• Mon. Dec 5th, 2022

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‘I must do something’: Inside the massive volunteer effort in a Ukrainian library

Near the corner of the square, inside an ornate building that now houses a youth library, volunteers convene to create camouflage nets for soldiers on the front lines. Built in the 17th century with walls carrying ornamental painted trim and vaulted ceilings, this library has made room for one of the many beating hearts of volunteer work and Ukrainian patriotism within a city that’s served as a relative safe haven from the horrors of Kyiv, Bucha and the eastern front.

“I was searching for something I could do to help. While I have a job, I work, I pay taxes, that’s not enough in wartime,” said Nataliia Tymovska, 27, an IT professional who fled from Kyiv to Lviv with her mother and boyfriend in February. “I’m not ready to take a weapon — at least not now, and no one knows what will happen next — but I am healthy, I have two legs, two hands, and I must do something for a Ukrainian victory. It’s my country, and who else should do it instead of me?”

In this library, where locals still borrow books and which once housed royalty and then a seminary, volunteers have made more than 500 nets that collectively stretch over 32,000 square feet.

Strips of cloth used by volunteers to make camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military sit in boxes at the Roman Ivanychuk Regional Youth Library on April 12, 2022, in Lviv, Ukraine.
Strips of cloth used by volunteers to make camouflage nets for the Ukrainian military sit in boxes Tuesday at the Roman Ivanychuk Regional Youth Library in Lviv, Ukraine.Brendan Hoffman for NBC News

Beer boxes and other containers on the floor are filled to the brim with strips of green, black, gray, beige and brown cloth. Locals donate curtains, blankets and bed sheets for the effort. The library sends any white or blue cloth they receive to another location, where it is dyed to an earth-toned color before it is cut into small pieces.

Across two rooms, a mix of chairs surround empty bookcases nailed together by thin pieces of wood forming multiple aisles. Volleyball nets and other types of netting are thrown over the top, and locals from Lviv, as well as those displaced from cities and towns destroyed or threatened by the Russian military, quickly tie the strips of cloth to the nets to create a camouflaged tapestry that borders on artwork.

Between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m., from Monday to Saturday, Ukrainian volunteers of various ages, backgrounds and professions tie hundreds of individual cloth strips in an effort to keep their soldiers safe. On Sundays, they work from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

“It really functions as a community that brings together both residents of Lviv and those who had to relocate here because they were fleeing violence,” said Tetiana Tkachuk, 73, a volunteer who has a long career in Lviv as a chemist in the petrochemical industry. “It’s very rewarding to have these two different groups of people work together on a common purpose.”

That feeling transcends age.

Mykola Kalko, 18, who volunteered here during his tenure at the Ukrainian Leadership Academy — a social engagement program for young Ukrainians — said those who work here have created a family atmosphere as they engage in “noble” work to protect service members.

A camouflage net made by volunteers for the Ukrainian military hangs on a rack at the Roman Ivanychuk Regional Youth Library on April 12, 2022, in Lviv, Ukraine.
A camouflage net made for the Ukrainian military by volunteers hangs on a rack Tuesday at the Roman Ivanychuk Regional Youth Library in Lviv, Ukraine.Brendan Hoffman for NBC News

“There are those who feel like supporting the army may instigate or create more violence, but doing something like making nets is actually the opposite,” Kalko said. “It saves lives. It protects people. It does not use or facilitate more violence.”

Rather than sending this ruffled drapery directly to the Ukrainian military, however, the library and its volunteers find out what soldiers might be in need of camouflage and send it to them as directly as possible. They partner with humanitarian groups, locals willing to make the drive and others to ship the nets in cars, in trucks and by rail.

Each one comes with a hand-sewn Ukrainian flag as “a good omen” that a few volunteers stitch in a backroom.

Viktoria Havrilenko, who fled to Lviv with her son, and Viktoria Mashtalir, a school librarian, both of them 48, led that effort with pins and a sewing machine here Tuesday.

Viktoria Mashtalir, left, and Viktoria Havrilenko sew flags of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army at the Roman Ivanychuk Regional Youth Library on April 12, 2022, in Lviv, Ukraine.
Viktoria Mashtalir, left, and Viktoria Havrilenko sew flags of Ukraine and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army at the Roman Ivanychuk Regional Youth Library in Lviv, Ukraine, on Tuesday.Brendan Hoffman for NBC News

Havrilenko echoed the sentiment of many: This work serves as a refuge from the grisly news of the war that locals see constantly on television and on their smartphones. It has created a community for longtime residents and those new to Lviv.

“Here I can keep my mind occupied to good work and not the horrific news of what’s happening in my country,” said Havrilenko, who came to Lviv about a month ago from Zaporizhzhia, a central Ukrainian city struck early in the war by Russian attack.

The library also provides food and drinks to people who come through. Art hanging on the wall of the front room displays images of Ukrainian patriotism or Russian treachery. One poignant picture shows the bloody silhouette of Russian President Vladimir Putin, a hammer cleaving his head and a sickle plunged into his eye.