By ELENA BECATOROS
ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) — Sparks fly as a circular saw slices through metal, while nearby welders work feverishly to the sound of heavy metal. Upstairs, sewing machines rattle as women mark designs on garments fashioned into bulletproof vests.
A former industrial complex in the river town of Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine has become a hive of activity for volunteers, producing everything from body armor and anti-tank barriers to camouflage netting, to portable heating stoves and rifle slings for Ukrainian soldiers fighting the invasion of Russia. A section specializes in vehicles, armoring some, transforming others into ambulances. Another organizes food and medical deliveries.
With the frontline about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the city, some sections of the operation, such as body armor sewing, are operating around the clock in shifts to keep up with demand. The crowdfunding raised enough money to buy Swedish, Finnish and Belgian steel, which organizers say is lighter than local steel, a crucial quality for body armor.
The operation is the brainchild of local celebrity Vasyl Busharov and his friend Hennadii Vovchenko, who ran a furniture manufacturing business. They named it Palianytsia, a type of Ukrainian bread whose name, according to many Ukrainians, cannot be pronounced correctly by Russians.
The operation relies entirely on volunteers, who today number more than 400 and come from all walks of life, from tailors to craftsmen and lawyers. In addition to those involved in production, there are also drivers who deliver humanitarian aid and medical equipment purchased with donations.
“I feel like I’m needed here,” said fashion designer Olena Grekova, 52, taking a brief break from marking fabric for vests.
When Russia invaded on February 24, she was in Thailand seeking inspiration for her spring collection. At first, she says, she wondered if it was a sign from God that she shouldn’t come back. Her husband and two adult sons urged her not to.
“But I made the decision to go back,” she said.
She had known Busharov for years. Arriving home on March 3, she gathered her equipment the next day and on March 5 was in Palianytsia. She has worked there every day since, except one, sometimes even at night.
Going from designing backless prom dresses to creating functional body armor was “a new experience for me,” Grekova said. But she sought feedback from soldiers for her designs, to which armor plates were added. Now she helps produce several versions, including a prototype summer vest.
In another section of the industrial complex, Ihor Prytula, 55, was busy making a new camouflage netting, wrapping pieces of dyed fabric through a string frame. A cabinetmaker by trade, he joined Palianytsia at the start of the war. He had some military experience, he said, so it was easy to get feedback from soldiers on what they needed.
“We speak the same language,” he said.
For Prytula, war is personal. His 27-year-old son was killed in late March while helping to evacuate residents of the northern town of Chernihiv.
“War and death is bad, believe me, I know that,” he said. “It’s bad, it’s tears, it’s heartbreak.”
The call for volunteers was launched at the start of the war. Busharov announced his project on Facebook on February 25. The next day, 50 people showed up. “The next day 150 people, the next day 300 people. … And all together we try (to) protect our city.
They started by making Molovov cocktails in case Russian soldiers advanced on Zaporizhzhia. In 10 days, they produced 14,000, he said. Then they turned to producing anti-tank obstacles called hedgehogs – three large metal beams welded together at angles – used as part of the city’s defenses. Soon, Busharov and Vovchenko said, they discovered another pressing need: there were not enough bulletproof vests for Ukrainian soldiers.
But learning to make something so specialized wasn’t easy.
“I was not related to the military at all,” Vovchenko said. “It took two days and three sleepless nights to figure out what to do.”
The team went through different types of steel, making plates and testing them for bullet penetration. Some did not offer sufficient protection, others were too heavy to be functional. Then they had a breakthrough.
“It turns out that the steel used for the suspension of the cars has very good properties for bullet penetration,” Vovchenko said, standing in front of four shelves of test plates with varying degrees of bullet damage. The one made of car suspension steel showed dozens of bullet marks but none penetrated.
Vests and everything made in Palianytsia are provided free of charge to soldiers who request them, provided they can prove that they are in the army. Each plate is numbered and each vest has a tag indicating that it is not for sale.
So far, Palianytsia has produced 1,800 body armor in two months, Busharov said, adding that there was a waiting list of around 2,000 more from across Ukraine.
Vovchenko said he heard of up to 300 people whose lives were saved by the vests.
Knowing that is “incredibly inspiring and keeps us going,” he said.
Inna Varenytsia in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, contributed.
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