I. 2023 BLOG
I. MY SUMMER IN UKRAINE (JUNE/JULY 2023)
- Entries are numbered and typically based primarily on the order of how things unfolded, but not always.
- Dates are included in occasional entries to give you a rough idea of the timeline.
- Rather than clutter this post with hundreds of photos, under each entry is a link to that entry’s full photo album.
- After each entry you will see ******* indicating the end of that entry.
- Spellings of cities, locations, etc., are based on Ukrainian language spelling. If you see any spelling or grammatical errors, I’d appreciate you bringing it to our attention.
- Remember to watch the full video trailer of “My Summer in Ukraine” below.
RETURN TO L’VIV
June 10-June 12, 2023
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjATHqn
After a year’s absence, I arrived in L’viv to prepare to visit Kyiv and parts of the east. On the train ride from Poland, I was in an old-timey sleeper car, accompanied by a fellow American volunteer from Seattle, David; a retired Norwegian professor visiting his Ukrainian wife; and a young Ukrainian student.
While in L’viv, I connected with a New York-based Ukrainian American from L’viv who is visiting his family, Andrew. Andrew was my block’s UPS driver and delivery man for several years. Once I learned he was from Ukraine, we got to know each other well over the years and always discussed visiting the country together. We never considered it would be during a war.
Andrew was back home to help care for his elderly parents. His brother generously gave Andrew use of his car and met me at the train station. After dropping off my bags at the Opera Hotel, the same one I’d stayed in last summer 2022 when filming with Anastasia, we took off to see his hometown of Pustomyl just outside of L’viv to visit the cemetery, pay somber respects to the local heroes killed defending their homeland, and then celebrate a friend’s birthday party.
For a brief moment, one could forget there was a war, but when the party ended, everyone dutifully packed the leftover food into packages to donate to the soldiers. We all headed home in the darkness of curfew. The dichotomy of somberness and joy foreshadowed the entire month of my trip to Ukraine.
RETURN TO KYIV SOLO 2023:
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjATLrj
This was my first visit to Kyiv after the full-scale invasion (my last visit was in 2019). In typical Raw Travel style, I stayed at a Soviet-era apartment share in a suburb in the Obolonskyi District, a neighborhood I would get to know well. It was near the beach on Dnipro River, where I ran and strolled when I had some downtime.
After a couple of weeks, I began to see the same folks repeatedly, felt part of the neighborhood’s fabric, and was treated like a special guest. My apartment was on the 9th floor, and I was so freaked out about taking the elevator (see the warning sign on L’viv Arrival Album) and having power go out during a Russian air strike that I walked up and down nine floors for the first few days. Eventually, I calmed down and took the elevator up and walked down.
I have many great stories from my nearly 4-week residence in Kyiv. When visiting the “hot” areas in the East and South of Ukraine, Kyiv felt like a refuge. I slept with white noise in my ears, as I’m prone to do whether traveling or at home and was largely oblivious to the air raid sirens and missile attacks that occurred a few evenings. Had I been more concerned, the metro was just a block away and serves as a bomb shelter for those who take shelter at every air raid siren (there are some).
But Kyiv is a big city, and I figured if my building was hit on the ninth floor, I was toast anyway. I’d rather instead get blown to smithereens by a missile hit than get stuck in a tiny elevator for hours or days. I admit that I might change my mind if that possibility becomes more tangibly real.
I learned about ½ way through my trip that during air raid sirens, it was wise to open windows, as the sound waves from a nearby blast usually shatter the glass, and that was why I saw so many apartments and buildings with boarded-up windows. Direct hits aren’t the menace, necessarily. It’s the accompanying shrapnel and surrounding damage, as I would find out later.
But alas, these were the minority of my thoughts. Most of the time, I was worried about prepping for a side trip, getting food, meeting someone for a meal, or working in time for a run or the gym. Every day felt like an adventure, and time flew by rapidly.
I must say I enjoyed it, even during wartime. I miss my neighbors and wish them safety, security, and serenity.
IRPIN, BUCHA, AND HOSTOMEL
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjATSJM
One of my objectives for returning to Ukraine during wartime was to embed with a U.S. Marine turned humanitarian, Mark Cary, from Arizona. I met Mark through a mutual friend’s social media, and we’d spoken several times coordinating our separate trips, but we’d never met in person. I reunited with Kyiv local and Raw Travel videographer Anastasia, whom I’d not seen since she was refugeed in Paris, and we’d road-tripped and filmed from Paris through Poland to L’viv in the summer of 2022. It was so good to see my old pal Anastasia, cheerful, silly, driven, and hardworking as ever.
We made our way to the towns of Irpin, Bucha, and Hostomel on the outskirts of Kyiv to meet and film with Mark and his partner in humanitarian aid, UK resident Hymie Dunn. Mark and Hymie have remarkable stories of heroism, having volunteered in Ukraine since the early dark days of 2022, just after the full invasion. When 99% of the people were leaving, Mark and Hymie rushed into the unknown to help, which is how they met. This trip was their fifth and fourth, respectively, and their third time working together.
I was honored at the opportunity to tag along on a few of their missions. We began with a get-to-know-you lunch at a Georgian restaurant. Then we took off on a short but powerful visit to “Dead Car Park,” an unofficial memorial and display of the vehicles of Ukrainian civilians murdered by the Russian military regime as they tried to escape in March and April of 2022. It was a sobering sight when one considers each vehicle represented at least one (or likely more) lives wholly snuffed out by this illegal invasion.
But as we drove through Irpin and Hostomel, Hymie and Mark soon expressed amazement as. They had just been to this area six months earlier and were amazed at the rebuilding progress from the utter devastation they’d seen on their previous trip here. Of course, there were plenty more reminders of the damage.
As we made our way to the Bucha Airport, where the Ukrainians repelled Russian forces and, at that moment, saved their country, we were all kind of in awe at how easily the war could have gone the other way. We couldn’t get near the airport runway, which appeared pretty much deserted. Still, this early in my trip, just seeing the vehicles, damaged buildings, and the historic airport was a surreal peek of the incredibly moving experiences to come.
TWO DAYS IN ODESA
FULL PHOTO ALBUM: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAUprT
I had finally met Mark Cary, a U.S. Marine turned humanitarian from Arizona, and his humanitarian colleague, Hymie Dunne. Hymie hails from the art world in London. She and Mark met while volunteering during Russia’s invasion’s unpredictable early days. When 99% of foreigners were evacuating, Mark & Hymie were heading in.
Anastasia and I visited where they were based in Irpin, just outside of Kyiv. But now we were heading to Kherson City, and it would just be Mark, Hymie, and me. We and supplies were crammed into Hymie’s crowded and Crowdfunded humanitarian van.
Kherson City is near the front in Southern Ukraine. Ukraine liberated Kherson City in the fall of 2022 after many months of Russian occupation. It was very near the Russian front and bombed daily. It would be the most dangerous part of my journey. Body Armor was not only desired but also required, at least for foreigners.
But first, we were due to stop off in Odesa*, the famed port city by the Black Sea, a place I’d always wanted to visit. Odesa is typically a tourism paradise in the summer. Odesa was mostly peaceful during our visit, with just a few air raid sirens. The town had little recent bombing activity. But soon after our visit, when Russia pulled out of the Black Sea Grain Transport deal, the city would sustain even more difficult moments than in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, as many of the places you see here were relentlessly pounded by the Russians.
But we spent two days in Odesa mainly because the recent Russian sabotage of the Kakhovka Dam had caused a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. Odesa was overflowing with families escaping their flooded villages. Hymie had a couple of stops at a family shelter called “Way Home” and a women’s shelter called “Aurora House,” where we were going to drop off supplies such as kitchen starter kits for the families, laptop computers for their administrative teams (courtesy of Bank of Montreal in London), and cold hard cash for the recently displaced mothers.
Many recently displaced mothers and their children at the women’s shelter are not pictured here for their safety. Most lost everything in the flood, and when Hymie gave them cash, they openly wept.
Some ran from abusive husbands and relationships, but most fled the Russian soldiers, many of whom were former convicts of Russian prisons. I witnessed the women’s tearful testimony. I heard heartrending stories of narrow escapes from Russian occupiers’ hands, husbands arrested, tortured, and killed by Russians from women the Russian Occupiers threatened.
I heard pulse-pounding stories of harrowing searches of their homes, where if the Russians found anything with a Ukrainian emblem, such as socks, a t-shirt, or a flag, it meant jail, torture, or worse, death. They had to delete all contacts on their phones or social media of friends with Ukrainian symbols in their profiles or posts. Anything Ukrainian meant potential imprisonment, torture, or death (or all three). The occupiers were intent on sowing terror, and they succeeded.
One lady told of her uncle in his 40s who was killed by Russian bombs. His head was the only recoverable body part, so they buried it. There are so many more atrocities than I can list here.
The shelters were full of women and children because it was easier for them to cross from occupied territory than men. Men and older boys are imprisoned or killed because they are perceived as a threat. But crossing over is risky and not easy for anyone, man or woman.
The women had no choice but to flee, fearing for their and their children’s safety. Russians took all the food and water, so there was nothing to eat. When Russians left a village, they destroyed infrastructure, gas, and water. Many had no water, gas, or electricity for two months. Their only choice was to leave behind their home, become a refugee, and try to escape to Odesa.
Odesa was a refuge, but it was struggling. There once were over 100 kindergartens in Odesa, but now, only six were operating during our visit because of the war. The shelter, which began 15 years ago to help HIV-infected women, was trying to help fill the gap as best they could with English classes for youngsters, which we were allowed to sit in on.
Hymie gave candy to eager and adorable children while Mark gave each some of his cute and cuddly Teddy Bears. The teddy bears were a big hit with the kids and are knitted by some folks supporting Mark’s efforts in Arizona associated with “Knitting without Borders.”
There are one million people in Odesa, and at our visit, there were 100,000 refugees or 10% of the population.
One recent refugee young mother at Aurora House had been an assistant cook at the school cafeteria in her home village before Russian bombs destroyed the school. Despite Russia’s laughable and cynical claim that they don’t target civilians, we saw ample and repeated evidence to the contrary. Schools, hospitals, playgrounds, and even daycare centers seemed to be some of their favorite targets. It’s one reason almost 1,000 Ukrainian children have been murdered so far. Compare that to zero Russian children killed. Tell me again how this is a geopolitical and NOT a moral issue. I digress.
The kind folks at Aurora house insisted on cooking for us, and thanks to the former school cafeteria cook, we had the best Vareniki (Ukrainian dumplings) perhaps of the entire trip, and I had sampled quite a lot!
We spent two days shuttling supplies to Way Home and Aurora House, and the folks there were very transparent and open to sharing how they worked. I’m posting some photos of the families and children we had permission to film and photograph, and I hope you will understand why others are not included here.
Towards the end of day two, we visited a contact of Mark’s who had an auto garage and repair business. Like most Ukrainians, he’s had to turn away from business and has taken his skills into supporting the defensive effort. Despite NATO contributions, most Ukrainian troops don’t have basic transportation and use private vehicles. His garage takes trucks, 4x4s, etc., and outfits them to become battle-ready. It was a great insight into how regular Ukrainians do whatever it takes to do their part, even if they aren’t fighting on the front lines.
We capped off our last evening in Odesa with a somewhat swanky dinner. It was only slightly more expensive than a fast-food lunch in the USA. That evening, I passed out and slept the sleep of the dead until an air raid siren woke me up. I rolled over, tightened the earbuds in my ears playing from the white noise app on my phone, and went back to sleep.
NOTE: *You may notice two different spellings of Odesa / Odessa. One is Ukrainian, and the other is Russian. We stick with the Ukrainian spelling of Odesa. It is the Same situation for Donbas.
