ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) – Sparks fly as a circular saw cuts into metal, as welders nearby work frantically to the sound of heavy metal blaring. Sewing machines clatter upstairs as women mark patterns on fabric that is formed into body armor.
An old industrial complex in the southeastern Ukrainian riverside city of Zaporizhzhya has become a hive of activity for volunteers who produce everything from body armor and anti-tank obstacles to camouflage netting, portable heating stoves and rifle bands for Ukrainian soldiers fighting the Russian invasion. A section specializes in vehicles, some armor and others converted into ambulances. Another organizes food and medical supplies.
With the front line about 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the city, some parts of the operation, such as the sewing of body armor, are working around the clock to meet demand. Crowdfunding has raised enough money to buy steel from Sweden, Finland and Belgium, which is lighter than local steel, organizers say, a crucial quality for body armor.
The operation is the brainchild of local celebrity Vasyl Busharov and his friend Hennadii Vovchenko, who owned a furniture workshop. They called it Palianytsia, a kind of Ukrainian bread whose name, according to many Ukrainians, cannot be pronounced well by Russians.
The operation relies entirely on volunteers, who now number over 400 and come from all walks of life, from tailors to craftsmen to lawyers. In addition to those involved in the production, there are also drivers who deliver humanitarian aid and medical equipment purchased with donated funds.
“I feel I’m needed here,” said fashion designer Olena Grekova, 52, who took a short break from marking fabrics for cardigans.
When Russia invaded on February 24, she was in Thailand looking for inspiration for her spring collection. At first, she said, she wondered if it was a sign from God that she would not return. Her husband and two grown sons urged her not to.
“But I made the decision that I had to go back,” she said.
She had known Busharov for years. When she returned home on March 3, she gathered her equipment the next day and by March 5 she was in Palianytsia. Since then she has worked there every day except one, sometimes even at night.
Moving from designing backless ball gowns to making functional body armor was “a new experience for me,” Grekova said. But she sought feedback from soldiers for her designs, to which armor plates have been added. Now she helps produce several versions, including a prototype summer vest.
In another part of the industrial complex, 55-year-old Ihor Prytula was making a new camouflage net, wrapping pieces of dyed fabric through a rope frame. He was a furniture maker by trade and joined Palianytsia at the beginning 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 says.
For Prytula, the war is personal. His 27-year-old son was killed in late March when he helped evacuate people from the northern city of Chernihiv.
“The war and death, it’s bad, believe me, I know this,” he said. “It’s bad, it’s tears, it’s sadness.”
The call for volunteers started immediately when the war started. 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 together we try to protect our city.”
They started making Molovov cocktails in case Russian soldiers advanced on Zaporizhzhya. In 10 days they produced 14,000, he said. They then proceeded to create anti-tank obstacles known as hedgehogs — three large metal beams soldered together at an angle — which are used as part of the city’s defenses. Soon, Busharov and Vovchenko said, they discovered another pressing need: There weren’t enough body armor for the Ukrainian soldiers.
But learning how to make something so specialized wasn’t easy.
“I actually had no ties to the military at all,” said Vovchenko. “It took two days and three sleepless nights to understand what had to be done.”
The team went through different types of steel, making plates and testing them to check bullet penetration. Some offered insufficient protection, others were too heavy to be functional. Then they had a breakthrough.
“It turns out that steel used for car suspension has very good bullet penetration properties,” said Vovchenko, standing in front of four shelves of test plates with varying degrees of bullet damage. The steel car-suspended one showed dozens of bullet marks, but none penetrated.
The vests and everything else made in Palianytsia are provided free of charge to soldiers who request them, as long as they can prove they are in the military. Each plate is numbered and each vest has a label 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 about 2,000 more from across Ukraine.
Vovchenko said they heard about 300 people whose lives were saved by the vests.
Knowing that is “incredibly inspiring and it keeps us going,” he said.
Inna Varenytsia in Zaporizhzhya, Ukraine, contributed.
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