Five months and 50,000 miles of aid to Ukraine
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CHASIV YAR, Ukraine — The team makes its way east, racing the Range Rover at 100 mph down the E50 toward the Donetsk region under a cold and cloudy sky, Ukrainian metal roaring from the speakers. They pass gas stations and brown and green fields and power lines that run across the vastness and disappear into dark, barren tree lines.
The “Headless Chicken” is the unofficial name for this unlikely pair of travelers: Ukraine native Misha Halushka, 21, and Brazilian-born Clara Magalhães Martins, 32, crossing Ukraine in a dusty borrowed Range Rover packed to the brim with supplies for every sort of humanitarian or aid mission imaginable.
“We call ourselves the Headless Chicken because we’re always moving,” Clara says. Since teaming up roughly five months ago, she and Misha have traveled more than 50,000 miles across Ukraine, visiting cities like Lutsk, Lviv, Kyiv, Kherson, Kharkiv, Kramatorsk, Slovyansk, Izyum, Dnipro — the list goes on.
While the scope of their contribution is limited compared to the billions of dollars in aid that foreign governments and organizations can deliver to Ukraine, their smaller size and personal connections enable them to maneuver around the bureaucratic red tape that can hamper larger NGOs and ensure more timely delivery of items directly needed by civilians and troops. Sometimes that’s sweets requested by soldiers preparing to go to the front lines. Other times, it’s cash assistance for a couple who’ve lost their home in a missile strike, or scarce cancer medication for a patient.
Today, the Headless Chicken — whose official name is The Robin Hood Project — is bound for Chasiv Yar, a small town near the front lines of Ukraine’s embattled east, to verify that a donated generator reached its intended recipient.
As we approach the town, Misha turns left onto a muddy, narrow road lined with barren trees. Ukrainian artillery sits in the tree line, guns pointed up and east. A red sign with a drawing of a skull hangs from a tree, warning readers not to wander into the woods. Artillery guns fire as we make our way down the winding road, passing increasing numbers of military vehicles.
After several minutes, we reach Chasiv Yar. Once home to over 12,000 people, its population has shrunk to half that number. The town looks eerie and desolate under the cold winter sky. A man smoking a cigarette and talking on a phone watches us from a window as we drive. We pass the occasional resident on an afternoon stroll, seemingly unfazed by the booming artillery.
Clara and Misha remain cool and professional as we proceed. With the town regularly hit by Russian artillery and neighboring the heavily contested town of Bakhmut, they know the risks — dozens of volunteer aid and humanitarian workers have been killed since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion last February, according to confirmed reports.
Misha stops at the end of the road, the meet up point where a US-supplied tactical armored vehicle and a few Ukrainian troops are posted. Clara and I dismount and Misha drives off to pick up two local officials. A fighter jet roars by several hundred yards away. It flies low, then climbs, firing anti-missile flares that burn like fireworks as the aircraft disappears beyond a row of trees.
Moments later, Misha returns with Ruslan, the deputy mayor, and Artem, a member of the civil-military administration. They show us the generator. While the town currently has a steady supply of electricity, Russian attacks on critical infrastructure regularly leave parts of Ukraine without it. In the event that Chasiv Yar ends up in the dark, the town will use the generator to power water pumps and cell towers, Artem says.
As artillery booms in the background, he and Clara film a video in front of the generator to thank the companies in Poland that donated the equipment and to provide visual confirmation that it had arrived.
Later, Clara would explain that because some aid workers in Ukraine have misappropriated donations during this war, the visual proof is all-important.
“Unfortunately or fortunately, reporting to the donors is what gives them trust that what they’re sending here is going to where it needs to go and that it has been delivered,” Clara says. “This is what we have to do in order for aid to keep coming.”
Clara and Misha are two of the thousands of aid workers in Ukraine. They fill the gaps where governments and big institutions fall short, delivering whatever is needed, wherever it is needed: clothes and medicine to civilians, body armor and drones to Ukrainian troops.
The two officially teamed up last September, but their relationship goes further back.
An Urgent Call
Before the war began, Clara was an MBA student at HHL Leipzig Graduate School of Management and an intern at a German online bank. When Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, she volunteered her apartment to Brazilians fleeing the country. Other Brazilians living in Europe followed suit, and by the end of the day, Clara and a handful of others were organizing to rescue Brazilians trapped in Ukraine.
The next day, Clara rented a black sedan and drove east to the Polish-Ukrainian border. It was difficult to get through the border, but she finally managed to rescue five people — three Brazilians, a Nigerian, and a Ukrainian woman — and take them to Hungary. As Clara and several other Brazilians took on more rescue missions, the media in Brazil took notice. Within days, Clara became the face of Brazil in Ukraine, a position that would pressure her to stay.
