LVIV, Ukraine — I thought they were art students.
Two floors up, in the window of a university building, two female students were weaving threads hanging from a wooden frame into a rudimentary net. A late-night push to finish a final project, I figured.
From my perch on the dark sidewalk, I could see into the other illuminated windows at Lviv’s Polytechnic National University. In every one, I realized, college kids were doing the exact same thing.
In groups of two and three, they stood under their frames, hanging twine, tying knots, looping ropes around one other. They repeated the process and repeated it again. Three floors of Ukrainians weaving nets.
I walked through the open gate of campus, making my way through the brutalist Soviet buildings.
At the entrance to the illuminated building, a young woman stood at a desk as other students signed their names to a form. Large spools of thread lay everywhere.
I approached a pair of women working under a frame.
“Today, we are sewing camouflage nets,” explained Tanya, a Nestle employee hailing from a western Ukrainian town. “Nets for our soldiers.”
She explained she was making just the net as a foundation, then passing it along to another group that adds green and brown plastic strips.
The two friends were taught by volunteers how to make the nets only hours before.
“It’s easy,” Tanya said and her friend laughed.
They heard about the initiative from one of the many Ukrainian Instagram channels that issued calls for volunteers. Some are used to bring food and other supplies to soldiers.
Tanya’s friends in the Ukrainian military sometimes make use of Ukraine’s civic spirit as well, posting when they need someone to bring provisions to a hard-to-reach outpost.
“Any hands and minds can be useful,” Tanya noted.
Nestle told its employee to prioritize their own lives during the Russian invasion. Tanya works from home for two or three hours every morning, then, like so many other Ukrainians, heads out to help the defense of her country.
Everywhere one looks in Ukrainian cities, one sees the unity of a people Vladimir Putin insists isn’t a genuine state. Volunteers man Red Cross tents at the train station, assist journalists and patrol city streets.
The next floor up, three hip-looking computer science students were hard at work on their net.
“Now, it’s the only thing we can do actually,” said a student named Viktor.
The young men weren’t expecting to be drafted into the army. “It would basically be scraping the bottom of the barrel,” said Max, as he measured two fingers between each hanging string.
On every floor of the university building, young Ukrainians worked in contented and purposeful silence.
“This is a war we didn’t start,” said Tanya. “We didn’t invite our ‘savior’ here to our lands.”
“If back in 2014 they couldn’t conquer us,” she said proudly, “they couldn’t take us when we didn’t have anything in our army, what are they expecting now when we have the ammunition and all the support of the world? We have grown a lot in that time, as a nation, as an army as well.”
There was something sad, almost pathetic, about these bright-eyed students thinking that their handmade nets would do anything at all to protect their friends from the Russian war machine slowly churning its way toward Ukraine’s cities.
But the nets themselves are not the point.
Perhaps what is really being woven, ever tighter, at the Polytechnic National University is the fabric of a proud and independent nation. And when a country’s most promising young men and women are willing to spend their nights tying thousands of knots and carefully measuring string, with their own two hands, that is a nation with a strength that cannot be measured in the number of its tanks and fighter jets.
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