Espreso. Global

Euromaidan Warsaw leader: volunteers risk their lives, we can be kidnapped or killed

8 November, 2023 Wednesday

In 2022, the Wprost magazine named Natalka Panchenko, the leader of the Euromaidan Warsaw Ukrainian Association, the most influential activist in Poland. She spoke about volunteering, help from the world, threats, family, and plans after the victory

Last year, Natalka Panchenko organized a blockade on the Polish-Belarusian border. For about a month, Ukrainian, Polish, and Belarusian activists prevented trucks with goods for Russia from passing through. Natalia and her team also helped to get an embargo imposed on Russian oil. Her protest actions are powerful and effective. Natalka Panchenko talks about her current life and plans after the victory in an interview with Sestry, which we publish with the permission of the editorial board.

How does Euromaidan Warsaw, one of the most influential associations of Ukrainians in the EU, help the frontline and Ukraine in general?

The frontline needs a lot of things - drones, vehicles, tactical medicine, etc. Since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, we have provided over UAH 600 million worth of aid. We bought bulletproof vests, helmets, drones, starliners, thermal imagers, and cars. Now we clearly understand what the state provides and what other large foundations do, so we decided on drones, as we need them all the time.

"This war is a war of technology. Where they are not available, people are dying."

Our task is to make sure that as many human lives as possible are saved. Sometimes we get tactical medicine at the request of the military. We have been helping the Armed Forces since 2014. It's just that the scale has increased enormously.  

What does Ukraine need? Ukraine needs faith in it and further support from the world. It will be very difficult now, we are entering the most difficult stage of the war. The stage of despair, the stage of exhaustion. The stage when we need to switch to constant pragmatic work for victory and put aside emotions. The stage when the world has to switch all strategies from short-term to long-term. The stage when there is no quick result. There will be difficult conditions now, and we must learn to work in them.

What are the main goals of your activities? How do you bring victory closer?

We are doing what we have been doing all along. The last major event was on Ukraine's Independence Day, when 30,000 people gathered in the center of Warsaw. The purpose of the action was to remind the world that there is a war in Ukraine and to ask for further support. This is one of the areas of our work. We are constantly preparing information campaigns and actions in different European countries. This is a very important area of advocacy. In order to prevent weapons from reaching Ukraine, Europe needs to be reminded of this on a daily basis. For Ukraine to be taken into account in any negotiations, Europe needs to be reminded of this every day. For an international tribunal to finally be established to convict Putin and Lukashenko, the world needs to be reminded of this.  Therefore, our main task is to keep the focus. And this is becoming increasingly difficult. That is why it is becoming a challenge.

We managed to get the F-16 to Ukraine. When we started our actions, people told us that we would not succeed. But we are succeeding. We do much more than people see. Usually, they see only 10%.

Another area we are working on is supporting the Ukrainian economy and destroying the Russian one. How do you do this? To support the Ukrainian economy, we help our producers enter Polish and other markets and support them with information. We remind people that everything that can be bought from a Ukrainian producer should be bought from a Ukrainian producer - the Ukrainian economy needs money. As for the Russian economy, we are boycotting those businesses that have not yet left the Russian market and boycotting Russian goods. Our analysts have found the official reports of Leroy Merlin in Poland and Auchan, which we have boycotted since the beginning of the full-scale invasion. So, Leroy Merlin's net profit dropped by 66% during the year of the full-scale invasion, and Auchan's by 17%. This is a huge result - and we achieved it only thanks to the caring people who stood with posters at the entrance to these stores every day. We explained to passers-by that these brands have not left Russia and continue to pay huge taxes to the Russian treasury.

Another important area of our work is the creation of an international tribunal for war criminals, as well as achieving justice for all victims of the war. For example, for people who are illegally held in Russian captivity. Their rights are being violated - and neither the UN, nor the OSCE, nor NATO, nor the Red Cross can protect them.

What is the biggest threat to Ukraine's support in the world, particularly in Poland?

There are several threats here. The first is external. For world leaders and their voters, the war is beginning to become a background. They focus on internal problems. This external threat does not depend on us. This is just how world politics works.

