It was a gutt-wrenching moment when a separatist assault sent Grad rockets crashing around their old, broke-down yellow grocery truck. Four volunteers working for BLUE/YELLOW, an organization that supports the Ukrainian Army, had taken a truck full of supplies for soldiers to the front lines. Now they were stuck in Debaltseve, listening to and feeling the impact of rockets around them; to their right was a Ukrainian position; to their left were pro-Russian held territory.
Among them, there were Yuliya Tolmachova, a former professional cyclist in her forties, and Žana Puodžius, 25, Lithuanian actress who volunteers for organizations supplying Ukrainian military in eastern Ukraine fighting pro-Russia separatist rebels.
Tolmachova has become the Godmother of the frontline soldiers for her work as volunteer running supplies to the forward operating bases throughout eastern Ukraine. She travels to the front several times a month. For her dedication and Spartan zeal, the soldiers gave her the nickname Lara Croft from the Tomb Raider franchise.
“God protects us,” she says, “because we help the best sons of Ukraine.”
As Tolmachova was Lara Croft, the soldiers gave Puodžius the name of Jean D’Arc (Joan of Arc). She is tall and slender with long brown hair. A classic beauty reminiscent of Veronica Lake. Behind her loveliness, though, is a quiet determination to be both an actress and an activist, not content to just advocate – she is interested in action.
She believes in giving concrete support for those fighting the spread of Russian influence into the states wanting to break from its sphere of influence, “I think it is important to stop Russians coming into other countries and creating wars where there should have never have been one.”
Jonas Ohman, a lauded Swedish filmmaker based in Lithuania and founder of BLUE/YELLOW, ran an art auction in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on 24 December, and raised funds to purchase equipment for Ukrainian forces; drones, optics, thermo-vision and other gear.
He jet sets between galas to promote his films, auctions to raise funds for BLUE/YELLOW, and travels to the Ukraine. He has been nicknamed “The Busy Panda” for his generally easy-going manner. He has achieved a sort of fame, and there are rumors that the separatists have a bounty on him and his team to be captured alive.
Ohman says of Tolmachova’s dedication, “She does nothing half-way. She’s too hardcore for most people.”
A 24 year-old Ukrainian soldier in a Tank brigade commented that she would “walk through fire to take care of her soldiers.”
“How could I not do this?” Tolmachova asks, “I can volunteer, so I do. It is my duty.”
On 30 January, his team set out from Kiev in an old grocery truck to the front, where the separatist had begun a large assault, moving towards Debaltseve and Mariupol in the Donbass Oblast. Painted across the side was a huge yellow truck was an advertisement for a Margarine brand; not the most ideal mode of transportation to the front lines, but it was a loan, and capable of handling the approximately eight-ton cargo that were inside. Due to a lack of seating, Ohman rode in the back with the cargo, swaddled among the bouncing boxes as they travel down the potholed Ukrainian roads.
The final member of the group was Sergiy Plotnitskiy, a volunteer who was enjoying his final excursion with the team, as he has been called up for military service. He would soon become the recipient of the aid he had been a part of delivering.
In the rickety grocery truck, they traveled with about eight tons of supplies from Kiev stopping at several places along the frontlines. They took shelter among the forward operating bases where they dropped off boxes and handed them the night vision optics and riflescopes.
On 2 February, while heading Debaltseve the truck broke down. Stuck on the open road, soldiers from a nearby checkpoint came to offer help. A blue Volga, a vintage car from the USSR, with two pro-Ukrainian militiamen inside also came to offer assistance as well.
That was when the Grads slammed in around them. Separatists began that morning’s assault into Debaltseve to push the front line further out of Donetsk city. The impact rocked the truck, shaking its flimsy metal siding and Ohman, Puodžius and Tolmachova were taken into the blue Volga and driven several kilometers away, out of the artillery corridor.
Plotnitskiy stayed behind to try to fix the truck – an act that was either really foolish or really brave, depending on the end result.
Temporarily safe, and listening to the loud incoming artillery, Puodžius began to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation, smoking a cigarette as she looked down the road, awaiting the view of the big yellow truck. Having been in similar disasters before, including being trapped by separatist’s artillery fire at the Donetsk airport where some of the most brutal fighting occurred, she had developed a habit of quiet laughter after reaching safety, shrugging it off as an acceptable risk of working in Ukraine.
“Before, when I was in Donetsk, there was gunfire, and it went maybe a few centimeters over my helmet,” she recalls.
When Sergiy and the yellow truck came, they broke out in a round of applause. Hugs and kisses were exchanged and they continued on their mission to Mariupol where the separatists had started to push towards the Azov Sea to link to Crimea.
Though this team did much of their work out of their conviction that Ukraine should remain united the camaraderie they felt that went far beyond politics. When soldiers thanked Tolmachova for her work, she turns to the soldiers and reminds them that her risks are nothing compared to theirs.
“Thank you for protecting Ukraine’s right to exist,” she tells them.
As the artillery boomed outside, Ohman said, “We believe in a united Ukraine. And we also care about these guys. These are good men, and the war came into their land. It surprised us all, and now they have to deal with it.”
Though Ohman had been delivering clothing and uniforms, he was considering reframing BLUE/YELLOW to give more aid to the Ukrainian soldiers in the form of thermal vision, better drones, scopes, GPS, etc. because of the organization’s great success in raising funds.
“Ukrainian volunteers are more than capable of getting clothes and food to the soldiers,” Ohman says, “so BLUE/YELLOW might do a better service concentrating on expensive items that help them fight.”
When prodded about the situation, the team feels as though they have taken on the responsibility that rightfully belongs to the EU and NATO.
“Where is NATO?” Ohman would ask rhetorically. “It’s just crazy that we, a civil organization of volunteers, are doing something that the EU and NATO should be spearheading.”