Volunteering for Ukraine: Interview with Anton Kurinnyi

Editors: Valeria Strelchyna, Dmytro Babych
Translation: Hanna Gavrylova

Anton Kurinnyi at WCBU 2017. © Photo by Illia Shypunov
Anton Kurinnyi at World Beach Ultimate Championship 2017. © Photo by Illia Shypunov

Anton Kurinnyi, former ultimate frisbee athlete from Kyiv and member of Ukraine’s national team in ultimate, shares his memories of the start of the full-scale invasion and experience of volunteering in Ukraine during war.

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— How did you experience the full-scale invasion by Russia? Where were you on February 24, 2022? What were your emotions that day, and what did you do?

Anton Kurinnyi. © Photo by Illia Shypunov
Anton Kurinnyi. © Photo by Illia Shypunov

— On February 24, my wife and I were at home when we heard the news. We knew that something might happen, so we had some plans in place, but in reality we didn't do anything except prepare an "emergency suitcase" with important documents just in case.

The main decision we made in the afternoon was to pick up my parents from Hostomel. The next day, we decided to strictly follow the guidelines for every air-raid siren and took my parents with us to the metro (Note from the editor: metro stations work as bomb shelters during air raids). However, it wasn't very effective because it was difficult for my parents, so at the invitation of friends, we decided to leave Kyiv and go towards Ukrainka, near Obukhiv (Note from the editor: a town in the south of Kyiv region). Eight of us stayed in a small house for 45 days and became even closer with other parents and friends. We remember that time with warmth. We are very grateful to our friends who helped us a lot during that difficult period.

The apartment complex where Anton lives after being hit by two Russian rockets
The apartment complex where Anton lives after being hit by two Russian rockets

When I was leaving my apartment, I was also saying goodbye to it in a way, because I didn't know if I would come back to it or not.

It was chaotic.

There was a smell of gunpowder on the street, some smoke, although there didn't seem to be any close explosions. That's how the first day went. (Note from the editor: Later, the apartment complex where Anton lives was hit by two rockets.)

Later, we found out that our friends and acquaintances started transporting humanitarian aid. We wanted to join them as soon as possible, because time passed in a standard manner: everyone was on their phones, following the news. We tried to find some useful things to do, so as not to go crazy. We went to local checkpoints, helped organize them, dug trenches, and the girls cooked food for the military, for the checkpoints. And then we found a van, found the humanitarian aid that needed to be picked up from western Ukraine and transported to the occupied territories.

Destroyed Russian tank near Chernihiv
Destroyed Russian tank near Chernihiv

Our first trips were to the Chernihiv region, then to the Kyiv region, towards Bucha. In the Chernihiv region — I don't remember the name of the village, as the road was still blocked — there were burnt tanks, and it was impossible to get to Chernihiv. But we tried to cover everything that was nearby. We were not the first volunteers,we were second, but we tried to deliver everything that people needed because there were destroyed villages and ruined houses. However, people powered through: we would arrive, and they had already started to rebuild their homes, as soon as the russians left the Kyiv and Chernihiv regions.

— Could you ever imagine yourself as a volunteer, involved in volunteer work?

— In 2014, I was trying — I wouldn’t call it volunteering but to help each other, like everyone did. Everyone understood that unity meant strength. I didn't think I would become a volunteer. But I didn't know there would be a war and a situation in the country where everyone comes together, synchronizes and starts doing something to help the country, because they understand that without this help and without the Armed Forces of Ukraine, we can lose Ukraine, our independence, our nation. Because our neighbor wants us to lose OURSELVES. So we need to do something, to move, to not sit still.

When you sit still following the news, you slowly lose your mind, I think. Useful things — they motivate you every day not to give up, not to cry, but to move towards victory. And we will move until we win. We have no other way.

— What is it like to volunteer during a war? What challenges do volunteers face?

— When I first started, I was very nervous because people would ask me to get something, and I couldn't find it quickly and was afraid that if I didn't find it today, it wouldn't be needed by anyone tomorrow. You have to go through this and handle it correctly. Firstly, you cannot help everyone, and secondly, you need to keep your nervous system in shape.

Then I found many friends and acquaintances, volunteers, and some honest people in the stores who did not try to triple the price and helped in general. There are still many communities that help each other, and issues that were resolved within a week or two at the beginning of the full-scale invasion are now resolved within one or two days. There are already many acquaintances who can deliver something from Poland or Europe. There are many communities that deal with this. Even if they are strangers, they start communicating quickly. And now, instead of ten people carrying a ton of cargo, only two people are enough to solve the problem.

