Weaving a Nation TogetherThe Women Working to Protect Ukrainian Front Line Troops
Chris York visits a church community on the Ukrainian homefront which makes especially ‘blessed’ camouflage netting for their ‘boys’ in the trenches
Despite being hundreds of miles from the front line and mostly in their 50s, 60s and 70s, the congregation of a church in the Ukrainian city of Lviv are playing an unusual but crucial role in their country’s increasingly heated conflict with Russia.
Almost every weeknight for eight years, a small group has gathered in the basement of the Ascension of the Lord Greek Catholic Church to weave pieces of excess cloth from a nearby textiles factory into camouflage netting for their “boys” in the army.
“The nets have a special protection and blessing. There are a lot of legends that no rockets or bombs have ever hit these nets and the boys always come and thank us for that,” says 70-year-old retiree Tenko Olha.
Since 2014 when Ukraine’s Army was called to action after the Russian annexation of Crimea and it’s proxy-invasion of the Donbas, the group has made 61,000 square metres of netting as well as thousands of items of thermal and fleece clothing to help insulate soldiers from the sub-zero temperatures of Eastern European winters.
“We fill 12 trucks a year just with socks,” says Olha.
During the eight years during which the group has been making the nets, the under-equipped and poorly trained Ukrainian army has morphed into a highly-disciplined force, sporting some of the latest military hardware, much of it shipped only in the last few weeks from European allies hoping to shore it up in the face of the much larger and better-funded Russian army.
“The army didn’t ask for help, we’ve been doing this from the first day of the war,” says Olha. “This is our own initiative.”
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defence can certainly now afford camouflage netting and thermal socks but the items made here have a special significance both for the makers and those who receive them.
“I think this is the most important thing I can do in my life, to make these nets,” says 64-year-old teacher Liubov Sokil.
“Because the boys on the front line might have food and clothes and everything else but it’s not as important as these nets because they’re made by this sort of community and shows they’re wanted and appreciated back home and that it’s important that we see them alive.
“One of my students is an orphan who has been on the frontlines for four years. After graduation, he left for the frontline and that’s why I can’t stand aside and do nothing. I treat them as my own children and I can’t be a traitor to them and that’s why I come here every day and why I will continue coming here.”
Just a few miles from the church is a stark reminder of the ongoing conflict – the graves of some 70 soldiers killed during the current Russian-Ukrainian war that occupy a special section of the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv.
Proof of just how appreciated the nets are on the front line is all around the room in which they are made. One wall is adorned with Ukrainian and regimental flags covered with hand-written messages from soldiers and a board near the entrance displays letters written and sent by different battalions before they left for the front.
Pointing to one, Olha says: “This one is the 80s Brigade that will be heading to the east in a couple of days so they sent us their greetings and their thanks two days ago.
“We sent them 11 nets.”
The oldest member of the group is 78 but, on the day we visited, three teenage girls were also helping, weaving the strips of cloth through thin plastic netting supported by large wooden frames.
“This is what we can do for our army and it keeps us safe and it’s very nice to be helpful,” says 17-year-old Maria Yakymiv.
“It’s about kindness, it’s about modesty and it’s about raising the next generation,” adds Olha.
With the recent escalation in tensions between Ukraine and Russia, the group has stepped up their production to six days a week with many volunteers coming along straight from working a full day elsewhere.
“We’re making more now than before,” says 53-year-old municipal worker Plavutska Oksana. “We are more anxious than before.
“We do not trust Putin, he can do anything. We can only trust God.”
High levels of religious belief in Ukraine are mirrored across the frontline and over in Russia, raising the likely prospect that somewhere in Russia, a similar congregation is making nets to help the very army the Ukrainians are fighting.
“They are their kids,” says Oksana. “Maybe not everyone needs this war but maybe their kids are also at war and their parents are not happy with this situation.
“It’s a lose-lose situation. Nobody needs war.”