World Jewish Relief in action on a road littered with tanks

Paul Cainer follows Oleksii Tolkachov as he helps Ukrainian civilians left without food, electricity and heating


It was a deadly part of the arsenal of Putin’s forces as they invaded Ukraine.

But a Soviet-made T-72 tank lay burnt out by the side of the road as a World Jewish Relief (WJR) aid worker passed by on his way to provide desperately needed aid.

Oleksii Tolkachov, 39, is helping civilians who have been left without food, electricity and heating in Bucha and Irpin, satellite towns north of Kyiv which were occupied by the invaders until recently.

He told the JC: “Both Ukraine’s army and these Russians use this model, but we know this was a Russian tank because of the Vs painted on it.”

The letters V and Z were used on the invading army’s war machines as they rolled in towards Kyiv from the north and met stiff resistance.

Just behind the tank, 48-year-old Oleksandr sifted through what remains of his house after its front rooms were all but completely destroyed in a tank battle.

He quipped: “Look on the bright side. I’ve only got half a house so the heating bills next winter will be cheaper.”

He refused the offer of aid, saying others who are more needy should get it.

Further down the road a few locals clambered over the hulks and gun barrels of five destroyed Russian tanks.

Inside Bucha itself, the streets had been cleared of the bodies of civilians killed by the Russians. Half-obliterated tanks lining the road to the rail station were cleared away by Ukrainian trucks to be used as scrap metal.

Oleksii drew up alongside a group cooking borsht on an open fire outside their apartment block. He offered a five-year-old girl, who was riding past on a bike with stabilisers, a bar of chocolate.

Following the invasion, thousands of residents have been left sheltering in basements while temperatures have plunged to minus 10 centigrade and electricity, water and gas have been cut.

At the apartment block’s entrance, windows had been shattered “for fun” by the invaders’ gunfire, and a secure door had been riddled with bullet holes.

In one apartment, Oleksii visited 83-year-old Ludmila Yurina. She was wrapped in several thick coats and wore a maroon headscarf, but was still shivering.

When the Russian attack started her son fled to Kyiv and disappeared. Alone, and only able to move by wheelchair, she could not shelter in the communal basement, and instead had to stay in a corner of her main room during all the shelling and bombing.

When the attacks began, her neighbour two doors down, a 33-year-old actress called Nadia Samokhvalova, was in Kyiv but she returned the moment she heard the Russians had pulled out.

Nadia told the JC: “Ludmila is like my grandmother. I was really worried about her life. I rushed over here to bring her food and medicines.

“As an actress I have no work in a war situation. But I can help people.” From posts on her Facebook account, she’s raised about £5,000.

She said: “That’s huge here, enough to buy a small car. With the money I buy food and medicine and help whoever I can.” She fears Russia has left an awful legacy. “It was really terrible. All Ukrainians now will hate them for many years in the future.”

At a nearby house, it was too late to bring help, Oleksii told the JC. Locals said that the house owner and his 15-year-old grandson were shot dead because the teenager took photos of Russian soldiers on a smartphone. The grandfather’s shoes lay beside a shallow grave.

Oleksii said he will return to support those who still need his aid, Jews and non-Jews alike.

On the way back to Kyiv, in a field of mud, was a series of white cardboard signs on sticks.

One of them simply read: “April 09 2022”, and “ostanki”, meaning, “remains”.

He or she was another unknown victim of this senseless war.

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