You also need to learn how to synchronize the actions between volunteers. For example, according to our volunteers, in March, when there were very few people in Kyiv but there were requests for help, people from the right bank traveled to Troieshchyna to deliver simple bread, while across the road, another volunteer who was going in the opposite direction was also delivering bread. (Note from the editor: Troieshchyna is an outskirt of Kyiv located on the city's northern left-bank.) It's very cool when people synchronize, find each other and help locally. This reduces the human effort and monetary costs.

— What do our defenders need most now, compared to February 2022?

— I used to see monthly trends, like when everyone needed bulletproof vests, helmets, or thermal vision goggles. There were months when we needed certain things. Now, I wouldn't say I'm "filling a niche", but I've found our suppliers, our people, volunteers who have been living in Europe for a long time and are helping Ukraine in this way. They find drones, thermal vision goggles, thermal imaging scopes — basically, things that are difficult to get quickly. Thanks to them, we manage to get things we need, including saving on donations. And it's quite fast because going through official representatives, importers takes at least a month, while going through friends takes a week or two if they are in Europe.

Volunteering for Ukraine: Anton Kurinnyi

My main focus is drones, we import them non-stop. I can't say that I'm some kind of big corporation, but during this time I have definitely imported more than 100 drones and helped with logistics to transfer another 100. Requests for helmets, bulletproof vests are still relevant, because we understand that more and more people are joining the ranks of the Ukrainian military.

There is no longer a panic about "how to get something" or "where to get something." But the need does not disappear because people need standard things. Plus, when we supply drones, binoculars, thermal vision goggles, clothing — all of these can burn during attacks by our enemies. So we need to buy them again.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion, volunteers like myself have felt somewhat discouraged and disheartened. Fundraising for the same things for the same people may not attract donations as actively as before, but we must still do it. Everyone understands the need to help.

A strong and supportive rear is crucial. I'm not in the trenches, I'm not in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, but I hope that volunteer support motivates our defenders, and that's why we all do it. We don't stop, working from 9 am to 6 pm, volunteering in parallel, doing something else in parallel, then driving around until 10 pm, helping wherever we can. Those who can, travel to Europe and bring whatever is needed, from cars and drones to generators. The process is non-stop. Everyone has “adopted the wartime lifestyle” — let's put it that way.

— What stood out the most from your trips to the occupied areas?

— We were on our way with several vans: 5-ton trucks, 2-ton trucks, and smaller ones. We loaded them with humanitarian aid and bought supplies in stores. Then we realized that there was not enough space for regular bread. One of the volunteers who was loading everything with us arrived in a luxurious Land Rover, and we loaded his car with bread.

We drove on a very bad road to Chernihiv since the main road was closed due to the recent de-occupation. We took a parallel road, and there were basically no roads there. We damaged our wheels, and this man in a very expensive car filled with bread wrecked his car. But the people in the villages, far from the Chernihiv road, were so happy to see us and so grateful that someone had come and brought something! I'm sure that the person who wrecked their car was also happy to be able to help in this way.

We brought sweets for the children, and luckily, there were very few children there.

A lot of equipment was burned, both russian and ours. The russians broke down fences and entered courtyards to hide their equipment. They destroyed almost everything. It seemed to me that they had done it intentionally.

An abandoned car stuck in a bombed road near Chernihiv
An abandoned car stuck in a bombed road near Chernihiv

But there was an impressive sight when driving through: you see bombed roads, broken trees, and as you enter a village, people are already trying to rebuild! You don't yet know if active combat will return here or not, but people are already trying to rebuild their homes. I thought they would be demotivated, depressed, without any plans for the future, and with no idea what tomorrow holds. But the people got up and got to work!

I myself wanted to go out and help. I know people from our community who went there and helped with cleaning up debris, removing rubble, and tried to assist with the reconstruction of buildings that were hit by shells. But at that time, we didn't have much time. We were returning, and it was dark, and debris from missiles – I think, the S-300 – was lying directly on the road. It was dangerous to drive [in the dark], so we had to hurry back.

It was very cool when we entered a village and met the first person, took them with us in the car, and they actively helped us: "Here is our center, the council or something, where people gather. Let's unload here, and we'll warn everyone!" They understood that we needed to unload quickly and go to another village.

Volunteering for Ukraine: Anton Kurinnyi

Also, I remember that we arrived in a village called Yahidne, I think. They told us, "We don't need anything here. But we know that there are four villages further on where no one has reached — go there." At that moment it was difficult to understand what and where we needed to go because there was no communication at that time. We also went there and were without communication for 7-8 hours. Our wives almost "exploded" our phones later. There weren't so many Starlink devices at that time. In principle, we didn't know what a Starlink was back then.

