Part III: Dnipro and the Grassroots Work of Wartime
Written by: Sharmishtha Rawat. Edited by: Clary Estes
Katya’s home city of Dnipro was a thriving city once known for its vast industrial complexes, a sprawling avenue with a national museum, an 18th-century palace in the classical style, a picturesque embankment for lovely evening walks, and a boulevard with the fanciest of shops and restaurants. It now lies completely transformed.
Dnipro sits on the banks of the Dnieper river in south-eastern Ukraine. It is surrounded by the war on almost all sides save the west: Kharkiv in the north, Donetsk in the east, and Kherson in the south. So far, Dnipro has largely been safe from the fighting, and given its central location from the front lines, has become a center for humanitarian aid, transit for military supplies, and a stopover for refugees, some of whom choose to stay, though most flee to other parts of the country or leave Ukraine altogether.
Life in the city remains the same in some aspects, while radically different in others. "Back home shops are open” explains Katya. “The Post Office is still open. Some people can still keep doing their jobs from day to day. Some industries are able to keep functioning. But other industries, such as construction, clearly have no work they can do at the moment.”
Signs that the country is in the midst of war can be seen everywhere in Dnipro. Its airport was recently destroyed by Russian bombing. Government offices have been barricaded with sandbags. Soldiers patrol the sidewalks beneath the bridges across the Dnieper River. And any and every facility available has been turned into a shelter.
Amongst these uncertain times, a citizen-led grassroots movement has galvanized into action to help in the war effort by providing support to the military and aid to those in need. Nowhere is that more apparent than in Dnipro. According to Katya, “Many people now are helping the army and volunteering. Whenever there is a request from the army to help, for example buying medicine, buying groceries, or donating clothes, people step up to help."
The grassroots humanitarian aid effort has taken on a unique role in our era in that the foundation for its success lies in the tools that keep us connected every day: smartphones. “We're all using different kinds of apps to communicate, like Instagram, WhatsApp, Telegram,” says Katya, “So people can share information. For example, posting, ‘Okay, a friend is in the army (or a friend is in the hospital) and they need this, this, and this.’ And people can respond and physically go find things that are needed, or order goods online, or go deliver what is needed wherever it is needed.”
And it is not just in Dnipro that grassroots assistance is being shored up via smartphones. The grassroots organization, Safebow, started as a WhatsApp group to get “those in the most at-risk war zones and members of marginalized groups” out of Ukraine, and it grew from there. It was also an integral player in getting Andy out of Kharkiv to Poland. The funds for Smokehouse’s operation in Moldova were supported largely by individual donors found via Instagram and Facebook posts. Even our work for Ukraine Stories is supported by grassroots connections via smartphones with citizen journalists, experts, and volunteers on the ground. For example, our recent “One of Thousands” was a story shared via Instagram messenger. Grassroots connections within and without Ukraine have been key in saving lives, dispersing resources, and raising funds, and all anyone needs is the phone in their pocket. As Katya explains:
“People also donate or transfer money directly to the bank accounts of people or organizations who need help. For example, I heard one story where there was a group of orphans coming from Kharkiv to Dnipro and they planned to stay at a local school. They needed things like clothes, diapers, and food. So a list of things that were needed was sent out and people got together and donated money, or bought what was needed and made sure it got to the school. There is also word of mouth that is making sure everything gets where it needs to go.”
It is impossible to not draw parallels to conflicts during the analog years of the mid-century and earlier. It often took days to get information out of a war zone and mobilize funds to help. Photojournalism, for example, was reliant on slow film processing and printing, as well as the need to ship film out, while written reports had to be typed out and transferred over the wire. Now, smartphones make those images and information immediate and more democratic. Creating “live stories” on social media means that information about anything is delivered directly from creator to audience, often from the point of view of someone experiencing what is happening firsthand. Citizens and professionals alike are capturing information and sharing it with the world at the tap of a finger, forever changing the face of journalism.
And of course, humanitarian wartime aid has gone from posters of Rosie the Riveter to DM’s and PayPal money transfers. In certain capacities, grassroots activated groups are faster and more efficient than the large, more traditional, humanitarian aid organizations, and little of the money is being lost on overhead. This means that grassroots efforts have been able to meet immediate wartime and humanitarian needs while the larger organizations develop and put into place systemic programs for long-term response.
It is heartwarming to see that when times are tough, people use every tool at their disposal to come together and help each other as quickly as possible. Her smartphone has also allowed refugees like Kayta to stay connected and lend what help they can to their friends and family back home. "We just want to protect our land, protect our families, protect everything we have," she says. Technology has made that work all the more possible.
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