Several days into the merciless shelling of Kharkiv by Russian forces, Elena Dolzhenko decided she’d had enough of sitting on the sidelines.
She spent the late-winter days immediately following the invasion on her phone, trying to help panicked volunteer organizations deal with an overwhelming number of cries for help from thousands of residents in Ukraine’s second-largest city.
She kept it up until one of those shells landed near her home.
“The first boom came near my house. I understood that it’s impossible to stay there,” said Dolzhenko, a petite, steely-eyed professional photographer. She said her biggest fear at that moment was that a shell blast would blow her windows in on her.
She and her friend spent their nights and days in the corridor of the small flat, but they knew it was too dangerous to stay.
And that is how she ended up in “Hell’s Kitchen.”
The volunteer-run operation prepares and delivers hot meals to front-line troops, first responders, medical staff and vulnerable civilians. It got its name, Dolzhenko said, because “we’d like the Russians [to] burn in hell.”
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Helping in any way possible
Her journey to Hell’s Kitchen took a detour when she tried to join the local territorial defence battalion, a reserve unit. She said they took one look at her and told her she was too small and likely would get “killed in the first fight … you’ll fall over if we put body armour on you.”
Her friend, who went with her, was told he was too old.
“So we moved here to work and to struggle for victory,” she said, proudly showing off the kitchen, its volunteers and the special “trident” bread branded with the symbol of Ukraine — reserved for members of the armed forces.
“For me, it was a very easy choice,” said Dolzhenko, who travels with the kitchen’s delivery driver to photograph their work for international donors.
“I never thought about leaving Kharkiv, about fleeing. I planned for me to stay and to fight in any possible way I can.”
Dolzhenko wasn’t prepared to run away from a fight. Edward Cooney, an Edmonton construction worker, happily ran toward one.
Bombarded by images of suffering coming out of Ukraine throughout the winter and early spring, Cooney sold all of his possessions and hopped a flight for the country. He arrived in Kharkiv on May 1, as Ukrainian forces were slowly but steadily pushing the Russian army back from the edge of the city — which Moscow had hoped to capture on the first day.
With no military experience, Cooney was ineligible to join the legion of foreign volunteers fighting on the front lines. So he also found his way to Hell’s Kitchen. Now, instead of a gun, he swings a broom for a cause.
“I’ve done everything here from clean toilets, wash floors, whatever they asked me to do. And if they don’t ask me to do it, I just see it and I do it myself,” said Cooney, whose wide, happy face could not hide his surprise at seeing other Canadians.
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Moved to act
Why would people drop everything in their lives to put themselves in harm’s way in a country halfway around the world? For Cooney, the answer seems obvious.
“They need to know [here] that somebody cares … you know what I mean? And that’s it,” he said. “They just need to know that somebody over there cares enough to sell everything to come here to help these people.”
Since his arrival, Cooney has been introduced to war in a very intimate, personal way. Watching wounded fighters come back from the front just outside of the city, only to turn around and go back to the fighting, has filled him with an almost indescribable sense of admiration.
“Seeing them and shaking their hands and hugging them, and like, them telling me they’re Ukrainians,” he said, a tear pooling at the corner of one eye. “I cried already. I’ve done all the crying. I’m not gonna cry anymore.”
As Cooney spoke, he was getting ready to tend a garden that runs along the front of a non-descript brick building in a leafy, once-thriving portion of Kharkiv’s centre.
‘I’ll never forget’
The sounds of war have been growing more distant in Kharkiv lately, as Ukrainian troops push Russian forces back to the border in the northeast. But they’re still there, still keeping the city on edge.
“I’ll never forget the difference in the artillery coming in and going out,” said Cooney. “I’ll never forget the sound of rapid machine-gun fire in the background. It is a distinct noise that I’ll never forget.”
Eventually, he said, you get used to it.
“In the beginning I shook like a leaf, but now … I just keep doing, minding my business and just going about my business.
“Thank God the boys are throwing them back.”