or Stratford. To walk its unassuming streets, passing grannies selling bags of milk by the side of the road, one might mistake it for a typical Soviet-era hamlet. And yet today is anything but typical for the residents of Novoiavorisk. The town is preparing for war.
The invading Russian army is four and a half times larger than the Ukrainian forces and immeasurably more equipped for battle. Yet residents here seem largely unintimidated, with few fleeing to the Polish border located just a 30-kilometre drive away. The combat is still largely taking place on Ukraine’s eastern front. The nearest rockets are falling more than 400 kilometres inland. Yet the town is readying itself as though the Russian tanks were already at their doorstep.
Even with the war still far away, the town shows how the Russian incursion has changed every corner of this country, every life within it.
Days ago, the biggest challenge facing Novoiavorivsk’s mayor, Volodymyr Matselukh, was a planned overhaul of the local hospital. Now, he dons military garb each morning as he plans the town’s defence against the encroaching Russians.
“Before lunch, I had all the community services here,” says Matselukh explaining how he responded on the war’s first day. Police, firemen, government employees, volunteers — they were all given jobs in the city’s defence.
Staying focused on the task distracts from the darkness of the moment. In the room next door, there are two families waiting to meet with him. Each has just learned that they have lost a son in battle this week.
“We are now working on how to move the bodies of those soldiers back here,” he says.
Across the street from the mayor’s office sits Novoiavorivsk’s equivalent of the DMV, which in recent days has turned into a donation centre gathering material to help with the war effort.
The building is typical of the drab architecture lining the street: stark, white and boxy. As was common in the Soviet Union of the mid-20th century, the town sprang up in the shadow of a chemical plant, its buildings putting function over fashion.
But beyond the building’s drab exterior is a bustling hub, a community in crisis coming together in common purpose.
Heading up the charge is Irina Kalagurka, a 35-year-old mother of four who is no stranger to chaos.
“I was a kindergarten teacher, and now [I’m] here as a volunteer offering logistic support,” she says. “We have a chance to leave our town because we are 30 kilometres from the border,” she says. “But we stay here. Because it’s my country. It’s my land. I can’t leave my land in the need.”
What about when the Russians arrive?
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“No, I’m not afraid,” she said. “Everyone will die. We only don’t know where or when it’s our time.”
Directly above the donation centre, in an office padded with egg cartons, sit Andriy Stasyshyn and Mariia Bereza, hosts of the town’s days-old military radio station. Here, they relay updates from the front lines and fact-check stories that are gaining popularity online.
Up until last week, 31-year-old Stasyshyn and 21-year-old Bereza were streaming podcasts and dance music online. Now, they’re sharing a radio frequency with the military. “The main task now is to provide truthful and accurate reports of what’s happening in the war in real time,” says Bereza.
Stasyshyn adds that, for now, he’s opted to forgo his DJ alter ego, DJ Staton, given the gravity of his new role. Among other responsibilities, the hosts have been charged with airing the town’s rocket sirens live on the station, a blaring sound he plays for us in the studio, after twice checking they weren’t live.
Stories of wartime career change are everywhere around Novoiavorivsk.
There’s Andriy, a construction manager-turned-chief of the town’s 2,000-strong civil defence. The unarmed force has no formal military background, but they have taken to their martial tasks, patrolling streets after the countrywide 10 p.m. curfew, manning barricades and inspecting cars attempting to make their way through any of the town’s 14 checkpoints.
“The first couple of days, it was a nightmare,” says the 45-year-old chief, looking up from his cellphone that every few seconds vies for his attention. ”Seven days in a row [we] had no sleep. Zero sleep.”
Then there are career soldiers like another Andriy, removed from the eastern front where he had been fighting for the last eight years to serve as the head trainer of the town’s Territorial Defence Forces, a reserve force.
Down the road from the donation centre, we descend a creaky set of stairs at the Greek Catholic Church into a basement in which a maze of women and girls are weaving.
Asked what is being constructed, Tanay, an IT sales manager, struggles to find the English word.
“I really never thought that I will need to know such words,” she says, laughing.
The women and girls are making camouflage that will be used to cover sniper rifles in combat, a complex task that takes extraordinary co-operation. Some of the people here are better suited to the task — “I worked in a sewing factory,” shouts one red-headed woman in the group — but others are still finding their rhythm.
Tanay, with her long acrylic nails, finds the work difficult. But at least it’s a way to contribute.
“I’m just trying to not think about the war,” she says. “Just think about the help.”
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