ENTRY # 5
FREAKING OUT IN KHERSON CITY
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAUqjr
Day 1 – June 17th, 2023
Kherson City, Kherson Oblast, Ukraine (Five Miles from the Front)
I woke up early in Odessa and went for a run by the harbor, primarily inactive because it’s been mined by Russians (who don’t bother to map the locations) and Ukrainians (who map the sites, as is typical protocol).
I returned to film a short interview with Mark Cary (retired U.S. Marine and Border Patrol Officer turned humanitarian) & Hymie Dunn (British art world professional turned humanitarian), my travel mates. We then took off to buy food, water, and supplies for the flood victims of Kherson from the Russian explosion of the Kakhovka Dam 11 days earlier.
On the way, we had a quick stop at the Wog (Like a 7/11 in the States) for food (Mark is a fan of the Wog-dog, a Ukrainian hot dog kind of thing) and fuel. Mark gave a badass-looking Ukrainian soldier a morale bag full of power bars, chocolate, and other treats. The soldier, in return, gave Mark his regiment patch.
We made our way through Mykolaiv, past a checkpoint, to Kherson.
Hymie checks an app to see where missiles are falling while Mark drives. I’m in the back seat. Roads are rough. Sleep is impossible. My nerves are wound tight. Hymie and Mark seem almost giddy.
After entering the Kherson checkpoint, everyone sobered up. We pulled over to put on our body armor. Mark had to help me with mine, as I had the plates backward. He also helped place and adjust the padding in the helmet to ensure it fits. Next, he gave Hymie and me a quick refresher (for Hymie, for me, it was my first time) on putting on a tourniquet in case any of us were blown up. That’s when I began to get a little more nervous.
We made our way to the Baptist Church of Christ the Savior to meet Tania, the sister of Stanislav, a contact of Hymie’s, to drop off food and 246 liters of water. Tania spoke English and graciously toured us around the Church, which has a deep-water well where anyone can access clean water, lacking since the Russians blew up the Kakhovka Dam.
We visited the basement of the Church where Tania said over 500 people had lived during the occupation and still came to escape bombings on occasion. Even after liberation by the Ukrainian military, Kherson is only five miles from the front and under constant bombardment. Now, it was full of beds where volunteers were sleeping. Most were out clearing mud and debris in villages on this scorching day. Still, I managed to meet one from New Jersey, call-sign “Jersey,” who had signed up for the Legion and was now volunteering. I’d interview him the next day.
Our mission was for Tania to take us to the remote and cut-off village of Oleksandrivka, and this road was the only way. Russians can bomb it at will, apparently, and there were checkpoints all along the way. We could see and smell the post-flood residue. The smell was indescribable. It was eerie driving on a road we knew the Russians were monitoring. We were being watched.
When we arrived at the 3rd checkpoint, the man in charge saw my camera and asked if I was a journalist. I was in the front passenger side (on the left in Hymie’s van designed for British roads with steering on the right) and interacting with the officer while Tania, translating for us, was in the back seat trying to clear the way.
After several tense minutes, he turned us back to the previous checkpoint, where a polite but stern Ukrainian policeman greeted us. I showed my journalist badge and learned it was now outdated, which makes sense since it was issued at the beginning of the invasion over a year ago. We heard shelling in the background. The soldiers manning the checkpoint seemed alert but largely unconcerned.
We were eventually turned away and sent back to Kherson City. Authorities are being super careful with foreign journalists and volunteers after an Italian journalist was killed just a few days before our visit. Though Tania and the gang tried to comfort me, telling me all foreigners were not allowed (apparently, a foreign corpse is a big hassle to repatriate), including volunteers.
Still, I felt disappointed and maybe just a little relieved. When the military and police are so concerned, I get concerned. They were very professional and polite and seemed genuinely concerned for our safety, not just their careers. This is why I love Ukraine. In a war of good vs. evil, it feels “GOOD.” It feels like the USA once felt… when people trusted in each other’s goodness and rules, and laws were followed. People talk a lot about corruption in Ukraine, but I’ve never experienced it. If they are faking virtue, they are doing an excellent job.
After returning to the Church, I ventured across the road to see an apartment bombed by the Russians. I saw someone directly living one floor above the bombed apartment looking out of the balcony at the gawking body armored foreigner filming their home.
I waved, but they didn’t wave back. The town is down to about 20% of its pre-war population and has an apocalyptic ghost town feel. Two zombies (drunken or shell-shocked men) wandered over, asking for food and money. I directed them to Church.
In addition to Jersey, I met some other volunteers from the U.S., most affiliated with some religious outfit or other. They were from Ocala, Florida, Sacramento, and a solo Slovakian who had lived briefly in Detroit.
We then drove with Tania to see an administrative building bombed downtown. As Tania and I conducted the interview, munitions exploded and seemed to get closer. She didn’t twitch. I was a bundle of nerves. Finally, it felt like we’d been there too long, and Mark and Hymie urged us back to the van. But before departing, they shared a story of a strange man in a black car giving Hymie and Mark a big box of cherries as a thank you after he found out they were American and British volunteers. He never smiled until the end, which is the stoic Slavic way, or so it seems.
As Hymie rearranged the van, we heard a whistle overhead, and Mark jumped for cover, so I did as well. Tania again didn’t flinch much, and Hymie was so busy talking she apparently didn’t even hear it. We never heard the explosion, so that it may have just sailed close by overhead or, more likely, was a dud and didn’t explode on impact.
Whatever, it was high time to high tail it back to Mykolaiv, the town next door where things were mainly out of reach of artillery fire (but more expensive missiles could reach that far) and thus a much safer spot to lay our heads.
But driving rapidly out of town, two recent hits were smoking, and one to the left was far too close for comfort. I let out an expletive-laced tirade that I have on video that will be just one long “BLEEEEEEPITY BLEEEP BLEEP What the BLEEP? That was close as BLEEEP! Let’s get the BLEEEPITY BLEEP BLEEP out of here now” if it ever makes it to the show. However, I am happy to report I did not need a change of underwear, which was a genuine concern when dressing that morning, not being facetious.
We sped back to the relative safety of Mykolaiv as Mark explained why Kherson was getting bombarded and Mykolaiv wasn’t. Kherson is just five miles from the front and thus in the range of cheaper artillery. At the same time, Mykolaiv would require more expensive artillery, such as drones or missiles.
The artillery targeted at Kherson seems to be shot randomly. Not military targeting at all, according to Mark. His theory is the bombing heats up in the afternoon after the drunk Russian soldiers get over their hangover, get bored, and decide to terrorize the remaining citizens and volunteers of Kherson by firing off random munitions. One is still dead or injured whether artillery hits one on purpose or by mistake.
Indeed, we read the next day that the gas station we passed was bombed that night, and children in a nearby village were severely injured. Children are a common military target for Putin’s Russia, as he’s nearly murdered 1,000 since the beginning of the war, most in their homes, in their own country, Ukraine, which is not a part of Russia, not a buffer zone, and no, not NATO or even the E.U. But it is a place where people adore freedom, and thus, that makes Ukrainians Putin’s enemy, no matter their age.
FREAKING OUT IN KHERSON CITY (Continued)
Day 2 – JUNE 18th, 2023
Either I was calmer, or the bombing of Kherson City calmed a bit. Probably a bit of because I don’t recall feeling any angst or fear on day two. We focused on dropping off supplies at a new contact of Marks, “Support Kherson” or “Kherson Unbroken.” “Support Kherson” was a group of primarily young locals who did not flee their city but stuck around to help. Like Tania, they are dedicated to ensuring their city survives. These young men left during the Russian occupation but rushed back to help as soon as Ukraine liberated the city, despite the still inherent danger of daily bombings in Kherson City and their beloved town, now primarily a ghost town.
After dropping off supplies and touring the facilities, the fellows took us to a former local University of Agriculture. They showed us an empty fish tank that once contained some of the rarest fish species in the world. When the city was being liberated, the Russians destroyed the tank and killed the fish out of spite. This is typical of Russian military behavior. What they cannot have, they seek to destroy. It’s just one more shameful moment in their long history of oppression and terror in Ukraine, and I hope and pray the perpetrators will see justice in this life or the next. It is disgusting behavior.
We later returned to the church to rendezvous with Tania and drop off more supplies. It was there that I interviewed Jersey and heard his fascinating story. I’m not including his photos in case he’s still in the country.
I don’t remember much about that day, so I assume it passed peacefully. However, when we arrived in Mykolaiv that evening, we were all awakened by bombs and air raid sirens—more on that in the Mykolaiv post.
HELPING THE FLOODED VILLAGES OF KHERSON IN SOUTHERN UKRAINE
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAUPGK
Driving from Kyiv to the Southern parts of Ukraine, I can see that farmland is everywhere and that Ukraine is the world’s breadbasket. Wheat is ripening. Fruit is in season. Farms, as far as their eyes can see, make the flooding brought on by the Russian destruction of the Kakhovka dam so unspeakably harmful. The millions of acres of flooded land will be toxic and unfarmable for decades or centuries.
Yesterday Mark & Hymie arranged for us to embed with the Red Cross offices of Kharkiv and Mykolaiv to help them assess and help the victims of the flooding of their neighbors in Kherson Oblast (Oblast is like a state in the U.S.) caused by the June 6th eco-terrorism event from the Russians destroying the Kakhovka dam.
After a briefing, some coffee, and some getting lost, we finally made our way from Mykolaiv to a small community where a local school now serves as a relief site where distressed locals can pick up food, clothing, water, etc. The children’s playground was full of adorable little kids and toddlers playing under the watchful eyes of their mums. (Yes, I’m talking a bit British these days, thanks to a few days in the van with Hymie, who hails from London).
Just across the street was a destroyed building with a man selling fruit next door. I have mostly stopped taking photos or videos of demolished buildings as it is becoming redundant and a common site. But it was not lost on me that it was directly across the street from a school. I posted something on Instagram (you can follow at Instagram.com/RawTravelTV ) about taking a risk jogging by a Russian military target, a playground recently because so many Ukrainian children have been killed or maimed on them by the Russians, who seem not to value anyone’s life or humanity. I digress.
The Soviet-style playground for the school was like a look back into the 1970s or 80s at the height of the Cold War. Today, it is all painted blue and yellow, Ukrainian colors, which would not have been allowed back then. Of course, I toured the outdoor toilet. Too bad “Don’t Skip the Loo” is already in “The Can,” as it would have been good footage. At the school, we loaded a big water bladder capable of holding ten tons of water to act as a water tank for two villages. Hymie’s van was perfect for this transport, so it was good we came. The bladder installation would be a test run; if successful, more would roll out.
In all, we visited two villages with the Red Cross. The smells in the villages where the water had now receded were intense. The first village we visited was unique in that when the Russians once occupied it, the village head did not flip to the Russians to save his skin but stayed loyal to Ukraine.
The seemingly tight-knit community gathered around to collect water and gossip. The town is luckier than most because electricity has been restored, though some are afraid to turn it on because many of the homes are still wet.
Hymie donated one of her brand-new laptops, courtesy of the Royal Bank of Montreal, to the brave and loyal “mayor” for use in the small administrative center.
The next village was far away over some bumpy roads and not a very pleasant ride in the backseat of a cargo van. As we rolled up, it was apparent it had been completely devastated by the flood and the adjoining farmland, on which I assume the village once depended.
We dropped off the water bladder and toured a couple of the homes. The first home I toured had a giant collapsed sinkhole right next to the house.