I also have a story at the beginning of the full-scale invasion. It's a very cool thing that we have Nova Poshta (Ukrainian postal service) and Ukrzaliznytsia (Ukrainian railways). Thanks to them, a lot of good things are being done. I go to Nova Poshta almost every day and send something. And one day, I came to Nova Poshta again, but I forgot what I was waiting for exactly. I opened the package and there were tourniquets inside (Note from the editor: a device used to temporarily stop bleeding by compressing a blood vessel). I smiled for probably an hour because I didn't remember where I got them from or who ordered them. It's like once, before the full-scale war, you were eagerly waiting for an iPhone or PlayStation — something that makes you very happy. Similarly, you open tourniquets now and take them to some foundation, like Prytula (Note from the editor: Sergiy Prytula's Foundation — one of the largest funds that helps military personnel) or to volunteers who are engaged in medical aid. You are happy, and they are happy when they see real tourniquets — not Chinese ones, but good, quality ones.

— Many of your fellow athletes are in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. What areas are they in and how closely do you maintain contact with them?

— We have several people who are in contact with different areas. I stopped playing ultimate in 2017, so I don't know or remember everyone anymore. From my side, I am in touch with my club from Kyiv. There is Nastya Gurmak, she is from Ivano-Frankivsk, she stays in contact with people from the west of Ukraine, she knows them better. There is Pasha Vyplavin — he is in touch with our guys from Kharkiv. There is also Lera Strelchyna, she is connected to other teams.

We cover all of them. All requests.

Volunteering for Ukraine: Anton Kurinnyi

I also message our players if I need to quickly clarify some questions. There are many of them there, all in different areas. Some are in Donetsk region, some in Luhansk region, some have been in the ranks of the Ukrainian Armed Forces since March 2022, but are still in training: they haven't been deployed yet, but they are already on standby. But there are guys who are in hotspots. We try to prioritize and process requests for all their areas first, and to find [the things needed for] them first.

The other day there was a request for a small drone. I had brought such a drone to my friend earlier, and asked if he wanted to give it away. And he gave it away. And this drone flew to the Luhansk region, if I'm not mistaken.

— As an experienced athlete, what do you think about the boycott of russian athletes on the international arena?

— I believe that we should exclude everything russian and belarusian from the normal, adequate world until the war is over, until they leave our territory. And even then, we need to think about whether we should allow them back with their politics and propaganda. I don't follow all the news very closely, but I was shocked that they want to include them in the Olympic Games in Paris! Doesn't the Olympic community understand what is happening in Ukraine? There is information on the internet right now about destroyed cities, people killed, shattered lives, and they want to showcase their athletes.

— You mentioned that your parents lived in Hostomel, what is the condition of their house?

— They were lucky. Their apartment complex was lucky. It's near the destroyed bridge that was blown up near the Irpin River. Their apartment is on the sixth floor, and the russian soldiers only made it to the third floor: they broke down the doors of the apartments and looted. They didn't go higher for some reason. We changed the window in one of the rooms because something small, like a piece of shrapnel, flew in.

Their plot wasn't badly damaged, but the townhouses and the street next to them burned down. They were all nice and white... but the whole street burned down.

My parents returned in the summer. We cleaned up and did everything, and my parents are already living there.

The shop next door was damaged: something small, like a shell, flew in and broke the door. But what was strange was that all the goods were left in place, no one took anything. We brought humanitarian aid to this apartment complex, and about 20% of the people who survived the occupation remained there. They had cooperated and organised some kind of warehouse. And no one stole anything from the shop, even though there was a lot of alcohol, water, and food there. I liked that people remained human, despite the war.

Volunteering for Ukraine: Anton Kurinnyi

— Have you thought about victory? What would be the first thing you do after victory?

— Everyone thinks about victory, they really want it. But the main thing is not to burn out.

For some reason, we have this story with New Year's: everyone thinks that the old year is ending, and something will be different, better in the new year. It's probably like with elections in our country: everyone thinks that with each new election, a fairy tale will begin. And there was some euphoria on New Year's: everyone thought there would be a quick victory. Yes, victory is needed, we all await it, and we have to do what is necessary for it, and hold on as long as is needed, because in principle we have no other choice but victory.

I have a small dream. I've never been to Kherson or Mariupol before. I have a small dream to go to Kherson, and maybe even Mykolaiv. There is a military friend in Mykolaiv, a very good one, who is actively fighting in the Armed Forces of Ukraine now. I have an idea, maybe not on the day of victory, but to go and see Ukraine a little bit beyond Lviv, Odesa. I want to go and take a closer look at our country.

And I'm afraid there will just be a simple desire to have a drink. Probably every Ukrainian has put something aside for victory, to enjoy it. I really want to meet with the people who are in the ranks of the Armed Forces, I hope everyone will survive. And sit with them, and just be silent, I don't know. Have a little drink and be silent... Or maybe not be silent, but talk.

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