The second threat is internal, which is happening in Ukraine and spreading to the world. We are talking about rampant corruption. Everyone is talking about it. As a Ukrainian who works internationally, I'm scared to go on social media. Every day, I see some kind of exposé, corruption schemes, and other enrichment in the war.

"Corruption is a huge enemy for Ukrainians."

The fact that we were supposed to go to the front and didn't cost us our lives. And it also greatly damages our reputation. When the world supports us, it must see that we are doing 100% of what is possible. When it sees that Ukraine is being carved up, the question arises: why should it continue to support us? After every publication, especially in English-language publications, our partners write to me privately: "We are donating to you, but this one bought a villa in Spain, and that one took three million in cash across the border." And I can't explain it to them.  

Ukrainians have been in Europe for 20 months. What is the situation in Poland with adaptation on both sides?

Good. Many people, especially children, speak Polish. Adults find good jobs, earn more, and therefore pay more taxes to the Polish budget. Maybe not every Pole realizes it, but in fact Ukrainians make a huge contribution to the Polish economy. A huge number of refugees who arrived were in different psychological states. Some were able to work, and some were not. Many returned home.

Of course, there may be some misunderstandings. Especially when Russian propaganda gets involved and actively promotes them. I can tell you about the latest example. Georgians had a fight with Poles. Russian propaganda, of course, used this. It was reported that Ukrainians had beaten Poles. The police were forced to issue an official statement about the absence of Ukrainians during the fight.

"For Russian propaganda, one of the main tasks is to show the whole of Europe ungrateful, bad, lazy Ukrainians, to sow enmity between us and other nations."

Russia will continue to try to pit us against each other and set us against each other.

Very often Poles do not understand why some Ukrainians do not work. It is difficult to explain that a person can be in a terrible psychological state. For example, a woman saw her two children stabbed to death in front of her, and her husband was in captivity. She was able to leave with her third child. Is this woman supposed to go to work now? She's definitely not up to it. She will need mental health treatment for a year or more. There were soldiers who had been lying in a pit with corpses for several days during rehabilitation. They did not speak for several months. They cannot work. You have to understand this. People are doing everything they can.

What is your main job? How do you balance your professional life with your social life?

I am a film producer by profession. It is difficult to combine everything, but I manage. My math is as follows: 8 hours I work at my main job, and 10 hours I volunteer. In total - 18 hours. Since the beginning of the full-scale war in Ukraine, I have not yet had a vacation.

How do you manage to combine motherhood and volunteering?

My three-year-old child suffers the most. She sees me very rarely. The only thing that saves me is that sometimes I work from home. At least my daughter sees that I am there. Most of our events take place on weekends, and she often comes with me. I have very little time for my family, for my child. I'm used to this regime because I've been living like this for 10 years. When I met my husband, we went out on dates in between my work. As an old Ukrainian saying goes: "The eyes of the beholder have seen what the eyes have bought." My day is scheduled from 8 am to 8 pm. I have to work hard. After all, volunteering only takes money, but does not add to it.

What risks do you personally face because of your business?

The risks are very high. Many employers refused to hire me because I am a civic activist. Euromaidan Warsaw is an officially registered organization, and we have always been denied grants, officially explaining that we support the Armed Forces and that our actions are too political. That's why I and all our volunteers have to have a second job to have the independence we have. On the one hand, this is a great advantage, but on the other hand, it is a huge risk that we constantly face. In addition, there is a direct risk to my life. I have been threatened more than once. We can be kidnapped or killed. For 10 years, my car has been repeatedly chased, my husband and I have been called, texted, and sent photos of houses with threats that they will be burned. We went to the police. I don't like to share this, it may discourage other volunteers from doing this.

"Most threats were made after the actions that resulted in the Russian economy losing billions, as well as after the decision to provide Ukraine with F-16 aircraft."

People often write threats on social media. We have to work with security experts. But we are not the only ones in the world. A lot of activists face this.

How did the war change your family's life?

Completely. No one sees me. Priorities have changed. The challenges and tasks are completely different than they were in peacetime. But everyone has adapted. We don't see this as a problem, we don't make ourselves victims, because this is how all our friends live. If someone is at the front, we help them. My husband's uncle is at war, and we help him too. We see how hard it is for him, his wife, brothers and sisters. We cannot complain. There are people who have it much harder, but they are holding on, pulling and pulling. We have to help them. If they break down, when those at the frontline break down, then we will all understand what 'hard' means.