Valentina is the sweetest grandmother, and she immediately grabbed me and started talking to me as she pulled me into her home, speaking in Ukrainian the entire time. She wanted me to witness her pain and what the Russians had done to her home, as she encouraged me to film.
When Hymie walked in, she continued but broke into tears, with Hymie comforting her and me fighting back my own (something I’m getting used to as well) as I continued to film.
Artem, one of our Kharkiv Red Cross bi-lingual contacts, translated for us. Valentina had been in this house for 54 years and raised a family with her husband. Some of her children had become medical professionals, but most were teachers. It was all gone within just 12 hours as the water rose and destroyed their home along with their garden upon which they depended.
You could see carefully saved items out in the front yard and on the upper reaches of the house, out of reach from the flood waters, containing beautiful religious imagery and lovely chandeliers. This was once a lovely home put together and was tended with tender loving care by its owners, who likely weren’t even remotely wealthy as they were subsistence farmers. Still, it was obvious that they took excellent care of what they had been blessed with.
A family photo album was drying in the sun, which was particularly upsetting. Luckily, the photos seemed in good shape.
Valentina’s adult daughter, Natalia, came in and spoke a little English. I toured the home with both and picked up some words here and there. Somewhere in the conversation, I tried to ask if they spoke Ukrainian or Russian so I could figure out if it was better to say “Dyakuyu” (“thank you” in Ukrainian) or “Spasiba” (“thank you” in Russian) since we were in Southern Ukraine where Russian was also spoken. (Russian was the only language taught in schools during Soviet times as the Soviet government tried mightily to stamp out the Ukrainian language and all signs of Ukrainian culture and identity).
I couldn’t verbalize it properly, so I did what I always do when I run into an awkward silence with folks and let out a “Slava Ukraini” (Glory to Ukraine), to which they both brightened, smiled, and even laughed as they let out the response “Heroyam Slava” which means “Glory to the heroes.” When we left Valentina’s uninhabitable home to tour other homes, Valentina was far from defeated. She was a bit defiant. I could pick up that she was talking about how the Russians would never win and that they would rebuild as soon as she got the materials in hand.
I tried to give them a little money, but they staunchly and vehemently refused. I can’t understand much of Ukrainian, but I understood they wanted the building materials to rebuild themselves. While inspiring, I’m still determining how true that may be because the farmland all around the village, on which they rely for a living, has been ruined for decades. The smell alone was toxic, and I was unsure when the air would be safe.
You can see my raw tour of Valentina’s house with Valentina and Natalia here:
With the village leaders (a woman this time), we toured around the rest of the village, where I saw a boat sitting in the middle of the street and a ruined honeybee colony. The next house was in much worse shape than Valentina’s and was well beyond repair, so they had yet to bother with any cleanup.
The air was so dank and horrific that I used my shirt to cover my nose and mouth and watched carefully where I stepped. Very little was salvaged from the house, but a well-fed dog whined as I passed by. I felt the same way. The smell became overwhelming, and I realized I might be breathing in toxic chemicals, not to mention walking around in it, so we left off touring the flooded homes to do something to help these folks and install the water tank.
It reminded me of the public works projects I often see, where a couple of folks seem to be doing all the work with everyone else standing around, but I have a new perspective now. Everyone had a role in driving, manual labor, or engineering. And everyone did their part when it was time. Village members made their way over to offer their help or just opinions. It was a relaxed atmosphere. I filmed everyone getting some big stones to serve as the roadblock to keep anyone from driving over the flaccid bladder of the water tank lying on the pavement, waiting to be filled with H2O. We had a little World Central Kitchen that provided food the Red Cross folks had brought in, which was welcomed (click the link and please support those guys if you can, as I’ve had many a needed meal in Ukraine provided by WCK). We were on high ground, away from the flooded area and toxic air.
All was peaceful and tranquil when we heard what sounded like thunder. I know by now that it was not thunder. Mark, our group’s U.S. Marine and military expert, commented that sound must have been a big blast to carry all that way.
A few minutes later, I wandered off to a field to record a video diary and noticed plumes of smoke on the horizon. They grew bigger and whiter as the day wore on, and Mark was afraid the Russians may have bombed a Ukrainian ammunition dump. Turns out, since we were so close to the front, it may have been the other way around, as I read later. I hope so.
Either way, the realization that most likely people (be it Ukrainian or Russian, it’s a tragedy in my eyes) died when I heard that first thunderous boom sobered me even more.
On this day, in this small village tour with the Red Cross, we were told we didn’t need our body armor, and I think that was a correct call. Though visible and within hearing distance, the bombing was far away and was likely a targeted missile. However, we read in reports that a 27-year-old man had been killed in his home in Kherson City, which we had just visited the day before. I’m not 100% sure of the odds but getting hit by Russian artillery feels like the odds of getting struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. Your odds of getting hit are stronger closer to the raging thunderstorm, which rages constantly in Kherson and near the front. The further you are away from the front, the less likely you are to get struck. I’m sure my math is way off, but I think the concept is sound. At least, I told myself to remain calm, which was made easier by the locals and my travel mates’ never-panic demeanors.
In these posts and the upcoming documentary series I hope to produce, I’m torn between showing war and devastation or the normalcy we often feel in much of the country most of the time. Both are true, and both are realities. I don’t want to glibly pretend that life is pleasant in Ukraine or that there’s constant fear and danger here, overhyping my perceived bravery or courage. I wish to show the reality as I experience it, not on the front lines, but as a DIY travel journalist embedded with volunteers his first time in a war zone, and while not exactly enjoying it, I did not precisely hate it either.
I felt close to history unfolding, and I don’t think there is any way I could produce a feel-good, glib travel episode while knowing this was going on. Perhaps I’m making a grave mistake, or perhaps I’ve just outgrown myself again. But I can’t pretend things are light and breezy when things are pretty heavy and severe.
As we drove to Mykolaiv for the night before returning to Kyiv the next day, I reflected on the last three days and how I’d changed.
I was no longer nervous or afraid… now I was just profoundly sad yet somehow content… and an odd mix that adds a new perspective to the cliche of “mixed feelings.”
Still, I wondered what a great road trip it would have been if only no brutal, senseless, and stupid war had been raging.
KHERSON OBLAST – Is a “state” in Southern Ukraine, partially controlled by Ukraine and partially Russian Occupied. The city of “Kherson” is fully controlled by Ukraine after several months of Russian occupation in 2022 and is about five miles from the “front.”
STAYING ALIVE IN MYKOLAIV
FULL ALBUM: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAUPfL
Mykolaiv was our home base while operating humanitarian missions to nearby Kherson City and Kherson Oblast. The reasoning was simple: hotels existed in Mykolaiv still, and it was much safer than Kherson City. However, it had seen its share of misery and was still undergoing occasional bombings while we stayed there.
In February and March 2022, Russian military forces attacked Mykolaiv and placed it under siege. Ukrainian forces prevailed and eventually barred Russian forces from the city. Though Russian artillery continues to shell it to this day, it was a relatively safe zone for us to spend the night and much safer than Kherson City. It was a charming, if war-scarred, city.
I’ve since met people from Mykolaiv and told them I enjoyed my few days there. However, I must admit what I enjoyed most was breathing a sigh of relief from the constant threat of being blown up by Russian munitions in nearby Kherson City. Despite the scorching heat, I went for a few runs in the park and saw a closed McDonald’s. Later, I’d find out it had been bombed and was closed until further notice. The irony that this beacon of capitalism during the fall of the Soviet Union had been bombed by Russia and forced to close was not lost on me.
ENTRY # 8
VILLAGE OF NEW ARC ANGEL
FULL ALBUM: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAUXPL
Hymie’s van was emptied of supplies, and it was time for us to depart Mykolaiv and Kherson to return to Kyiv. On the way back, as we stopped to get gas and food, we met a church group heading into Kherson that was due at the same Baptist Church where we had dropped off supplies. I also met an Australian landmine clearance expert in Ukraine on assignment.
But mostly, it was miles and miles of farmland. Nothing but farmland. After seeing so much destruction, Hymie and Mark wanted to show me a village they had visited on one of their previous missions that had not been touched by war, at least physically, the Village of New Arc Angel. We stopped off and had a coffee, and I filmed a wrap-up interview with the two of them to garner some insight into their thoughts on the success of the mission we’d just completed. However, when we visited the Memorials of recently killed local soldiers, it reminded us there is no place in Ukraine untouched by war.
These Memorials are contrasted with the still-standing World War II Memorials that the Soviets put up all over the former Soviet Union, spreading the propaganda and myth that the Soviets saved the world in World War II. Many in Russia have no idea that Russia contributed significantly to causing WW II when Stalin teamed up with Hitler until Hitler double-crossed him. This part of history is NOT taught in modern-day Russia, as evidenced by the dates on the Memorials, which don’t list the actual start date of the war (1939) but list the war as beginning years AFTER Russia and Germany jointly invaded and occupied Poland (1941).
Of course, Ukrainians and most of the world know better. However, many Russians still credulously believe their government’s propaganda, as evidenced by the 75% who agree that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is somehow justified. Russian propaganda has been doing its dirty work for nearly a century now, and it’s hard for some to break these chains of disinformation.
Still, it’s 2023, and truth is available for those who seek it. I am not sure how one can justify the murder, wounding, kidnapping, displacement, and traumatizing of innocent children in their own country. However, the cynical and thuggish Russian government has either done an excellent job at stopping dissent, or the Russian people still left in Russia are very, very susceptible and lazy thinkers and potentially complicit in Putin’s war crimes. Putin doesn’t do this alone.
No, I’m not Ukrainian, but I’m furious at the cynical attempt to justify the slaughter of innocent children as somehow pre-emptive. It’s propaganda reminiscent of Stalin’s Russia in World War II, updated to modern times. Unfortunately, some in the U.S. ignorantly (I assume) repeat this, adding insult to injury. They should be ashamed, but somehow, I think they’re not, so we’ll do it for them. Stay tuned to see our HALL OF SHAME coming soon.
POLTAVA (EN ROUTE TO KHARKIV)
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAV3yj
It was time for me to tag along on Hymie and Mark’s next mission, this time to Kharkiv, which Mark had insisted I visit. This time, we had the pleasure of having Anastasia join our team. Her camera skills and fluency in Ukrainian were invaluable assets. I hoped she would also be able to reunite with her father. This brave soldier had been fighting in Bakhmut for the last few months, where his platoon suffered heavy casualties.
Our rendezvous point was the Wog Dog in Kyiv, where Hymie and Mark awaited us in Hymie’s trusty crowdfunded van turned humanitarian aid vehicle. Their faces betrayed excitement at the prospect of having Anastasia accompany us on this adventure. Everyone loves Anastasia, and if you ever met her, I bet you would, too.
One thing that struck me about Ukraine was the courtesy of its drivers. From stopping for pedestrians in bustling Kyiv to the considerate truck drivers on the highways, it starkly contrasted the often chaotic roads and streets back home in the US and New York City. The well-maintained route from Kyiv to Kharkiv made the journey even more pleasant.
Poltava was the only major stop on our way. It is about 4 hours from Kyiv and 2 hours from Kharkiv, making it a convenient midpoint stop.
Mark and Hymie had completed several missions already by the time I joined them and had spent a few weeks together without a break. I could sense a hint of weariness in their interactions. I could empathize, having been on many film trips where annoyance with your travel and workmates can set in after just a few days. However, their unwavering dedication to making things work and their ability to complement each other despite their personality differences were genuinely admirable. The abiding friendship between a British art expert from London and a U.S. Marine from Arizona epitomizes the unique bonds that volunteers can forge in a place like Ukraine during wartime.
