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Reporter's Notebook

For Ukrainian village cut off by river and Russians, deliverance is a rusty rowboat

Their bridge destroyed, residents of Zadonets’ke faced a harrowing 140-km journey for supplies, until an Israeli-founded relief agency found another way across the Donets River

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

  • A Ukrainian soldier ferries supplies across the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    A Ukrainian soldier ferries supplies across the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Ukrainian soldiers secure the bank of the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Ukrainian soldiers secure the bank of the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • A Ukrainian soldier observes as supplies are ferried across the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    A Ukrainian soldier observes as supplies are ferried across the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Ukrainian soldiers on the bank of the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Ukrainian soldiers on the bank of the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
  • Supplies wait in a car next to the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)
    Supplies wait in a car next to the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets'ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

ZADONETS’KE, Ukraine — The Siverskyi Donets River doesn’t look like much.

Only a few dozen meters wide in most places, the meandering river — usually referred to simply as the Donets —  has witnessed bitter combat along its banks.

In 1942, the Red Army lost a quarter of a million men here as German forces eliminated a Soviet bridgehead over the river. Eighty years later, in May, Russian tanks attempting to cross the Donets were pummeled by Ukrainian artillery, losing hundreds of men and dozens of armored vehicles.

Upstream from the site of the May battle, next to the destroyed bridge that once connected the villages of Zmiiv and Zadonets’ke south of Kharkiv, the Donets is a pleasant course, its muddy banks lined with reeds and small trees.

But for the 680 villagers of Zadonets’ke, the river represents a serious problem. With the Ukrainian army demolishing its bridges to slow Russian invaders, food and medicine would have to be driven 140 kilometers out of the way to reach the village and simultaneously avoid shifting Russian lines.

The volunteers at IdeaSoft HelpKharkiv — a relief agency co-founded by local Ukrainian-Israeli entrepreneur Peter Kolomiets — have come up with a straightforward solution, seemingly from another era.

In this handout photo provided by the Ukraine Armed Forces on May 12, 2022, a ruined pontoon crossing with dozens of destroyed or damaged Russian armored vehicles on both banks of Siverskyi Donets River after their pontoon bridges were blown up in eastern Ukraine. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Every five or six days, the young, techie IdeaSoft volunteers load up their white vans, throw on their Kevlar vests and helmets, and drive through a series of military checkpoints to the grassy west bank of Donets River.

There, covered by a Ukrainian Army platoon, the IdeaSoft staff makes several trips across the river in a rowboat to locals waiting on the other side.

On Friday, The Times of Israel joined IdeaSoft as they made the river crossing with Ukrainian forces.

Up the creek no more

Readying the supplies, the volunteers in the IdeaSoft offices in central Kharkiv were in good spirits as they slapped stickers on 80 aid boxes and carried them outside to three white vans.

Each box feeds a family for six days. They also piled white sacks of bread loaves and six-packs of water bottles into the vehicles.

Vans belonging to IdeaSoft drive supplies to the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets’ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

As they headed south out of the city, damage from ongoing Russian shelling was everywhere. But locals were going about their day, riding the streetcars and poking around the outdoor markets.

The staff stopped to chat with the middle-aged soldiers at all the military checkpoints on the way. They were manned by relaxed troops who looked to be volunteers signed up during the ongoing hostilities.

As the city gave way to lush evergreen forest, the mood of the checkpoints changed sharply. The well-equipped soldiers, younger and unsmiling, now wore identical uniforms. They, too, seemed to know the IdeaSoft team, but the conversations were clipped and to-the-point.

We reached a checkpoint where a thin, gray-haired officer emerged. He barked instructions out to two of his soldiers, who quickly moved spikes out of the road. All the soldiers at the position were wearing helmets, gloves, and knee pads, and none were sitting.

The officer and about a dozen soldiers climbed into three civilian vehicles to lead the convoy on a dirt road through a steep-sided valley. After a short drive, we emerged at the grassy banks of the Donets.

The soldiers, some wearing masks to cover their faces, fanned out wordlessly behind trees along the river to cover the crossings. Though the Russian lines had been pushed back well beyond the village, teams of Russian soldiers regularly penetrated into Ukrainian-held territory, and a heavily-laden rowboat would be an easy target for a sniper hiding in the woods.

