Clad in body armour and laden with boxes, Anna has only fifteen minutes to get in and out of some of Ukraine‘s most dangerous villages.
She does a job few can imagine: delivering humanitarian supplies to communities on the front line of the war in Ukraine.
With a small team, Anna coordinates with local and military authorities to organise the trip, navigating bomb craters and muddy tracks to reach remote villages ravaged by conflict.
She meets villagers in the centre of the town, handing out everything from food to heaters, before scrambling out under the constant threat of possible Russian bombardment.
The team is under no illusions about the dangers its members face. During one mission in January, a Russian drone spotted villagers who had crowded together in an open space while waiting for a delivery. Russian artillery opened fire on their three vehicles. Remarkably, everyone escaped unharmed.
With millions of men away fighting on the front lines, Anna is one of thousands of Ukrainian women providing crucial humanitarian aid to communities devastated by conflict.
Most have no experience in humanitarianism: prior to the war, Heritage Ukraine ran summer camps for disadvantaged children. When the invasion began, they gave away all of their equipment to avoid it being seized and used by Russian forces, and turned their hand to delivering supplies instead.
Heritage Ukraine worker Alyona, who is Anna’s boss, says the organisation realised quickly that “we could do nothing to help children if we were under Russian control”.
Some of their 16 staff members fled to the west of Ukraine; others joined the army. One was killed during fighting near Kherson.
“In March 2022, the Russians were stopped at Mykolaiv. Anna and some of her colleagues stayed in our HQ to help deliver winter supplies to this region,” Alyona says. “Then the Russians were pushed back to the other side of the Dnipro River and there was an opportunity to go where we were most needed – where there was no water or electricity. Among many kinds of equipment, we delivered small generators that could provide water from village wells and also provided large containers for water storage.”
She adds: “What makes us unique is our variety of different supplies, like wood-burning stoves, which Anna and her team help the villagers set up and install. We don’t just deliver and leave them to it. We always check to see if help has been given by some other agency, but because we operate so close to the front line, it’s mostly just us.”
The recipients are predominantly those who cannot, or will not, flee their homes, including older or disabled people. They focus on villages previously occupied by Russian troops that were liberated by Ukrainian forces.
What they find when they reach the villages can be disturbing: people withstanding sub-zero temperatures without heat, power or water – many having experienced violence and abuse at the hands of Russian troops. Often, their homes were partly damaged by Russian siege, if not entirely destroyed.
So far, they have delivered aid to a remarkable 85 villages.
Lizz Harrison, Ukraine programme manager at Christian Aid, which supports Heritage Ukraine, said their work was testament to the resilience of Ukrainian women.
“Amidst the horror and terror of war, Ukrainian women haven’t hesitated to step forward and take on leading roles in running humanitarian projects with us,” she said. “We have been humbled and inspired by the remarkable bravery, ingenuity and resilience of these incredible women. Many of them had previously no experience of the kind of work we do but have learned quickly and are now at the forefront of reaching people most in need.”
For Anna, the decision to stay and help was simple. “We are not refugees,” she says. “We are citizens of Ukraine.”