What human story during the full-scale war in Ukraine impressed you the most?

I have many stories going through me, but I want to focus on something light. I want to tell the story of Katia. When she was 17, she came to volunteer with us. Together with her mother and sister, she managed to escape the blockade in Mariupol and survived. They experienced real horrors. Her father was in captivity. He is one of the defenders of Azovstal, a border guard. In Warsaw, Katia went to all the rallies, and later became our volunteer. She helped us a lot because she realized that she was doing it for her father's sake, so that he could return from captivity as soon as possible. During the next exchanges, we asked in the chat: "Katia, is your father on the list?". The answer was no. And then after another exchange, she wrote "yes" and disappeared for three days. We understood why she didn't show up. When people don't understand the importance of the campaigns, I always talk about Katia. She went to every action, stood with a poster with her father's portrait every time, talked about him, and was interviewed by hundreds of world publications. She emphasized everywhere: "Every day I have to do something to free my father."

Putin is waging a war of attrition against Ukraine and Europe. What can and should Ukrainians abroad do now to thwart Russia's plans?

Every person, wherever they are, has an impact on what is happening. In different ways, they can show that they care. They can write daily posts about the war going on. They can donate every day. They can refuse to buy products whose proceeds go to the Russian budget. You can organize events that benefit Ukraine. For example, since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, I have not organized a single event for nothing. Everything I do must be of benefit to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. This is my clear position. And it is super easy to implement. Wherever I am invited, I ask about the possibility of collecting for the Armed Forces. If it is, I will come. If not, I won't come. If people do not support Ukraine's victory, it means that we are from different worlds - and I do not want this other world to use me, I just do not have time for that.

What is Putin's ultimate goal? Will he stop at Ukraine?

I don't know exactly what Putin's plan is. What I do know is that if he doesn't stop at Ukraine, the world is completely unprepared for this. As it turned out, there are no institutions in the world that can protect peace at all. There is still no tribunal in the world that would have the competence to convict Putin and other war criminals. Will the war end in Ukraine itself? It is unlikely. Just as it did not end in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. I sometimes have déjà vu when I talk to foreign politicians, especially.

"I remember how we shouted at them in 2014-2015 that Putin would not stop at Crimea. They called us paranoid."

I say "we" because many human rights activists were talking about it then. Now it also seems to me that Putin will not stay only on the borders of Ukraine. But European politicians also say that we are paranoid. I really want us to never have to test this - to defeat Putin in Ukraine, but anything can happen. The world needs to understand that now there is a chance not to test this. We need to provide Ukraine with all the support it needs to defeat Putin on Ukrainian territory. And the question here is whether the world will use its chance or waste it.

Natalia, what should we borrow from the Poles? What do they learn from us?

Poles definitely learn courage from us. And we must learn from the example of the Poles to help those who need it. Without thinking about yesterday or tomorrow. The way they are helping Ukraine, the way they have all joined in, no other country in the world has done as much.

What is needed for Ukrainians to return home from Europe?

All of them will definitely not return. Everything will depend on what Ukraine does to bring them back. I have been living in emigration for 15 years. Unfortunately, Ukraine has done nothing to bring migrants back. We need to think about how to bring business back to Ukraine, how to bring back doctors and IT specialists. This has not happened yet.

Sociologists say that the country will face a crisis after the war - demographic, financial, and psychological. What makes you believe that Ukraine will survive?

There have been crises after all wars, so there is nothing extraordinary here. You just need to understand that it will happen and have a plan to survive it. Ukrainians will definitely survive the crisis.

"We can survive crises and wars. It's in our genes."

The main thing is to defeat the enemy.

What are your professional, as an activist, and personal plans after the Victory?

The number one plan after the victory is a parade in Kyiv. Then - rest. The amount of work I'm doing now and the amount of myself I'm giving is a lot. So after the victory, I want to rest. Then it will be seen. The only priority now is to win. I will think about the rest afterwards.

What kind of country should we build after the war?

Democratic, with absolutely no tolerance for corruption, and open. I would really like people to finally start taking responsibility for themselves, instead of waiting for someone else to do it for them.

The author of the interview is Natalia Zhukovska.

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