December 18, 2014 / 6:14 PM / 3 years ago

Ukrainians dig deep to help soldiers on the eastern front

KIEV (Reuters) - Ukrainians are knitting socks, donating scrap metal and even crowd-funding a tank to keep their woefully underfunded army going as its standoff with pro-Russian rebels in the east drags on toward the new year.

Since separatism erupted in Ukraine’s east in April, the struggle to equip the army adequately has grown ever more acute as the country teeters on the edge of bankruptcy.

Ukrainian citizens have stepped in, donating time or money to help the soldiers in a conflict that has so far killed more than 4,700 soldiers, rebels and civilians.

“Our army doesn’t have enough of anything, from socks to heavy weapons,” said Yuliana Lytvynenko, a full-time volunteer who runs a group that makes camouflage suits for snipers and army scouts.

Up to 12 volunteers gather daily in a cramped room inside a refugee center in Kiev to rip old cocoa bean sacks into threads and knot them one by one onto fishing nets to make the suits.

Called ‘kikimora’ after a hairy bog-dwelling spirit of Slavic mythology, each takes seven days to complete, but costs around 150 hryvnia ($10) compared with the 2,000 hryvnia the army would have to pay for a regular suit, Lytvynenko said.

Nearly a quarter of the population currently volunteer in some capacity, according to a survey by GfK research group, which found that 9 percent started in the past 12 months - a period of revolution and war that has seen many rally behind a new pro-European sense of Ukrainian nationhood.

“The response is amazing. We needed lots of white fabric to make kikimora suits for the winter. I posted on Facebook and was instantly inundated with donations of sheets and cloth,” Lytvynenko said.

She opened a sack filled with colorful knitted socks and folders filled with children’s drawings and small cloth angels - all destined to be sent to troops at the front to boost morale over the holidays.

President Petro Poroshenko has repeatedly hailed Ukrainian citizens’ contribution to the war effort.

“The army wins when it has high fighting spirits and extremely high support in society. The volunteers have become symbols of this support,” he told journalists earlier this year.

OTHER SIDE

A September ceasefire has been repeatedly flouted by both sides and although violence has lessened in recent weeks, fuelling hopes of de-escalation, Kiev has said it will not withdraw its troops from their positions in the near future.

On the other side of enemy lines, fighting has left many without sufficient supplies to get through the winter. The self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ says local volunteer groups have sprung up there too, providing hot meals for those in need and repairing infrastructure damaged by shelling.

In Kiev and elsewhere outside the rebel zone, meanwhile, Ukrainians are pooling funds to supply the army.

A crowd-funding website called ‘The People’s Project’ encourages people to chip in as much as they can afford to buy equipment, including spare parts for damaged combat vehicles, dogtags and body armor.

It says it has completed more than half of its proposed projects and a ‘First People’s Tank,’ a remote-controlled tank that can be used for reconnaissance and mine-sweeping, has raised 71 percent of its goal of $17,064, from 129 people.

Companies are getting into the spirit. A spokesman for Raiffeisen Bank Aval, one of Ukraine’s largest lenders, said the bank had canceled its New Year party and had sent funds to help wounded soldiers instead of buying corporate gifts.

In the small town of Tarasivka near Kiev, a team of volunteers restores vehicles damaged in military operations in the east after friends serving in one of the Ukrainian battalions said their vehicles barely functioned.

They joined forces with a factory specialising in armoring cars and locals donated the scrap metal needed for the repairs.

“Soldiers come here personally to take the vehicles and they give us such an energy boost that I can not express it with words. Some even cry when they take the vehicles,” said 25-year-old Dmytro Skyba, who used to repair tyres for a living.

“I gave up my family life to do this. My wife sometimes doesn’t see me for days, but she understands.”

Elsewhere, a fund collects cash via social networking sites to restore decommissioned military planes into working transport and medical jets for the army. The first plane, called ‘Lucky’, is already in use, flying supplies to the frontline.

“The engineering group involved in this project hardly believed it would fly when we took it for renovation,” volunteer Marina Dobrovolskaya said. “But what is most interesting is that everyone is prepared to meet our needs, to cooperate, to help.”

Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets and Margarita Chornokondratenko

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