“From the beginning of the war, we became a very big thing in Brazil,” Clara said. “At some point, which was very early on, I realized that it was no longer my option to leave.”
She informed her boss at N26, the online bank where she was an intern, that she needed to take time off work as she was planning to stay in Ukraine to continue doing humanitarian and aid work. To her surprise, the bank eventually decided to pay her for the remaining five months left on her contract.
Everybody finds their path in life, her boss told her. If this is yours, then this is it.
Amid the uncertainty of the early days of the war, Clara was not sure how long she would stay.
“We thought that Ukraine was going to be completely wiped out within the first week,” she said. “I don’t think any of us thought that we would be here a year later.”
As the war dragged on, Clara and her fellow aid workers expanded their operations, moving from rescue missions to humanitarian and aid operations. One day, on her way back from a mission, Clara crossed a checkpoint in the western Ukrainian city of Lutsk. While there, she met Misha, one of the police officers manning the checkpoint.
Over the next several months, the two stayed in touch, sometimes working together. Clara delivered aid to Misha’s police department, and Misha escorted Clara’s convoys when there were reports that volunteer aid and humanitarian workers were being targeted by Russia. The work brought them closer. As time went on, Clara expanded her missions further east while Misha remained in Lutsk, growing frustrated. He longed to do more, to be closer to the eastern front. His options for reaching there, however, were limited. The police force wouldn’t let him work outside of his region, and with his father in the military, enlisting himself was out of the question.
“If my father and I are both in the military and something happens to us,” Misha thought at the time, “who will care for our family?” He was worried about his mother, grandmother, and brother.
So in September, Misha and Clara had a serious conversation about working together and what leaving the police force would mean for Misha. With donations and her own personal savings, Clara would provide a monthly stipend for Misha, albeit one that was “a huge cut from his previous salary,” she said.
“As most small groups operating on the ground, we rely on donations from private donors and funds to keep running,” Clara said. “It’s important to us that we can also help the Ukrainians working with us.”
It was the solution Misha needed.
“I joined [Clara] because my country is at fucking war,” he said, “and I wanted to do something.”
In the roughly five months since, Misha has been able to fulfill the sense of duty that propelled him to join Clara, especially last month in Dnipro when he helped first responders rescue people trapped in apartment buildings following a deadly missile strike.
“What we did might have saved someone’s life,” Misha said.
In the 11 months since they met, Clara and Misha have become close friends. Clara regularly refers to Misha as her “son.” She takes care of him when he gets sick, and she is one of the few people capable of cracking his perpetually serious demeanor. Misha views Clara with the same sort of affection.
“For me, she is like an older sister,” Misha said. “I’m the oldest in my family. I don’t have someone who can teach me basic stuff. I always need to figure it out myself.”
Misha doesn’t talk much about his feelings, especially concerning his father, who joined the military when the full-scale war began. But spend enough time with him and you’ll get a sense of just how important his family is and how it shapes the choices he makes.
“I understand why he did this,” Misha said about his father’s military service. “There are a million men like my father who went because they want to protect our motherland, families, people who live near us.”
At the start of the war and with his father away, Misha would sometimes go home after 24-hour police shifts to help his family with farm work.
Misha’s father had been sent east to Lyman and Severodonetsk, sites of intense fighting. Out of the 450 people in his battalion that went, only 200 returned, Misha said. The fighting left Misha’s father traumatized, and he spent time in a psychiatric hospital.
After finishing the video in Chasiv Yar, Misha and Clara say their goodbyes to Artem and Ruslan. We load back into the Range Rover and drive away, heading for dinner and a night’s rest in Kramatorsk, a city about 12 miles away. With artillery still booming, Misha drives quickly. The late afternoon sun casts an orange haze over the countryside as he speeds down bumpy, muddy roads pocked with watery potholes.
Misha follows directions on his phone from Google Maps — which he and Clara have nicknamed “Google Traps” for its sometimes lethal directions. The software cannot handle the sporadic nature of navigation here, where a road may be controlled by friendly forces one day and hostile troops the next, or a bridge you’re supposed to cross has just been demolished.
Despite initial confusion about the route, we make it to Kramatorsk without any issues. After a hearty dinner, we look for lodging, but every place is either closed or fully booked. Clara decides we’ll head to Kharkiv, a city three hours north.
As we drive, passing destroyed and abandoned villages, Misha’s mom calls to tell him that his father has been discharged from the military and has returned home.
Misha hangs up and tells Clara the news. Then he’s quiet.
“I can’t show my emotion,” Misha says, finally.
Clara knows he can’t, or that he won’t, so she will. “I’m excited for you,” she says. “I’ll show emotion for you. Your dad is home!”