‘This is a city of homeless people’: Finding hope in the horror with hidden heroes of Ukraine
Workers at charity Depaul were used to dealing with homelessness in Ukraine before Russia invaded the country. Now a new hard-hitting documentary shows their remarkable, selfless response to the humanitarian crisis that followed
What Did You Do To The Russians, from Slovakian film makers Michal Fulier and Jana Buček Kovalčíková. Image: DEPAUL
In the 500-plus days since Russia invaded Ukraine, the illegal war has become a mainstay in the news and its heroes and villains have long since been established. You may not have heard of Father Vitaliy Novak and his team of Depaul Ukraine volunteers and aid workers. But rest assured, they are heroes.
A new documentary called What Did You Do To The Russians, from Slovakian film makers Michal Fulier and Jana Buček Kovalčíková, is telling the remarkable, unseen story of how Novak and his colleagues went from helping homeless people in Ukraine to helping everyone.
The heart-rending film shows Depaul’s frontline workers going to almost unimaginably dangerous lengths across Ukraine to feed people left in the wake of the Russian invasion, to help them rebuild or even just to offer a slice of humanity.
Novak is the film’s beating heart. His journeys across Ukraine power the documentary forward with the same fearless, relentlessness he has shown since 24 February 2022 changed everything.
He brings humour in the darkest of circumstances – at one point he jokes with a Depaul worker about coming around to her destroyed home for a coffee after finding an intact crockery set in the ruins. But he also showcases a resolve and authority throughout that brings hope out of the horror.
The Big Issue spoke to Novak (pictured left) as he made a rare visit to London ahead of the film’s premiere at The Frontline Club. Depaul’s operation in bringing aid from Slovakia to the people of Ukraine has had to adapt and be fleet of foot to keep up with the changing situation as the conflict has developed. So it’s unsurprising to hear that the film happened almost by accident. “It was spontaneous!” says Novak. “Because we started our humanitarian programme from Slovakia, the CEO of Depaul Slovakia wanted to film just to show the donors how it goes from Bratislava to the last beneficiary in Ukraine.
“After that, when the national TV station saw the first parts of the film they wanted to buy it for the national channel. This idea started to grow with time, it was not from the beginning the same idea.
“The idea was just to have a short archive, nobody felt at the beginning it would be a film.”
‘This is the peace they want to introduce here’
While some aid efforts have focused on Ukraine’s cities, Depaul’s work has often taken them to communities and villages that have been left without in the wake of Russian destruction.
It’s mere minutes into the film when Novak visits Moshchun, a village near the town of Bucha that was the site of ferocious fighting for two weeks in March 2022 as the Ukrainian forces repelled Russian forces heading to the capital Kyiv from Belarus.
While handing out essential supplies, Novak and his colleagues hear the story of Valentyna. Her house is completely destroyed. Her son has been building a house next door for the last 10 years. It’s in ruins too.
“They didn’t live in it for a single day,” she says, surveying the devastation. “The whole street burnt down, not a single house is left.”
She continues: “Sometimes I think I’ve come to terms with it but then I realise that perhaps I haven’t. Yesterday I was doing something and started to cry and I couldn’t stop.”
It’s the first of hordes of human stories of agony and desperation that run through the film’s 90-minute run time.
It’s not just the people who Depaul support either. Anna Skoryk is the director of Depaul Kharkiv. Her home was blown up on the sixth day of the war. It’s in the ruins where Novak finds the intact crockery.
Since then, she has been sheltering alongside the humanitarian project she is running.
“Our masks are off, we have shown our true character,” she says.
“The entire city of Kharkiv has become a city of homeless people.”
In a remarkable turn of events, many of the people she was supporting before the conflict began chipping in and became colleagues.
“It was interesting to observe it because the homeless started to bring food and help,” she says. “We didn’t feed the homeless but vice versa.”
By August 2022, Kharkiv is becoming “riskier and riskier” to enter. But it doesn’t stop Novak or his colleagues. One jaw-dropping sequence shows GoPro footage of aid workers on bikes cycling through Kharkiv’s rubble-strewn streets to deliver soup even as bombs fall.
Two months later in October, the documentary crew joins Depaul as they feed people sheltering in Kharkiv’s underground stations because they were too afraid to live on the surface.
At some points, Depaul has supported 30,000 people a day with food, hygiene services and other support throughout the conflict.
To spoil the end of the film – it’s simply too important not to – it wraps up with a harsh reminder of the brutality and indiscriminate horror of war.
Depaul aid workers Kamil and Grazyna are unloading a van with aid at Liberty Square in Bakhmut when a bomb goes off 30 metres away. The moment is captured on camera before fading to black. It’s as chilling as any of the footage you will have seen in the 18 months or so since the war began.
Kamil was left with three pieces of shrapnel in his body. For Grazyna, the injuries were much more severe. Her right leg was amputated and her left leg was broken. Without Kamil’s intervention, she would have “bled out” next to the van.
Speaking from her hospital bed before being transported back to her native Poland to recover, Grazyna lays out the grim reality of why she and others put themselves in harm’s way: “Without the humanitarian aid, these people won’t survive the war.”
‘Anger has no place here’
While the war is continuing to rage, Depaul is already starting to look to the future.
The focus now is on rebuilding homes in previously occupied areas. The film shows some of those efforts in the village of Chervona Dolyna, with Depaul workers helping to build roofing out of corrugated iron.
They are also dealing with the mental scars of war. The charity is providing support for adults and children traumatised through the conflict with a team of mental health specialists. Cash and employment services are also helping people rebuild their lives.
“Families and people who are living in almost destroyed homes, we want to help them first of all because they cannot move. We won’t leave them,” says Novak. “Kharkiv, even though we have done a lot, is still the city without windows. We continue to keep people safe and warm.”
That is a real concern as Ukraine’s freezing winter comes into view.
A survey Depaul released alongside the film found 88% of people surveyed in Ukraine do not have enough money to cover their living expenses.
There is “a significant risk” of a rise in homelessness and people sleeping rough, the charity has warned.
Matthew Carter, group chief executive of Depaul International, said: “We cannot expect Ukrainians to process the trauma of the last 18 months and plan for the future if they do not have a certain or adequate roof over their head. For many people life in Ukraine remains precarious and insecure.”
But while work goes on towards a better future, the documentary stands as a reminder of an important point in history. A chronicle of the unseen, unglamorous work that saves so many lives in war.
“History is our mother of life. If we do not look and learn from history, we don’t know how to go and create the future,” says Novak.
“Not everything is covered in Ukraine. I can say that I wish that it was. But the filmmaker said it would have to be a three-day-long film.
“But this is what it is like for us. This is our experience we can share and learn from as well.”
And perhaps the final message from Novak in the film is a lesson that goes beyond war. While driving to yet another aid drop, Novak is asked if he is angry. Angry at Putin’s pointless war. Angry at the devastation wrought upon his country. Angry at how his life has been turned upside down.
He says anger has no place in his work and no place in a peaceful future for Ukraine.
“If I become angry inside myself, I’m not building peace,” he tells The Big Issue. “I’m not building any good, I’m destroying relationships and destroying other people with my uncontrolled emotions.”
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