As we reached Poltava, it was clear that Hymie wasn’t feeling her best. Yet, in true British fashion, she soldiered on, leading us to the Belaya Besedka (Belaya Al’tanka) monument, which offered a breathtaking view of the Levada neighborhood. While Hymie and Mark had been here before, Anastasia and I were newcomers to Poltava, and we sensed the potential for some excellent filming opportunities. The town was tourist-friendly and relatively unscathed by the ongoing fighting just a couple hours west, allowing us to film in a more typical travel show style.
Poltava, with over 1,100 years of history and a population of just under 300,000, under different circumstances, could be an ideal place for leisurely exploration. We kicked off our visit by running through the fine water misters set up around town to combat the scorching heat. Then, we indulged in a round of Kavka, a kind of malt drink.
The Poltava Dumpling or Halushka monument, a city symbol, made an excellent backdrop for our filming. The panoramic views from the lookout point were nothing short of spectacular.
Poltava boasts a rich heritage, with the famous poet Nikolai Gogol hailing from this town. It’s rumored to be the original home of Cossacks, with Battle of Poltava (1709) hero Ivan Mazepa honored with an imposing statue. The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Mazepa’s name in 1708 and still refuses to revoke it, making him even more of a hero today.
Poltava’s 1,100-year-old history tells a tale of resilience through times of war and peace and is well worth the four-hour drive (or train ride) from Kyiv.
Our time in Poltava was only an hour or so, as Mark had arranged a dinner meeting in Kharkiv with a group he was helping. After all, our primary mission is to assist those in need, not simply sightsee. So, we regrettably bid Poltava farewell and continued our journey to Kharkiv. I hope Poltava continues to stay relatively safe from Russian aggression. I look forward to the day when I can return to Poltava and all of Ukraine during a time of peace for a more traditional travel experience.
CENTRAL KHARKIV CITY
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAVhyh
Mark, Hymie, Anastasia, and I continued from Poltava to Kharkiv, Ukraine’s 2nd largest city (1.5 million in peacetime), lying in the country’s northeast. Kharkiv, also known as Kharkov in Russian, is the second-largest city in Ukraine, situated in the northeast, just 20 miles or so away from the Russian border. It has a rich history and was once the capital of Soviet Ukraine. Because of its proximity to Russia, many of its denizens speak Russian. Still, I can attest that no love is lost for their aggressive and bullying neighbor to the north, today.
When the full invasion began, Kharkiv’s proximity to the border made it one of the most dangerous battlegrounds. The tank track marks of Russian tanks can still be seen (and felt) when driving on the road to and from Russia.
In 2022, the resilience of the Ukrainian forces forced the Russian invaders to retreat, but not before leaving behind the scars of conflict and several dead, wounded, displaced, and, of course, traumatized civilians.
Our first stop was to drop off supplies at the European Tradition of Charity Office, which Mark and Hymie have been helping for some time. We then took the charity organizers, Roman and Nastya, out for dinner. Mark commented, and I could tell they were exhausted, but as the evening wore on, we elicited smiles from them. They warmly offered to help us during our filming in any way they could.
We all went to a hotel Mark and Hymie had stayed at before and endured bombing around us much that evening. The problem with Kharkiv being so close to the border with Russia is that air raid siren alarms come too late, as the bombs typically fall before the air raid sirens can alarm. Also, cheaper munitions can be used to reach the city, so Russians lob bombs indiscriminately when they like, unlike Kyiv or L’viv, where much more expensive missiles or drones must be used (and air raid sirens can offer a modicum of warning).
The hotel had a bomb shelter, but at that point, I was in a kind of “if I live, I live, or if I die, I die” mentality and dog dead tired. So, I just cranked up the volume on the white noise app, rolled over, and went to sleep. It’s incredible how quickly one can acclimate to the threat of death or injury in a war zone. Not that it’s pleasant, and I certainly wouldn’t wish it on anyone long-term. Sleep is fitful and far from restful in a war zone, as a discerning look at my photos will showcase.
The following day, at breakfast, Anastasia showed me on an app on her phone how close the bombs had fallen. Bombings had surrounded us. That was a bit discomforting, but it was in the past.
We then set out to explore the city independently, as Hymie and Mark had another mission in a nearby village, and we wanted to film in Central Kharkiv.
The physical damage inflicted on the central part of the city was immense, and it’s heartbreaking to think of the indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, including the beautiful historical center with its apartment buildings. The architecture of this city is old world. The fact that Russia could care less about what they destroy reminded me of a song lyric by the band Against Me in one of their songs – “What they cannot steal, they seek to destroy.”
It’s not just architecture but children that have suffered. Indiscriminate bombings have affected iconic places like the Central Park of Culture and Recreation. This massive amusement park and playground, once a haven for children and families, now bears the scars of mortar damage and shrapnel holes, a grim reminder of the consequences of conflict on innocent lives.
As you can see by the mortar marks in the children’s statues, shrapnel is a killer. While filming near these statues, a young boy who looked to be 5 or 6 years old came over to observe the bullet holes in the children’s figures. His mother tried to comfort him and let him know he was safe, but he nor she seemed fully convinced. The next day, we would see a new heartbreaking monument to children killed during Russia’s invasion. It was covered in children’s toys.
These are not merely unintended consequences of Russia’s invasion or “collateral damage,” as one of my less-informed X (Twitter) followers tried to convince me in the early days of the invasion.
There is ample evidence that the Russian forces explicitly target civilians, and the anger and sadness of that fact still weigh heavily on my mind. Targeting and killing civilians is a war crime. In that case, I saw evidence of war crimes all over Kharkiv.
After spending the afternoon at the almost deserted amusement park, Anastasia and I stopped to get a bite to eat and escape the heat.
One man at the restaurant’s entrance was trying to entice customers inside, and it took very little convincing to get us to come in. We were hot, hungry, thirsty, and ready for a break.
When he found out I was from the USA, he insisted on giving me a big old bear hug and posing for photos. The gratefulness of the Ukrainian people is very tangible, and I received thanks like this almost daily, made even more remarkable when one considers the stereotype of the “Stoic Slav.”
A pre-teen or teenage boy came over to say “hi, mom” for the camera and pose for photos.
Mark insisted that I must visit Kharkiv, and after just 24 hours, I could easily see why.
Despite the devastation and the far-from-normal circumstances, Kharkiv still exudes a sense of resilience and life. Many residents had no choice but to return to their homes, finding it impossible to work or afford to live elsewhere where it may be safer.
Usually, the city has thriving universities, cultural centers, theaters, museums, and libraries. It’s known as a cultural hub and has been for centuries.
But even amid bombed-out buildings, we saw a university in session, a testament to the unwavering commitment to education and normalcy.
My first 24 hours in Kharkiv left me with a profound mix of emotions. The city’s resilience, history, and its people’s enduring spirit in the face of adversity are inspiring and heart-wrenching. I learned much more about this in the coming days.
KHARKIV (KHARKOV) LF MUSIC
Full Photo Album : https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAVW9z
Mark knows that music is a big part of Raw Travel and my love of music, especially punk rock and independent, alternative, and underground music, personally. Mark’s connection is vital as well. His daughter Sam, a country music recording artist, plans to visit Ukraine and tour.
One of the reasons Mark had so strongly insisted I visit Kharkiv was to meet the legendary Icey of LF Music. LF stands for Icey’s band “Legenda Folium,” a Linkin Park tribute band. LF Music is a music studio, artist colony, performance space, concert venue, and bar in a serene spot by the river in central Kharkiv City.
One of the reasons Mark had so strongly insisted I visit Kharkiv was to meet the legendary Icey of LF Music. LF stands for Icey’s band “Legenda Folium,” a Linkin Park tribute band. LF Music is a music studio, artist colony, performance space, concert venue, and bar in a serene spot by the river in central Kharkiv City.
When I met Icey, he reminded me of a younger Fat Mike of the band NOFX, but I’m not sure Icey considered that a compliment. However, we both knew the Wise Guyz, a Kharkiv-based rockabilly band who’ve performed at LF Music numerous times and whom I first met in Moscow, Russia, on my visit there in 2010 when they were playing a concert. Talk about full circle. The guys from the Wise Guyz weren’t at LF tonight. Still, the Revolver band was doing a great job keeping an enthusiastic crowd entertained, which included several dozen Kharkiv locals and a smattering of volunteers, including Mark and Hymie, and Paul from H.U.G.S. Canada, whom I’d get to interview the next day.
Icey took me on a tour of the facilities, which included a studio and a military chill-out room where Ukrainian soldiers could come if they needed a break to decompress from the front. Icey’s apartment had been obliterated by Russian bombs earlier in the war, so he was no longer living full-time at LF Music. We bonded over our love of music and hatred for Russia’s terroristic attacks on civilians. He showed me some disintegrated body armor that I think, but I am not sure, he may have been wearing at the time of his apartment blast. He didn’t volunteer many details, and I didn’t want to pry into potentially traumatic territory.
When I interviewed Icey, I heard more about his struggles to keep the club open. Still, he stressed that when you live in a place like Kharkiv, Ukraine, it’s crucial to have a good time between Russian bombs falling. In addition to destroying his apartment, the Russians have killed many of Icey’s friends.
Our visit coincidentally occurred on the day that The Wagner Group’s short-lived coup was happening a mere 30 miles away. We were all glued to the news in between sets of the band playing, dancing, and drinking. We all returned to our somber state when we received words of Wagner’s surrender later that evening.
It was nearing curfew by the time our interview with Icey was over. We said our goodbyes to Icey, his girlfriend, Mark, Hymie, and the other volunteers. Anastasia and I made our way to take the short walk to our hotel. But as we made our way, air raid sirens blasted, and the streetlights went out, so we made our way to the hotel by flashlight and GPS from our iPhones.
That evening, we were awakened by bombs falling on the outskirts of downtown and near our hotel. I was too exhausted to get up and head to the bomb shelter. Once again, I rolled over, plugged the earbuds, cranked the white noise from my iPhone app tighter, and slept a fitful night’s sleep.
Postscript: Icey expressed dismay that his idols at Linkin Park had thus far ignored his requests to express words of support for Ukraine as he and his mates fought for survival. I know it’s a long shot, but I’m throwing it out in case someone with ties to LP reads this. Suppose anyone knows anyone with a connection to Linkin Park. In that case, it would mean A LOT to the people of Kharkiv if they shouted out words of encouragement to their fanatical followers in Ukraine.
KHARKIV TOUR: DIMA AND MARIA
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAW86m
Anastasia’s cousins, Dima and Maria, are from Kharkiv and were living there when the Russians first invaded in early 2022. After time away during the occupation, they recently returned home and agreed to show us the devastation and beauty of their beloved and besieged city.
Kharkiv is just a few miles from the Russian border in Eastern Ukraine. In 2022, the Russians turned tail when they encountered brave resistance from Ukrainian forces. You can still see the Russian tank track marks on the road to and from the border.
Before civilians could flee and Ukraine had the anti-air defense system they have today (thanks to U.S. support), Russians fired indiscriminately at civilian targets, including apartment buildings in Kharkiv’s beautiful historical center.
You can see the memorials on buildings all around town. Some photos show where two elderly grandmothers died; just a few blocks away is another building with a memorial where seven died. Today, Russians continue to bomb Kharkiv civilian targets, just as they did when we were there, but with far less effectiveness.
There is a new monument with stuffed children’s toys left below, which is Kharkiv’s new monument to the many children murdered by the Russian military from Kharkiv.
On the outskirts of town, heading towards the Russian border, is the now almost infamous suburb of Saltovka. This place was the tip of the spear of the northeastern portion of the Russian invasion in 2022.