The officer, Valeriy, and the platoon medic, Andriy, watched from the shade of a tree as the volunteers and troops began unloading boxes into a rusty metal rowboat hidden in the rushes.

A Ukrainian soldier loads supplies onto a boat on the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets’ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

When the boat – the seaworthiness of which looked entirely questionable – was filled with boxes, bottles, and a sack of bread, a volunteer named Denis and a blond soldier wearing a baseball cap hopped in.

As the rest of the platoon observed silently, the river swept the craft downstream before the soldier managed to power through the deceptively powerful current. In 30 seconds they reached the other side, where two waiting villagers hopped into the water and began moving the boxes quickly onto the far bank.

Villagers unload supplies on the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets’ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

As the soldier maneuvered the rowboat back across the river, Valeriy and Andriy came over to chat.

“We are almost all from here,” said Andriy, a resident of the nearby city of Chuhuiv. “Sometimes it’s very good because we know all the small roads.”

They also get help from appreciative locals. “We are born here,” Andriy continued. “We have our brothers, neighbors. We have enough food.”

The 32-year-old, a veterinarian in civilian life, served in a tank during his active service, but the reserve force does not have any armor. “Maybe a Merkava comes soon,” he said laughing, referring to Israel’s vaunted battle tank.

His own body armor was sent by his sister in Poland.

More surprisingly, the platoon doesn’t have any drones either. Unmanned aerial vehicles have played an important tactical role in the war for both sides.

Valeriy (L) and Andriy (R) on the bank of the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets’ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

The reserve platoon is mostly used as a rapid reaction force, heading out on nighttime missions three to five times a week, said Valeriy. “We head out if we need to capture someone or if there is intelligence that groups are coming through the front lines,” he explained. “And if we are needed at the front lines as fire support.”

But there are few encounters with Russian forces now. “It’s mostly artillery,” said Valeriy.

The 60-year-old divorcee served in the Soviet and Ukrainian militaries, reaching the rank of major. He ran an auto repair shop before the war.

And he had a message for Israel.

Villagers await supplies on the Siverskyi Donets River near Zadonets’ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

“It would be great if Israel could supply Iron Dome so civilians in cities won’t suffer,” said the officer, echoing a common, and thus far unanswered, plea.

‘People really need the help’

On hearing the topic of Israel come up, one of the IdeaSoft volunteers mentioned that he has relatives in Rishon LeTzion and Eilat. He had his last name, inherited from his Jewish grandfather, on his protective vest.

This being Ukraine, stumbling across people with relatives in Israel is a common occurrence. There are almost 200,000 people with Jewish ancestry in the country, and Ukrainians see it as entirely unremarkable.

“I’m a volunteer,” said Denis Breslavkiy, 42. “I work here in the most difficult district in the Kharkiv region. The villages have no electricity, they have no cellular connection, no water, all the communications were destroyed. I feel that those people really need the help, that’s why I do this.”

Denis Breslavkiy (C), with his son and an Ukrainian soldier, near Zadonets’ke, July 29, 2022 (Lazar Berman/The Times of Israel)

The divorced father of two said that a column of 30 Russian armored vehicles reached his hometown of Bezrukiv on the first day of the war.

“When they tried to leave the village, they were destroyed,” he said. When asked if he took part in the fight, Breslavkiy gave a quick nod.

He pointed to a thin tattooed young volunteer dressed all in black. “That’s my eldest son,” he said proudly.

The crossing

After most of the boxes had been ferried across, it was my turn.

I slid down the muddy bank, and stepped gingerly into the rowboat, trying not to tip the flimsy craft over. Rendered unwieldy by my bulletproof vest and helmet, it was harder than I thought it would be.

Facing me, the soldier shook off reeds from the left oar and set out for the fourth time. We were entirely vulnerable to a hidden Russian marksman, and I decided that if  I heard shots I would hurl myself into the water. I loosened my vest to make it easier to shake off if it came to that.

Thankfully, it didn’t.

We glided through lilypads to the two men on the other side. One caught the rowboat as he stood in the knee-deep water.

In a field above, a comically small Soviet-era vehicle waited, hitched to a wagon packed with the boxes.

Once the bread and boxes were passed up out of the boat, I hopped back in. The villager shook our hands.

“Glory to Ukraine,” one of the men said, before giving the boat a firm shove back into the river.

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