ZADONETS’KE, Ukraine — The Siverskyi Donets River doesn’t look like much.
Only a few tens of meters wide in most places, the meandering river – usually referred to simply as the Donets – has witnessed bitter fighting along its banks.
In 1942 the Red Army lost a quarter of a million men here when German forces knocked out a Soviet bridgehead across the river. Eighty years later, in May, Russian tanks attempting to cross the Donets were pounded by Ukrainian artillery, losing hundreds of men and dozens of armored vehicles.
Upstream from the site of the May Battle, beside the destroyed bridge that once connected the villages of Zmiiv and Zadonets’ke south of Kharkiv, the Donets is a pleasant course, its muddy banks lined with reeds and small trees.
But for the 680 villagers of Zadonets’ke, the river is a serious problem. With the Ukrainian army demolishing its bridges to slow down the Russian invaders, food and medicine would have to be chased 140 kilometers to reach the village and simultaneously avoid moving the Russian lines.
Volunteers from IdeaSoft HelpKharkiv — a relief agency co-founded by local Ukrainian-Israeli entrepreneur Peter Kolomiets — have come up with a simple solution, seemingly from another era.
Every five or six days, IdeaSoft’s young tech-savvy volunteers load up their white vans, don their Kevlar vests and helmets, and drive through a series of military checkpoints to the grassy west bank of the Donets River.
There, covered by a Ukrainian army platoon, IdeaSoft personnel make several trips down the river in a rowboat to the residents waiting on the other side.
On Friday, The Times of Israel joined IdeaSoft as they made the river crossing with Ukrainian forces.
Up the creek no more
Preparing the supplies, volunteers at IdeaSoft’s offices in central Kharkiv were in high spirits as they stuck stickers on 80 aid boxes and carried them outside to three white vans.
Each box feeds a family for six days. They also piled white bags of breads and six-packs of water bottles in the vehicles.
As they headed south out of town, damage from the ongoing Russian bombardment was everywhere. But locals spent their day riding trams and browsing open-air markets.
Staff stopped to chat with middle-aged soldiers at all military checkpoints along the way. They were manned by relaxed troops who appeared to be volunteers engaged during the ongoing hostilities.
As the city gave way to a lush evergreen forest, the vibe of the checkpoints abruptly changed. The well-equipped soldiers, younger and unsmiling, now wore identical uniforms. They, too, seemed to know the IdeaSoft team, but conversations were cut off and to the point.
We reached a checkpoint where a thin gray-haired officer emerged. He barked instructions to two of his soldiers, who quickly moved spikes out of the way. All of the soldiers at the position wore helmets, gloves, and knee pads, and none were seated.
The officer and a dozen soldiers got into three civilian vehicles to drive the convoy down a dirt road through a steep-sided valley. After a short drive, we emerged onto the grassy banks of the Donets.
Soldiers, some wearing masks to cover their faces, silently fanned out behind trees along the river to cover crossings. Although the Russian lines had been pushed back well beyond the village, teams of Russian soldiers regularly entered Ukrainian-held territory, and a heavily laden rowboat would be an easy target for a sniper hiding in the woods.
The officer, Valeriy, and the platoon medic, Andriy, watched in the shade of a tree as the volunteers and soldiers began unloading boxes into a rusty metal boat hidden in the rushes.
When the boat – whose seaworthiness seemed entirely questionable – was filled with boxes, bottles and a bag of bread, a volunteer named Denis and a blond soldier wearing a baseball cap came on board.
As the rest of the platoon watched silently, the river carried the craft downstream before the soldier managed to cross the deceptively strong current. Within 30 seconds, they reached the other side, where two waiting villagers jumped into the water and began rapidly moving the boxes to the opposite bank.
As the soldier was bringing the rowboat back down the river, Valeriy and Andriy came to chat.
“Almost all of us are from here,” said Andriy, a resident of the nearby town of Chuhuiv. “Sometimes it’s very good because we know all the back roads.”
They also receive help from grateful locals. “We were born here,” Andriy continued. “We have our brothers, our neighbours. We have enough food.
The 32-year-old, a civilian veterinarian, served in a tank while on active duty, but the reserve force has no armour. “Maybe a Merkava will come soon,” he said with a laugh, referring to Israel’s much-vaunted battle tank.
His own bulletproof vest was sent by his sister to Poland.
More surprisingly, the platoon has no drones either. Unmanned aerial vehicles played an important tactical role in the war for both sides.
The reserve platoon is primarily used as a rapid reaction force, performing night missions three to five times a week, Valeriy said. “We leave if we have to capture someone or if there is information that groups are crossing the front lines,” he explained. “And if we are needed on the front lines as fire support.”
But there are few encounters with Russian forces now. “It’s mostly artillery,” Valeriy said.
The 60-year-old divorcee served in the Soviet and Ukrainian armies, rising to the rank of major. He ran an automobile repair shop before the war.
And he had a message for Israel.
“It would be great if Israel could provide Iron Dome so that civilians in the cities don’t suffer,” the officer said, echoing a common plea, and so far unanswered.
“People really need help”
Upon hearing the subject of Israel come up, one of the IdeaSoft volunteers mentioned that he had family in Rishon LeTzion and Eilat. He had his last name, inherited from his Jewish grandfather, on his protective vest.
This being Ukraine, bumping into people with relatives in Israel is a common occurrence. There are almost 200,000 people of Jewish ancestry in the country, and Ukrainians consider it quite commonplace.
“I am a volunteer,” says Denis Breslavkiy, 42. “I work here in the most difficult neighborhood of the Kharkiv region. The villages have no electricity, they have no cellular connection, no water, all communications have been destroyed. I feel like these people really need help, that’s why I’m doing this.
The divorced father of two said a column of 30 Russian armored vehicles reached his hometown of Bezrukiv on the first day of the war.
“When they tried to leave the village, they were destroyed,” he said. When asked if he had participated in the fight, Breslavkiy nodded quickly.
He gestured to a thin, tattooed young volunteer dressed all in black. “He’s my eldest son,” he said proudly.
After most of the boxes had been transported, it was my turn.
I slid down the muddy shore and carefully climbed into the rowboat, trying not to overturn the flimsy boat. Made unwieldy by my body armor and helmet, it was harder than I thought.
Rolled (rowed?) with the Ukrainian army as they delivered supplies to the remote village of Zdonets’ke pic.twitter.com/4WbznxEWw6
— Lazar Berman (@Lazar_Berman) August 5, 2022
Facing me, the soldier shook the reeds of the left oar and set off again for the fourth time. We were entirely vulnerable to a hidden Russian sniper, and I decided that if I heard gunfire I would rush into the water. I loosened my vest to make it easier to shake out if that were to happen.
Fortunately, that was not the case.
We slid through the lily pads to the two men on the other side. One grabbed the rowboat as it stood in knee-deep water.
In a field above, a comically small Soviet-era vehicle waited, hitched to a wagon full of boxes.
Once the bread and the crates left the boat, I went back on board. The villager shook our hands.
“Glory to Ukraine,” said one of the men, before pushing the boat firmly back into the river.