As you will see from my photos, there is a playground in full view of wholly devastated buildings where hundreds of people once lived, and many died at the hands of Russian aggression. A smell permeated the place, and I was told that this was likely the body parts of those still buried in the rubble. Dima and María were still visibly moved by the devastation. As for me, I had a hard time taking it all in; the destruction and realization of how many must have been murdered in their own homes was just too significant of a scale for me to appreciate fully.
While in Saltovka, we interviewed a lovely family of four who once lived in this apartment building. The daughter, Svitlana, spoke English. She said they had returned to retrieve a washer that somehow survived. Remarkably, some of their neighbors still live in these buildings in Saltovka, probably because they have nowhere else to go.
Some of their surviving neighbors couldn’t leave and lived in tents in the shadows of the damaged buildings. Svitlana’s family has moved to the country, and despite the terror of almost being murdered (they hid in the building basement for nine days while the Russians destroyed their home) and losing most of their worldly belongings and many of their neighbors, they could smile. Even Oskar, the dog, seemed happy. Their attitude in the face of devastation and trauma perfectly reflects the residents of Kharkiv and Ukraine’s resilience.
KHARKIV – H.U.G.S. UKRAINE
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAWcEQ
I met the founder of H.U.G.S Ukraine, Paul Hughes of Calgary, Canada, through an introduction from U.K.-based humanitarian Hymie Dunn and Arizona-based U.S. Marine Corps. Mark Cary at the LF Music concert in Kharkiv. Hymie first met Paul in the early days of the full invasion
Even before Hymie had told me about Paul, I had already heard of the work of H.U.G.S. (Helping Ukraine Grassroots Support) online. I was delighted to meet Paul and hear his story, which Hymie and Mark had teased during our long journey to Kharkiv in Hymie’s van.
Like Hymie and Mark, Paul threw caution (and some might say good sense) to the wind and headed into Ukraine in early 2022 when almost everyone else, including many Ukrainians, was trying to get out. Paul, who once ran for mayor in Calgary and has a thriving urban community farm called Grow Calgary back home, has stayed in Ukraine ever since.
But now his son Mackenzie (Mac) and various volunteers from around the globe have joined him. At Paul’s headquarters in Kharkiv, we met volunteers from Australia, Finland, Canada, and Ukraine.
Paul’s harrowing story of rescuing a six-year-old girl caught in heavy fighting is worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Paul was captured and detained by the Russian military for several hours, illustrating how hazardous it was for a Westerner to come to Ukraine in 2022.
He was finally released after reaching common ground with the commander in charge over a shared love of hockey (Paul was also a hockey coach in Canada) and was able to bring the young girl to safety. Stories with happy endings like Paul’s are vitally important to hang onto if we are to have hope during the dark days of bombs, death, and destruction that can feel unending.
However, if Paul were captured in 2023, I’m not sure the ending would be so happy. Russia is getting increasingly desperate to hold Westerners hostage, as illustrated by a distant colleague and Facebook “friend’s” plight.
While in Ukraine, I saw that U.S. musician Michael Travis Leake was arrested and held prisoner in Moscow over likely trumped-up drug charges. Leake is one in an ever-expanding list of prisoners like U.S. Marine Corps veteran Paul Whelan, Wall Street Reporter Evan Gershkovich, and Radio Free Europe journalist and dual U.S. and Russian citizen Alsu Kurmasheva.
Our evening hanging with H.U.G.S. Ukraine was a fun evening of meeting everyone, hearing their stories, and eventually receiving some very cool T-shirts that I still love wearing around New York City to confuse people who may think I’m Canadian or Ukrainian.
The evening was capped off when Anastasia’s soldier father, Oleg, met us on location. Oleg had been fighting in Bakhmut for several months, and this was the first time Anastasia had seen him in months—more on that in the next post.
Find out more about H.U.G.S. Ukraine by visiting their social media pages or website or google “Paul Hughes” for some great stories about Paul to better understand what makes this fantastic humanitarian and entrepreneur tick.
ANASTASIA REUNITES WITH HER FATHER
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAWh2M
In 2014, Russian-backed separatists forced Anastasia’s family to move from their home in the Donbas region to Kyiv and start all over. They were adjusting well when the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022. Anastasia and her little brother were sent to Paris. At the same time, her mother, a doctor, and father, a soldier, remained behind to serve. In June 2022, Anastasia and I traversed from France into Western Ukraine (L’viv). Anastasia continued to Kyiv to reunite with her mother before returning to Paris. You can see photos from that 2022 journey here https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjzZrcr
A year later, on this trip, in June of 2023, Anastasia and her little brother were back in Kyiv, and I was visiting Ukraine for a month. We traveled to Kharkiv, just a few miles from the Russian border, to film. As fate would have it, Anastasia’s father, Oleg, was due in Kharkiv while we were there to get some repair work on the truck that Raw Travel viewers had helped fund for Oleg’s troop.
Anastasia had not seen her father in months. Oleg was recently relieved from a brutal month of fighting in Bakhmut, where casualty rates reached 50%. Four weeks on the front without a break is brutally difficult, but Oleg showed no signs of stress. Stoic and quiet, he arrived on location at H.U.G.S. for Ukraine, driving the “Raw Travel” truck. Anastasia could hardly hide her joy, but I was by far the most emotional of the bunch! I was so happy for both. I’m just a sappy romantic at heart, folks.
We had a great reunion dinner. I presented Oleg with a 3D Heart of Courage Pin that my Polish-American friend and vocal Ukrainian supporter Olga back in NYC had handmade. She asked me to deliver to someone courageous in Ukraine. Finding someone heroic and brave in Ukraine is not difficult, but when I met Oleg, I knew this was where the Heart of Courage was meant to be pinned.
After I turned in to get much-needed sleep, Anastasia and her father spent some father-daughter time together. I don’t have too many regrets, but not having a daughter is one of them. Perhaps that’s why I get so emotional when talking about Anastasia’s relationship with her father.
The following day we all met for breakfast, as Oleg had to return to his troop quickly. But only after giving him a Ukrainian flag to have his soldiers sign. My pal Yaroslav from Razom Ukraine (Together Ukraine) in New York City had given me the flag to take to Ukraine to have some Ukrainian soldiers sign. The flag could then be auctioned off to support Ukraine or be moral support for those helping Ukraine back in the USA. It’s a way to provide a tangible connection and is symbolic of the troops sacrificing so much in Ukraine and the folks supporting them.
Anastasia and I watched as Oleg drove off in the truck, flag in tow. I, again, was the most emotional of the bunch. I would make a terrible, stoic Slav! I’m a very un-stoic, emotionally charged American. I am what I am.
It turned out Oleg had a gift for me as well. Back in Kyiv, the evening before I was due to depart for L’viv and onward to Poland to catch a flight home, Anastasia gifted me with a lovely surprise: a certificate from Oleg’s troop thanking me for my commitment and service to Ukraine. It hangs in my apartment in New York with pride, and I dare say it will follow me to the grave, hopefully, many years from now. It means that much to me.
Days later, on my final night in Ukraine, I was in Lviv and due to cross the border into Poland the next day to return home to the USA. Anastasia messaged me and told me the flag had been signed already and was in her possession in Kyiv.
Since I was set to return to Poland the following day, Anastasia arranged to send the flag on a complimentary bus ride from Kyiv to L’viv on one of Ukraine’s excellent bus services.
The bus had just a short stopover in L’viv before carrying on, but I retrieved the flag just before it took off again (they waited for me). It was just a few minutes before curfew on my final night in L’viv when I returned to my hotel with the precious cargo of the signed flag.
There are many more twists and turns in this dramatic, near-miss story that serendipitously turned out okay, but that must wait for another time.
But it reminded me how everything worked out for me on this trip. It gave me a sense of fate and that I was meant to be here, at this time, finally pursuing a cause so much bigger than myself. No matter what I give to Ukraine, I will never be able to repay the debt that Ukraine has given to me. A sense of purpose, rediscovered humanity, and a newly discovered love of liberty, freedom, and a deep love of my country.
But what a price for Ukraine’s dead, wounded, displaced, kidnapped, and traumatized people to pay for my fulfillment? I would trade it all away for this to never happen to them. They do not deserve it, but they, with our help, will prevail.
ENTRY # 15
KHARKIV – MISHA’S NEIGHBORHOOD TOUR
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAWxNx
Anastasia and I met Misha and his girlfriend Valeria at LF Music on our second evening in Kharkiv. As with most things in Ukraine, our meeting would be fortuitous.
Whether related to the recent bombing or not, I’m not sure. Still, the otherwise charming hotel Anastasia and I were staying in ceased having running water on our 2nd day. I could shower at the gym (yes, there was an open gym) and Anastasia at her cousin Maria’s the first day. Still, later, when it became apparent that water would not return anytime soon, Anastasia reached out to Misha, who happened to have two apartments nearby that could be rented to tourists.
As you can imagine, because of the war and constant bombardment, tourism in Kharkiv is nothing compared to what it is typically this time of year. This is another example of the daily hardships Ukrainians are forced to endure beyond the risk of being blown to bits by Russian bombs. The economy reels, and without international support, things would get even more desperate than they already are. This is why the US must continue to support Ukraine militarily and economically. The war will be lost if the Ukrainian civilian economy collapses before Russia’s. The good news for the U.S. is that this investment is cheap and effective.
Misha was happy to have us stay in the apartments, and we were delighted to have a nice place to stay with running water. The previous hotel graciously offered us a refund for the days without water (I’ve never had a bad experience in Ukraine with the hospitality industry, for what it’s worth), and we moved locations.
The next day, we were due to take the train back to Kyiv late in the afternoon, well after our noon checkout, so Misha kindly offered to not only let us store our bags at his apartment in the meantime but to show us around his neighborhood. Kharkiv has been a long-time educational and cultural center since before Soviet times. Universities and colleges surround his neighborhood.
Since being de-occupied and forced out by the Ukrainian army in the fall of 2022, Russia has relentlessly bombed the area since early in the war, mainly because of its proximity and the reach of cheap munitions from Russia. As stated before, in Kharkiv, air raid sirens are of little use as bombs explode before the air raid sirens have a chance to engage.
Like when Dima and Maria showed us around, Misha’s tour allowed a more personal viewpoint of the devastation, explaining what each pile of rubble once was. We visited his former gym, now just bombed-out ruins, and several educational facilities no longer operating. Surprisingly, one university seemed to be in session, with students patiently waiting for entry.
Misha also showed his family’s bomb shelter, a far cry from the somewhat luxurious bomb shelter we’d toured at our hotel. This was a root cellar slash bomb shelter from World War Two. He and his extended family had spent many weeks in that cellar, and it was hard to imagine having to stay down there for more than the few minutes we toured it.
A very aggressive mother dog made our exit precarious on the way out. It seemed her owner had left to shelter in Western Ukraine, and she’d since had some pups and was very protective. I’ve found that Ukrainians LOVE their pets and have gone the extra mile to ensure they are cared for. They are typically well-fed, and you see very few strays running around.
Misha gifted Anastasia and me two lovely plush Ukrainian rugs that his family’s business specializes in making. But, of course, this industry has been interrupted as well. I hope to help him import those rugs to the USA someday.
Misha showed us a gentle and tranquil spot near his apartment on the Kharkiv River that felt a million miles away from the city, much less the war.
Anastasia and I filmed ducks floating blissfully along with the current, and it was so serene and peaceful one could easily forget the madness unfolding around us daily. This was a perfect spot to film a video diary summarizing my first Kharkiv trip.
Then Misha picked up his girlfriend, Valeria, and we went to a well-known and semi-famous fast-food spot called Bufet (Buffett in English?) to sample some authentic Ukrainian fast food.
