War life balance
There is no such thing as war life balance. For Ukrainian volunteers, the drink of choice is a petrol station coffee or a can of Non Stop. They don’t have the luxury of getting tired.
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Fifty loaves of wholegrain sourdough, baked in the mobile bakery’s new home in Odesa’s Shevchenko park. The first batch made by our volunteer bakery manager Oleg, together with Alex Bettler, owner of Today Bread in east London - who came all the way out to Odesa with me, to volunteer for a week and help Oleg in the mobile bakery.
Volunteering, for people in wartime Ukraine, isn’t some kind of casual weekend hobby - it’s a total commitment, more hours squeezed out of an already exhausting day, forget about sleep or time off, there is no such thing as war life balance. Oleg, for example, gets up at dawn and arrives at the mobile bakery by six in the morning, after taking care of the sourdough starter and heating up the wood fired oven the night before. He starts the dough going, weighing out all the flour and adding the right percentage of water, checking the temperature, stretching and folding it and leaving it to proof. Then he goes off to his actual job, before coming back later to continue baking the bread. Oleg isn’t even a professional baker - he’s a senior company manager who first began helping out at the DOU bakery - and takes on every challenge without hesitation. The world could use more people like Oleg.
On the road
So a lot of love went into that first batch of bread - and I had the option to take it to Mykolaiv thanks to another fantastic Odesa volunteer, also called Oleg, who spends most of his days driving up to frontline areas in Kherson region with supplies, constantly raising more funds to make sure he can get everything his contacts need. We arranged to meet at 5.45 in the morning, filled up the car with bags of bread, and set off on the coast road to Mykolaiv, stopping off at a handy Okko petrol station for a very neccessary coffee. I can’t give enough praise for Ukrainian petrol stations, the lifeblood of every volunteer’s road trips. They are always pristine, and have an incredible range of chocolate and sweets, soft drinks, hot food and motoring supplies - and the coffee is good and strong. They even give away millions of free hot dogs and coffee to soldiers in front line areas, according to the Kyiv Independent.
Okko coffee - ‘An eye for an eye’
Oleg dropped me off in a Mykolaiv suburb at a shared house rented by another volunteer group, The Sunflower Project - which does incredible work in a whole range of areas from demining to delivering humanitarian supplies to frontline areas. I met up with Steven, a German nurse who’s been tirelessly volunteering all over Ukraine - and he managed to take me and the bread on the next stage of the journey, handing it over to Volodymyr Sahaidak - an amazing man who runs a children’s centre and looks after orphans from the Kherson region.
Handing over our sourdough bread
Steven also stopped off at the home of an elderly couple whose home had just been badly damaged by a Russian rocket attack to see if he could do anything to patch up the roof for them. The remains of the burnt rafters were stacked in the road outside, along with part of the rocket. In the midst of the debris, there was a charred page from a history book, showing a 1903 picture of Lenin. If you needed a metaphor for this war, it is captured in that moment - a destroyed Russian history book in the ruins of a house destroyed by Russia.
Russian history literally destroys itself
We drove back to Mykolaiv, a city still under regular drone and missile attack, where the tap water is toxic, since the Russians destroyed a key pipeline supplying the city soon after the war began. For several weeks there was no running water at all, and when it eventually started up again it was dirty, salty and too dangerous to drink, or to cook with. All round the city you still see people lining up to fill bottles from public water stations, or lugging it back from shops. But life keeps going - and we stopped off at the local ATB supermarket where I picked up frozen potato varenyky, sour cream and a large bunch of dill, along with some cans of Non Stop, the energy drink that’s sometimes dubbed the unofficial sponsor of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. With a side of Explosive Hazard Recognition cards. Dinner at the volunteer house, and very welcome it was too.