As the war in Ukraine unfolded, Taras Overchuk couldn’t stand watching from his Highlands Ranch home any longer.
On March 4, just before he boarded a plane at Denver International Airport, his voice quivered and his breaths deepened as he explained that he would first land in Germany, before flying to Poland, where he would purchase a car and then drive it to Lviv.
“After a week of war, sleep deprivation and constant flow of bad news, it seems like a trip to the past,” he wrote in a diary while on the flight to Germany. “But it’s still present for most of the people around me and I’m not sure how to feel about it.”
Six days later, another Coloradan made the same trek with a similar goal of helping people still trapped in the war zone. Benito Mares, who in the 1990s founded a nongovernmental organization to help people affected by war in Bosnia and Kosovo, went to Ukraine in mid-March to distribute his own money to help women and children and organizations attempting to rescue the many animals abandoned in the conflict zone.
“It was a short trip,” Mares said last week. “We only had around $15,000 equivalent to give away and it doesn’t take long if you’re giving away $400 or $500 at a time.”
Entering a war zone is no easy task, especially in a conflict that seemingly escalates daily. But Mares and Overchuk said it’s not a matter of if they will return to Ukraine, but when.
Mares said he already has plans to return on April 20. He intends to travel deeper into Ukraine to focus on distributing thousands of dollars worth of emergency battlefield medical supplies, donated by the Colorado Ukrainian community. He may also travel into military hospitals if permitted to deliver financial support to the families of wounded soldiers. He hopes to make a third trip in mid-May.
“There is plenty of help on the Poland side of the border once refugees cross,” Mares said. “A bigger need is in Ukraine itself, where for whatever reason, (some people) don’t try to go across the border. They’re just waiting out the war wherever they can in western Ukraine.”
As Overchuk recounted his experience of returning to his native country, tears occasionally filled his eyes. While there, he said, he focused on meeting military volunteers to gauge what supplies are needed most. He purchased and donated three vehicles to those fighting in the war and visited family members still living there to help boost their morale, even driving some of them to relative safety at his condo in southern Kyiv.
Now that Overchuk understands medical supplies, vehicles and infrared technology are among the most-needed items, he and his friends will raise the money to purchase those items, through their new fundraising organization, Ukraine Aid Fund.
Although his nerves were tested throughout the trip, Overchuk said, traveling back home has helped him face reality, which he could not do from Colorado.
“When you are outside, you want reality to be different, and you have this internal conflict of what should be and what is reality,” he said. “But when you are there, reality sinks in and you realize you can do something to help, but you can’t fix it on your own. That helps a little bit, to just find yourself, and do your part.”
When Mares landed in Ukraine, he planned to meet colleagues from Kosovo in Krakow, Poland, to begin the aid effort. But when the group headed to the nearest border crossing, they were met by Ukrainian border patrol guards who would only honor Mares’ U.S. passport. Mares went on to conduct aid tasks in Ukraine as planned, while his colleagues from Kosovo helped women and children as they crossed from Poland.
While there, Mares found an animal clinic providing vaccinations and medications to abandoned animals. A worker at the clinic led him to a volunteer organization where a woman there explained that refugees often take their small dogs with them when they flee but many larger dogs are left behind.
“A lot of dogs are being left behind in the Lviv area, and are just running around, without food or shelter,” Mares said. “This lady is trying to gather as many of those (animals) as possible, and putting them in foster homes, hoping someday to reunite them with their owners.”
Mares’ translator, who studied at University of Kharkiv, in the second-largest city in Ukraine and one of the hardest hit areas since the war began, said many students have been stranded there since the war began. Before he returned to the U.S., Mares distributed $2,000 to students there. By the end of his trip, Mares said he and his colleagues had helped more than 20 families in Poland and Ukraine.
“People started ignoring sirens”
It took more than 12 hours for Overchuk to get across the Poland-Ukraine border. As he entered his native country, thousands of people were standing in line hoping to exit as it began snowing.
“That feeling was striking to me because there were mostly women and children, and it was pretty cold and the amount of people I saw, I assumed it was a couple of days they were standing there — because the ability of the border patrol to get people through was limited and the amount of people wanting to get out was more than they could actually get through,” he said.
When Overchuk finally reached Lviv, it was hard to find restaurants serving food. Many of the larger restaurants, such as McDonald’s, had closed and moved their operations to the border to help feed refugees. But there were times that the city looked more or less normal, he said. Trams were working and people occasionally walked the streets.
When he reached Kyiv, on the way to visit relatives, the streets were mostly empty. “The concerning thing is that people started ignoring sirens because they were just tired of hiding,” he said. “And it was concerning because it may result in more casualties. After a strike hits a building, some people may be outside, rather than hiding somewhere. Since the sirens are almost constant, people got fatigued, and started ignoring it.”
At checkpoints on his way to visit family members, military members seemed skeptical of Overchuk, often checking his car and asking why he was driving on back roads in a war zone. A few times, Overchuk called relatives, who backed up his story to help him get through to visit them.
Most of Overchuk’s family members are still in Ukraine, and have not left because they fear their husbands and fathers would be drafted into the war, if they tried to escape.
When he finally saw some of his cousins in Ukraine, Overchuk said he felt he had accomplished something major, just by being present.
“It was helpful for me, and for them, to feel more connected and supported,” he said. “Not a lot of people are entering Ukraine. More people are leaving than entering, and having some courage to go there inspires some of the people inside. I hope I brought some courage with me to them as well.”
While in Ukraine, Overchuk’s family in Colorado was worried about him being in a war zone, which — at times — made him want to leave. But when he’s in Colorado, he worries about his family in Ukraine.
“One way or another, there is no good place to be,” he said. Overchuk said he wishes there were stronger policies in place to help Ukrainian refugees immigrate to the U.S. faster. In late March, the Biden administration announced it would accept up to 100,000 refugees from Ukraine.
As the war drags on, Overchuk said he hopes people around the world will donate to the Ukrainian military and aid organizations helping people there. In Mariupol alone, a southeastern city decimated by the war, it will take years and untold sums of money to rebuild, Overchuk said.
Amid the devastation and uncertainty, the Ukrainian government is encouraging people who can work, to resume their professional duties to help stimulate the struggling economy. Construction workers aren’t yet focused on rebuilding but they’re conducting clean-up efforts across the country, Overchuk said. Small restaurants and cafes in some parts of Ukraine are reopening to provide a sense of normalcy for residents. “It’s definitely helping,” he said.
Overchuk said, though he’s exhausted and doesn’t sleep much, contributing to humanitarian efforts from afar has helped him cope.
“You just see the ways you can influence and help as much as you can,” he said. “But it’s still hard.”