It was a delicious and cheap departure from my regular diet.
After a quick lunch, it was time to bid adieu, so we headed to the train station, where Misha and Valeria insisted on going through security to see us off to board the train. Several soldiers were saying goodbye to their families, which would have offered great footage, but I didn’t have the heart (or the chutzpa) to film such a private moment, so you’ll have to use your imagination, but it was incredibly moving and emotional.
Anastasia and I took the several-hour but comfortable train ride back to Kyiv, where her boyfriend Vlad was due to pick us up in a Bolt (like an Uber). Anastasia and I discussed how incredible it had been hanging in Kharkiv and meeting folks like Dima, Maria, Misha, Valeria, Icey from LF Music, Paul and Mac, and the folks from H.U.G.S. Ukraine, and all the friendly and grateful folks from Kharkiv.
As I type this summary from my notes, the U.S. government faces another political inflection point. Ukraine is again left wondering if the cradle of modern democracy and freedom will continue to help.
Selfish, greedy, shortsighted, and myopic power-hunger politicians in the USA are once again debating whether to continue to support Ukraine, no doubt, in the process empowering Putin to continue his brutal assault on people like our new friends in Kharkiv. It’s demoralizing and scary to think they’d even consider abandoning these folks at a time like this.
Sadly, the US no longer resembles the country I thought I grew up in or loved so much. It’s a different version that seems determined to destroy itself and many good people in the US, Ukraine, and other places in this inexplicably self-destructive process. I hope and pray I’m wrong and just seeing things with a pessimistic filter. But it sure feels as if Russia’s propaganda has been especially effective here in the once “land of the free and home of the brave.”
ENTRY # 16
KAMIKAZE DRONE SCHOOL
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAWBPs
When things can’t get any more surreal in Ukraine, the next day one-ups the previous. Anastasia and I were allowed rare access to a drone-flying school where we hung out with soldiers of various platoons for a full day, some fresh from the front and returning there the next day. The realization that I was hanging with people who might soon die or be maimed for life put me in a solemn mood. Anastasia was the only female on the premises, but as in typical Ukrainian style, she was afforded the respect of most women in Ukraine.
It was not an overly charged macho atmosphere but a day of camaraderie, seriousness of mission, and eventual celebration because it was final exam day, and the students had all passed with flying colors and received diplomas at day’s end.
But before the ceremony of handing out diplomas, we took part in some drone-flying games in the field. It occurred to me we were a legitimate Russian military target now. Still, if history predicted future actions, the Russians were more likely to bomb a restaurant, hospital, daycare center, or playground than a military target. Ironically, I may have been safer here than volunteering at a hospital.
It was a beautiful spring-like day. I could hear roosters crowing, mixing in with gunfire from a practice range a few miles away. Whenever the joy of the day’s beauty hit me, I was reminded of destruction, misery, and war. My emotions were up and down like this all day.
One field exercise included the drones flying from far away and rapidly hitting a target, kamikaze style. There were no bombs on these drones, which would eat up too many drones during practice. But the drones had been souped up, built from scratch, and could scream through the air at impressive speeds and with breathtaking dexterity. To ensure the drone’s survival, they slowed down just before impact into a net with an X marked for the target.
In the first round, I was taken to the practice field in a brand-new luxury Audi sports car, unsuitable and incongruous on the barely-there dirt path and bumpy and muddy terrain. On the second, it was a junker that the soldiers and I could barely fit into, and the trunk kept popping open every time we hit a bump. It was apparent these were civilian cars being used for military purposes, and the soldiers were likely from various social strata. It was also apparent these guys needed more military-grade vehicles.
Whether in a car or on foot, we stuck to the same route each time. The instructor informed me that we wanted to be careful not to veer off the path in case there were any unexploded ordinances, as we were on land that Russians once occupied mere months earlier.
The instructor knows what he speaks. He is from the Donbas region, which Russia invaded with the assistance of Russian-backed separatists in 2014. He recounted that he was captured by the Russians when he was just 17 years old and a minor, so they let him go… in the middle of a minefield.
At the time, trying to hide the fact that Russia was driving the separatist effort in Crimea, the Russian-backed military at least pretended to care about war crimes and didn’t want to kill a minor. Too much unwanted international attention, I imagine (though that didn’t stop them from shooting down the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in 2014).
So back then, when this boy of 17 was captured, they hoped a minefield would do their dirty job of killing a minor civilian for them, giving them deniable plausibility. That young boy, now an adult drone flying instructor, disappointed them and somehow made it across the field in one piece. Now, they’ve created a mighty and determined enemy.
It was an apt reminder that this “special military operation” of Putin’s has been happening for almost ten years. But it’s even older, as Russia has attempted to destroy the Ukrainian people, culture, and language for centuries, which is well documented in books and you tube lectures by author Timothy Snyder.
Later that day, the instructor who relayed this information to me found out one of his peers, a fellow instructor at another school and his good friend, had his right hand blown off by an unexploded ordinance and needed blood. He sent me a photo of the poor kid (very young-looking) in a hospital bed, smiling… it was likely the anesthesia talking.
Maimed Ukrainians are already commonplace and are on pace to have more amputees than in all of World War I (many who head back to the front to fight when possible, something unheard of in Western countries). This legacy of wounded Ukrainians, many of them young teens or adults in their 20s and 30s, will be part of the Russian legacy of shame that we should never allow them and their supporters (foreign and domestic like Tucker Carlson and Elon Musk) to forget.
Next, we were shown a demonstration of drone flying skills on the homemade indoor course. It demonstrated the precision with which these machines are flown and the skill of Ukrainian drone pilots. Some had no doubt honed their skills via video games as kids not long ago.
Drones are an inexpensive and efficient strategy to save soldiers’ lives by allowing the pilot to be further away from the action. But there are challenges, not the least that the primary maker of drones, DJI, a Chinese company, has stopped manufacturing and importation to Ukraine and severely restricted neighboring countries’ importations.
Officially, the same policy from DJI applies to Russia. However, unofficially, according to Ukrainians, DJI supports Russia. I believe this is true. Anastasia purchased a brand new DJI Steadicam (DJI also makes these), and she could not download the software and app to use it for more than the 24-hour trial period simply because she is in Ukraine. Thankfully, I was with her and could download it on my Americanized phone so she could use her new gear.
The Chinese government doesn’t seem to care about morality, the systematic and state-sponsored murder of innocent children, or right or wrong. They seem to only care about money and geopolitics and countering US “hegemony.” If freedom is hegemony, sign me up for a good dose.
While some may argue the same applies to the United States of America, and while the US history of intervention isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, I don’t buy the “what about-isms” in this case.
In my opinion, the “what about-isms” and “both sides-isms” are just a way for weak-minded people unable to distinguish nuance and feel better about supporting what they know is evil deep down. Again, almost 1,000 Ukrainian children have been killed versus zero Russian children. I could list dozens more facts like this (15-30K Ukrainian children kidnapped to Russia to be reeducated, millions displaced, etc.), but isn’t that one basic, simple fact of dead Ukrainian children all you need to know? Arguments should cease there. There is no justifying the unjustifiable, and 1,000 dead Ukrainian children (living in their own previously peaceful country) is unjustifiable.
If one can’t see the difference in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from Iraq, Afghanistan, Hamas, and the wars in Central and South America of the 80s, then one doesn’t wish to see it. We don’t have a time machine to fix the past, but we can impact the present atrocities and thus fight for a more peaceful future. Bullies like Putin do not give peace. It can only be negotiated through strength. A brief look at the history of the last 100 years should be all the evidence one needs.
A vast majority of the Russian people are not innocent in these atrocities either. A reported 75% of them support this illegal and immoral war. Some say this is the result of relentless imperialistic propaganda by Russia. This is only partially true.
One other journalist on location, a Ukrainian photojournalist, recounted an all too familiar story of a family torn apart by the war. His father lives in Moscow and believes Russia is correct in invading Ukraine.
It’s common to write off this widespread belief that everyday Russians do not have accurate information on the war, BUT his son lives in Ukraine. He knows the facts of civilian carnage and the killing of innocent children and the elderly (presumably pensioners like him). He’s been told of Russia’s maiming, orphaning, and kidnapping of Ukrainian children, and he CHOOSES to believe what Putin has to say instead of his son.
Indeed, even some in the USA believe that we should “listen to what Putin has to say” (Rock Musician turned Country Music Artist Loon, Aaron Lewis of the 2000s band Staind, Tucker Carlson, formerly with FNC, a variety of right-wing politicians, and their ignorant and ill-informed cowardly followers). See our HALL OF SHAME coming soon.
Anastasia’s Ukrainian soldier boyfriend has a cousin who lives in Russia and believes Russia should kill Ukrainians until Ukraine “comes to its senses.”
You can’t possibly reason with people with such beliefs; you can only defeat them.
I noticed the cheerful atmosphere as the drone school students received their diplomas. It dawned on me that most of these men hadn’t even known each other 11 days prior (school is only ten days long) and now were jocular and jovial with each other… and me. They shared a bond of war, sadness, and now of drone school and joy.
I, however, had to struggle with my emotions, again understanding that some of these men I’d grown to admire over the past few hours might not make it back in one piece.
But eventually, at the ad hoc barbeque celebration that evening, I let go of my somber mood. For a moment, I was in high school again, back home in Tennessee, hanging with my buddies by a bonfire. Indeed, many of these men could have passed for avid hunters down south with their beards, bowie knives, and humor… I felt at home, though only a couple (former IT or businesspeople in civilian life) spoke English.
As the evening wore on, it got windy, chilly, and cold. Someone loaned me a hoodie to keep me warm. They ensured my plate had food and my glass was filled, even though I was a visitor, not accounted for when they bought the scarce provisions.
I had previously noticed a couple of student soldiers eying me slightly askew a few times that day, probably because they were wary of having their image taken by a foreign journalist. Could they trust me? I don’t blame them. Trust can be dangerous here, and for them, if captured or their families still live in occupied territory. I, of course, was very conscientious of this fact and respectful of their reluctance to be included on camera.
Still, ALL warmed up to me that evening, including these two stoic and previously standoffish soldiers.
As the soldiers recounted stories from the battlefield, comrades and family members lost, with translations made for my sole benefit, I tried to keep it together. They were stoic and strong, So I must try. I felt a kinship with these men, along with a deep admiration. I said so in my toast, which Anastasia translated for me. But I couldn’t find the words in English, much less translate them to Ukrainian to fully express my feelings. I still can’t. War absolutely sucks, but witnessing Ukraine’s fight for freedom is THE noblest cause I have ever been a part of. I feel so blessed and humbled to have played even a tiny role. Slava Ukraini! I pray for you in your darkest hour.
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAWVCX
After visiting severely injured soldiers at a military hospital in an undisclosed part of Ukraine, I more firmly believe in Hedonic Adaptation (baseline happiness), a theory positing that most people generally will eventually return to their baseline level of happiness, regardless of what happens to them, good or bad.
The brave warriors I met who sacrificed their bodies to Russian munitions for freedom and democracy were upbeat, smiling, and eager to have us tell their stories. They said they consider their sacrifice supremely honorable, and so do I.
A few were fresh from the front, still adapting to their new situation and in great physical pain. Some of these did not wish to be on camera. We, of course, respected their wishes.
Galynda and Volodymyr are dedicated civilian volunteers intent on keeping patients’ spirits high. Marta works for Volodymyr’s ceramic company in the civilian world and was my English-speaking contact. She provided translation despite her emotions. The dedicated doctors and staff offer care & rehabilitation and a dose of positivity.
I wanted to give a morale boost to the patients, but instead, they gave it to me. I entered sad and tentative but left awed and inspired. Shortly after I visited, many in the USA celebrated our independence thanks to the brave sacrifice of so many before us.
It was moving to consider how our democratic ideals have inspired others, most notably Ukraine, as they seek to defend theirs. Again, spending time with Ukraine’s honorable, brave, and wonderful people has been a blessing. A memory that has changed me in so many ways forever. Slava USA! Slava Ukraine!
THE CHILDREN OF UKRAINE
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAXj4x
The musician Sting has an anti-war song from the mid-1980s Cold War, “Russians,” with the lyric, “I wonder if the Russians love their children too.” Of course, they do.
But one of my earliest memories in Ukraine, when I first visited in 2012, was of a working father joining his wife and toddler for a jaunt in a park at lunchtime. Perhaps it was the jetlag, but even then, I was moved by such emotion. and joy exhibited by this simple everyday occurrence.
You can tell a lot about a country’s society by how they treat their pets and their children. Pets and children are revered in Ukraine. Perhaps because they represent hope and unconditional love, but I feel this connection with the vulnerable even more in wartime.
Children are always the biggest victims of war. The trauma will last with them a lifetime, meaning the tragedy of Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine will reverberate for generations to come.
From the Central Park of Culture and Recreation, where children were still playing near bombed-out carousel rides and statues with mortar wounds, to the “Dead Children’s Memorial” in Kharkiv (what a horrific thing to have to commemorate), to help refugees fleeing to Odesa from Kherson flooding (thanks to the Kakhovka Dam eco-terror event perpetrated by Russia); to visiting the children of Lada’s orphanage, where over a dozen children are now without parents or a primary caregiver, I saw numerous examples of children’s suffering.
It is clear this war, with almost 1,000 Ukrainian children murdered as of this writing so far (compared to ZERO Russian children), has taken a horrific toll thus far and growing daily.
Murdered, orphaned, traumatized children are just part of the story. As of this writing, an estimated 15,000 to 30,000 children have been kidnapped by Russia and whisked off to re-education camps in Russia, taught to hate their ancestral land. This is another war crime.
Clearly, in Putin’s Russia, children are not revered, cared for, and loved but are to be exploited, weaponized as tools of war, or, in some cases, simply murdered. These children are not statistics or “collateral damage. ” They are flesh and blood. The irony is that many U.S. lawmakers in the “pro-life” camp consistently try to deny U.S. aid to Ukraine. They don’t do this in a vacuum, I assume. They do this because their “pro-life” constituents are telling them they don’t want to spend the money to support Ukraine. These people who say they support Israel don’t believe in supporting Ukraine (Rand Paul), as if one child’s life is more valuable than another.
What about a Palestinian child? As Israel exacts revenge on all of Gaza, what is a Palestinian child’s life worth?
The hypocrisy of the past few weeks and months is not only mind-numbing but demoralizing. It feels like the cynicism of Russia has seeped into this country of hope and freedom and that we are suddenly unable to distinguish between the simple difference between right and wrong, good and evil.
When did hope and freedom and doing the right thing become partisan issues?
These are little innocent human beings with flesh and blood, loved and lovable, targeted by a brutal tyrant. These are war crimes and must not be normalized. This is unacceptable, and anyone who stands in the way of ending Putin’s war crimes on these tiny little beings is just as guilty as Putin is.
True “pro-life” is ending this brutal war by giving Ukraine all the aid it needs, both military and humanitarian, so that Putin will not only leave Ukraine but will never perpetrate these horrific war crimes ever again on little souls.
Click here to tell your senator or congressperson to continue aiding Ukraine and, in turn, stop the murder, maiming, kidnapping, displacement, and trauma of Ukraine’s most vulnerable little citizens.
KYIV TOUR WITH PUNK FOTOG OLIE
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjATLbZ
My friend Dima is the lead singer of the well-known Russian Punk Band Tarakany (Cockroach) on my Punk Outlaw Records roster. Like a good cockroach, Tarakany! has been a staple on the rock music scene for over 30 years. I helped Dima translate some of his music on the 2010 “Russian Democrazy” release on Punk Outlaw Records. Much of his music has been featured in Raw Travel’s soundtracks.
In the Summer of 2021, Dima reached out to me because he was being harassed by Russian “authorities,” and the band was having difficulty touring. It was so odd when I received his email because that evening, I had been in Zagreb, Croatia, meeting someone helping me film there, and she was talking about how she admired Putin standing up to the EU. When I saw her the following day, I showed her Dima’s email, but she seemed non-plussed. I wonder how she feels now. Even though Dima’s music was never openly critical of the Putin Regime, things eventually got so tense that Dima had to go into exile in early 2022, just before the full-scale Russian invasion.
While I was in Ukraine, I saw on the news that an American musician living in Moscow who had also worked with Dima on song translations, Travis Leake, was arrested on trumped-up drug dealing charges. It made news for precisely one day.
Travis was a Facebook “friend” who seemed to have rejected his U.S. roots and embraced his new home, at least according to his social media post. If that was a ruse to keep out of a Russian prison, it didn’t work. Though I’ve never met Travis, I’m 99% sure he’s just another American bargaining chip for the Russian Regime. As I write this recap, a 2nd American journalist (the first from the Wall Street Journal is still detained) has been detained on spying charges. She works for Radio Free Europe, so I’m sure she will not get out for some time.
Dima, unbeknownst to me until I met his friend Olie, is ½ Ukrainian. He introduced me by email to his punk rock photographer friend, Olie, from Kyiv, and she and I met up. Though there’s not much of a punk scene to document in Kyiv these days (many bands are at the front or scattered throughout war-ravaged Eastern Ukraine), she agreed to show me an insider’s tour of what was and what could be. These are the photos from our rainy day together. https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjATLbZ
ENTRY # 20
NORMALCY – CONCERT IN KYIV
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAUbzY
A month may seem like a long time to visit a location, but it passes quickly in a country at war like Ukraine. There are no flights in and out of Ukraine because the airspace is closed. Crossing the border means either train, car, or, in some cases, on foot, which can take hours or even days. On this trip, I flew in and out of Warsaw, Poland, so on each end of the trip to Ukraine, I allocated two days to get from Warsaw to Ukraine and two days back. Ukraine is a large country geographically, though tiny compared to Russia; it is the largest in Europe in terms of landmass.
While my home base for three weeks was technically Kyiv, I was probably only there 1.5-2 weeks of that time, as my trips to Kherson and Kharkiv took up a good ten days or so days.
Pasha is a filmmaker and musician whom I’d only met on social media through Anastasia. Anastasia and her boyfriend, Vlad (a filmmaker), are good friends of Pasha and his wife, Olya, another filmmaker, and photographer. Are you sensing a theme yet? What can I say? Ukraine has a lot of artistic energy, and it’s just one reason I love the place.
I was already going to miss my friend Yulia of JK Tours (Raw Travel 2019 – https://youtu.be/m2yGbov7Vx8?feature=shared ) because she was traveling, and I was panicking about missing out on meeting Pasha in person. Pasha had invited me to various events and even some epic-sounding film trips during my time in Ukraine, but because of my commitment to film with Mark and Hymie in the East, I couldn’t take him up on it.
So, with just a couple more evenings left in Ukraine, he suggested I go to a concert with him. It was a concert by a well-known saxophonist and drum duo, Andrii Barmalii & Oleksandr Yavdyk. Though the event was already sold out, Pasha was confident he could get us in. I was to find out that Pasha seemingly knew everyone in the creative community of Kyiv and could talk our way in sans tickets.
It was a rooftop event, and I invited Anastasia and her boyfriend, Vlad, to come along. Alas, Vlad had to work, but Anastasia came, and we all had a fantastic time, as did the primarily creative, avant-garde crowd at the concert.
It was another slice of normalcy, but there were always reminders of war. During one song, I witnessed one young lady coming across the crowd to comfort another crying young lady, joined by another, culminating in a group hug. They were all weeping quietly, and it was clear someone, or perhaps all, had experienced some profound loss that this song had triggered. If this had been New York City, I would have been guessing what could have activated such a public display of grief, but in Ukraine, it was normal, and I already knew. We were in wartime Ukraine, and war takes a physical, mental, and emotional toll on everyone. No one is spared. Normalcy is just a band-aid on a massive wound, which is getting deeper by the day.
After the concert, we were all hungry, but because of the curfew, despite full restaurants, kitchens had closed, and no one was serving food any longer. So, we ordered sushi (quite delicious in Ukraine) to be delivered to Pasha’s apartment, and there we finally met up with Vlad for a brief reunion before I took a Bolt (like an Uber) home to get there before curfew. If there hadn’t been a war, I’d have hung out all night, but if there hadn’t been a war, I’d likely not have been there in the first place.
NORMALCY – VEGAN FESTIVAL IN KYIV
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAU6Sg
My final full day in Kyiv was full of faux normalcy. It was a weekend, and my new friend Olie (of Kyiv Punk Rock Tour) invited me to a small Vegetarian Festival. I had several interviews I still needed to get, including with a Polish American filmmaker, Mania, whom I’d met months earlier in New York City at her Ukrainian fundraiser. I was introduced via social media to Mania by Mark Cary, the U.S. Marine turned humanitarian with whom I was in Ukraine primarily to film. See how connections work?
I also wanted to meet another contact of Dima, the now exiled lead singer of the Russian punk rock band Tarakany! (Cockroach), who suggested I hook up with Morj, a fellow punk rocker and co-creator of a vegetarian brand of MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) called Loopci, which was born out of the vegetarian soldiers at the front wishing to maintain their vegetarian lifestyle, which I still find so astounding. I can barely maintain my vegetarian (or what I call “mostly meatless”) plant-based lifestyle in New York City, yet these guys, facing death daily, insisted on keeping a “clean” diet. Talk about discipline.
Morj gave me some samples, and when I finally tried them at home, they were delicious. I posted a short video about this on Instagram, and you can find it HERE
I went with Anastasia and her boyfriend, Vlad, later met us there. This day turned into a big old party, where strangers became friends, and everyone was in a festive, enjoy-the-moment mood. Perhaps this was because of the war, but it would have been so much fun had we not been reminded of war’s toll so often.
During my interview with both Mania and Morj, I was reminded of the toll this war has taken on everyone in Ukraine’s mental and physical state. Imagine having friends and relatives on the front dying and, in Morj’s case, the risk of being called up to a meatgrinder like Bakhmut or, in Anastasia’s case, her father already there.
Nonetheless, when curfew hit at 11 PM, no one was ready to go home, and the party-hardy crowd all seemed to hit the same supermarket simultaneously to get supplies for house parties before the stores closed. The day was an apt reminder that it would take a lot more than a brutal war to extinguish the good-time spirit of these optimistic, life-loving people. In Ukraine, having a sense of normalcy is a mighty act of rebellion.
PS Apologies for the profanity in a few photos, but a Raw Travel viewer in the Midwest, Thomas Shockey, created the artwork. Thomas sent these works of art to me, and I wanted Ukrainians to have them. I thought about editing the photos, but what is more profane in the end, showing the “F” word or killing, wounding, displacing, and traumatizing thousands of innocent civilians and upending an entire world? War brings out the ugly in people, and I’m no exception. I’m keeping it in.
II. 2022 Blog
READ ABOUT MY FIRST TRIP TO UKRAINE IN WARTIME IN THE SUMMER OF 2022
– Posted July 3rd, 2022 – I’ve just returned from filming in Przemyśl, Poland & Lviv, Ukraine. It was an intense shoot full of mixed emotions. We met many volunteers on both sides of the border, committed to helping Ukrainian refugees, including many Americans from places like Massachusetts, Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, California, DC, and more. We witnessed firsthand the great work organizations like World Central Kitchen, Unicef, and The Red Cross are doing.
I also witnessed first-hand the fear and trauma Ukrainians must go through daily as air-raid sirens forced us into bomb shelters at various times, day or night.
We met a particularly inspiring soldier, BMW (nickname), fresh from the front, who was recently injured and thankful for American support. He was on injury leave. He’d recently had three fingers blown off by a missile attack near the front.
He assured me that he felt his American donated flak jacket saved his and many fellow soldiers’ lives. His wife and children were with him. Their gratitude and his bravery were palpable. He was heading back to the front the following week.
I met several refugees. One recent arrival was a young man of 17, on his own for the first time in his life and seemingly unmoored. The rest of his family remained behind in the fighting. I think our visit cheered him a bit.
I met another from Russian-occupied Maritopal who had recently escaped (bribed his way out).
Still, since his family remained behind, he couldn’t be on camera for fear of retribution. The stories he relayed to us off-camera (but with audio rolling were horrific).
Thanks to reconnecting with our friend Diana Borysenko of Diana Western Ukraine Tours (Season 7’s “Lovely Lviv”), we were able to revisit the Saints Peter & Paul Church where local soldiers’ funeral services are held.
Unlike in 2019, there are many more photos on the Memorials to accommodate the 200-300 soldiers perishing daily (reportedly at the time of our visit) and their tragically orphaned children.
This is the moment in the trip when officially my heart began to break.
Diana then drove us to the famous National Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, where they’ve recently had to add a massive Mars Field to accommodate all the freshly dead Ukrainian soldiers.
This part of the day was perhaps the most challenging of the entire shoot.
We witnessed grieving mothers, daughters, wives, girlfriends, sisters, and brothers at freshly dug graves. Tough.
But there were good times too. Many. I was both surprised and inspired by the number of people committed to living life with as much Joy de Vivre as possible under such conditions and in between the occasional air-raid sirens.
In the end, we saw a country and people committed to pulling together for victory. It wasn’t all grief, fear, and sadness all the time. Ukrainians in Lviv seemed committed to showcasing some sense of normalcy. There were street performances daily, with joyful people dancing, clapping, and singing.
The line to cross back into Poland via car was days long, and the train tracks had been bombed so it was running behind as well. I had been told an on-foot crossing would be the fastest. I caught a ride from Lviv to the border with Poland with two friends of a friend back in NYC, who wouldn’t take a dime for even gas
I returned across the border on foot with thousands of Ukrainian refugee mothers and children escaping the war. We stood in line for 3.5 hours trying to get out of Ukraine.
Fortunately for me, as a US Passport holder, I could get into Poland much more quickly (in a matter of 20 minutes or so). Still, the poor Ukrainians had to stand out in the brutally hot, unprotected, blazing sun for God knows how much longer to get into Poland. Why there was no tent in the “no man’s land” section after leaving Ukraine to get into Poland is anybody’s guess but it was inhumane on this brutally hot day. I hope this has been fixed.
On the Polish side of the border, I caught a free ride to town with a kind Polish volunteer from Warsaw. He was working on his day off to help people like me and gave me a free ride into town to catch my bus from Przemysl. I took a relaxing bus back to Krakow to catch my flight home the next day (where Austrian Airlines promptly lost my luggage for almost a week).
Having caught covid in Paris and possibly breaking a toe or two (long- story and non-war related), I felt every bit of my age on this trip. Because I caught covid in Paris, I had to isolate and delay my trip to Ukraine by over a week. I was disappointed I couldn’t go deeper and stay longer as originally intended.
Still, I would not trade the experience for anything. Up until the last minute, I was trying my best to figure out how to extend the trip to get to Kyiv as initially planned. But alas, overland travel in Ukraine is slow and unpredictable. I had to be back in NYC to attend to business.
However, Anastasia, our uber-talented Ukrainian refugee Videographer, traveled to Kyiv to film a little and, most importantly, reunite with her mother, albeit briefly, before returning to Paris.
The unsung hero of the trip is the drone we brought from the USA to Ukraine that will help some Ukrainian soldiers surveil Russian troops more safely.
If you’d like to check out many more photos from our trip, please visit our Flickr album at the link here – https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjzZrcr
Here are trailers from the Season 10 episodes filmed during the 2022 trip to Ukraine: “Steadfast in Ukraine,” “Empathy Equals Strength,” and “The Incredible Lightness of Being with Ukraine.”
III. ADVOCACY BLOG
ENTRY #1 – October 14th, 2023
WARMUP UKRAINE FALL 2023 SAN FRANCISCO
Full Photo Album: https://flic.kr/s/aHBqjAYTvW
I was honored to be a featured presenter at the Warmup Ukraine Fall event on Oct. 14, 2023, at the Midway in San Francisco.
Before the event, I was featured on KTVU Fox 2’s morning show who is our affiliate in San Francisco and has always been so supportive of Raw Travel. You can watch the full interview.
I met several innovative and creative filmmakers, photographers, artists, tech innovators, humanitarians, etc., who gave Ted Talk-style presentations.
Music, workshops, food, and other cultural activities were also carried out in other areas to raise money for a great cause.
It was a thrill to meet soldiers from the frontline testing their cutting-edge prosthetics, which they had recently been outfitted.
Since there are more amputees in Ukraine than in all of World War I, this type of technology will be crucial to Ukraine’s recovery.
I gave my presentation around 1:30 PM, where I premiered the “My Summer in Ukraine” Trailer, which you can watch below:
I was also happy to meet Raw Travel viewers who came out in force to support Raw Travel and Ukraine. Thank you all, Dyakuyu!
ENTRY #2 – October 22-24, 2023
UKRAINE ACTION SUMMIT FALL 2023
Full Photo Album: Ukraine Action Summit Photos
Why I wore a tie for the first time in years… Read the Blog Post HERE
ENTRY #3 – November 18, 2023
OPEN LETTER TO TENNESSEE’S
FEDERALLY ELECTED OFFICIALS
I am writing to thank you for agreeing to meet with our contingent of your constituents last month during the Ukraine Action Summit. As you are aware, support for Ukraine against Russian tyranny and war crimes is at a crossroads. International rule of law, peace, and democracy are on the line.
I am Robert G. Rose, a travel journalist, producer, and host of the nationally syndicated Raw Travel TV. I am originally from Tennessee. I have farmland in Giles County, where I grew up, and my family has lived for several generations. For this reason, I was with the Tennessee contingent that met with your office.
I’ve been blessed to travel to over 90 countries, including Ukraine. In five visits since 2012. I’ve witnessed the country’s evolution and people’s fight for freedom. I have visited twice since the full Russian invasion in 2022 and have documented evidence of horrific war crimes along with inspiring stories of resilience. I’ve spoken to countless Ukrainian civilians and soldiers, thanking me for the USA’s support.
I am not Ukrainian, but traveling to Ukraine has inspired me to become a more involved American citizen committed to democracy and freedom worldwide.
As our elected official, I know that you know that YOU are responsible to the American people to do what’s in OUR best interest, and what I firmly believe is clearly in OUR best interest now is to help Ukraine defeat one of the biggest obstacles to world peace and stability in our time, Vladimir Putin.
I visited Russia in 2010. I was harassed by the FSB while touring Red Square with a local. On that trip, I made many Russian friends, including a well-known musician, Dima, lead singer of the band Tarakany! (Cockroach) who has been forced into exile in South America due to his protest music for peace. Dima’s musical collaborator, an American musician living in Russia, Michael Travis Leake, was arrested on trumped-up drug dealing charges while I was in Ukraine last June. He is languishing in prison as I type.
My travels have also included a trip to Russian-occupied Ossetia in the small country of Georgia, which I shared in an episode. My friend and guide, George, was in the Georgian military. Russian troops illegally seized his family’s land, and relatives were killed during the 2008 Russian invasion there.
In short, I have first-hand tangible experiences related to the malevolent intentions of Vladimir Putin on Russia’s neighbors and democracy worldwide. The entire world knows Russia is not a place that allows democracy and freedom of expression to flourish, which begs the question – why are some in your GOP Party amplifying Russia’s disinformation and propaganda instead of supporting Ukraine?
Ukraine incredibly rebuffed Russia’s 2022 invasion, and now Russia is getting desperate, garnering military aid from Iran and North Korea. Ukraine is a country where even amputated soldiers return to the front line to fight for freedom. With courageous fighters like this, why would the US stop supporting Ukraine and allow terrorism to prevail? A secret admiration of Putin or fascism? It’s illogical. So, why?
The USA’s political parties, on the left and the right, must stop these political games and unite to continue to support Ukraine financially and militarily from both a moral and strategic point of view.
- There have been over 10,000 Ukrainian civilians targeted and murdered by Russia (including 1,000 children). If we don’t support Ukraine, more will be slaughtered in their homes.
- There are more than 20,000 Ukrainian children who have been kidnapped by Russia and taken to Re-education camps. (War Crimes). These children stand little chance of ever being returned to their homeland and families if we stop supporting Ukraine.
- The 1994 Budapest Memorandum explicitly guaranteed Ukraine’s protection in exchange for their giving up their nuclear weapons, weapons that, if they currently had, would most certainly mean Russia would never have invaded. Our allies need to know we live up to our commitments.
- It’s a good investment. For less than 5% of the U.S. total defense budget, the U.S. can weaken a powerful terrorist foe without firing a single shoot or risking a single American soldier.
- Support will prevent future conflicts and potentially World War III. A Russian defeat conveys to other would-be invaders that international rules and laws remain. Thus, the world will be much safer for future generations. Do you honestly believe that Hamas would have attacked Israel on Oct. 7th without Putin’s aggression in Ukraine?
- Food and Energy prices will stabilize. As you are aware, Ukraine is the breadbasket of the world. After Putin’s defeat, future food and energy prices will stabilize- unless you don’t want to see that in an election year? I hope not. Impoverished people worldwide are struggling, thus destabilizing more countries and making the world more dangerous.
- The money has been corruption-free. The money spent thus far has had unprecedented oversight controls by the Office of the Inspector General. There are multiple safeguards to protect our investment. Thus far, there has been no proof of maleficence. On every trip to Ukraine, I was NEVER taken advantage of, misled, ripped off, or robbed. Ukraine is one of the safest and most honest destinations I’ve ever visited, from taxi drivers to vendors on the street to travel agents. Concerns over corruption are a Russian propaganda-fueled red herring.
I believe supporting freedom and democracy should be bipartisan—most Americans I know are disappointed to see such politics. At the same time, Russian disinformation and propaganda are amplified by elected officials, primarily by an extreme few on the right. Ukrainians are flesh and blood, not political pawns to be toyed with over petty political power struggles.
I still believe in an America that stands up for democracy, freedom, and doing the right thing, and I am not alone in my assessment. From all parts of the political spectrum, hundreds of Americans (many former U.S. military) are in Ukraine, helping in various roles, from humanitarian to military. 22-year-old Willy Joseph Cancel and 24-year-old Joshua Jones of Tennessee lived up to our beloved home state’s moniker of “Volunteer,” sacrificing their lives for Ukraine to be free. Please do not disrespect their family or tarnish their memory by refusing to continue support.
Will you be on the right side of history, standing for freedom and democracy, or be remembered as one who stood with fascism and tyranny? I, my viewers, followers, and the world are watching. Tennessee needs to live up to our “volunteer” tradition! Please uphold your responsibility to freedom by voting “yes” for continued financial and military support for Ukraine. Your legacy and a lot more depend on it.
Robert G. Rose
Founder and Executive Producer AIM Tell-A-Vision Group & Raw Travel TV