As the time came closer for a carefully planned NomadMania Ukraine Tour Trip that was truly intrepid, the team was feeling anxious. To what extent were they responsible for those joining? And to what extent was NomadMania really doing the right thing by going to a warzone? Was it ethical or not? Courageous or just plain stupid?
Watch our Official NomadMania Ukraine Tour on our youtube channel
The ‘warzone’ itinerary included meeting in Przemysl, Poland, crossing the border to the relative safety of Lviv, and then heading all the way to the East in Kharkiv. After that, they drove for two more hours to Izyum, which was under Russian occupation for seven months in 2022.
Step two took them to the capital, Kyiv, and they visited the towns of Irpin, Bucha, and Borodyanka, which were occupied for all of March 2022. The Kharkiv trip was sold out. Clearly, there were enough intrepid people in NomadMania. But did they know what they were getting themselves into?
Andrii Nimkovych, from the local NGO Rescue Now met the group at Kharkiv station. The main fear was being hit by a rocket – it only takes one minute to reach a target when launched from nearby Belgorod across the border.
There couldn’t be any extended time waiting outside. After quickly visiting the local headquarters – and getting a first glimpse of Kharkiv as a city still very much alive – the group joined the NGO in its three-times-weekly route to the East, providing vital aid to locals whose homes had been lost or destroyed. The road to the East of Kharkiv was perhaps well-paved but ominously empty of traffic the farther away from the city one traveled.
For safety reasons, the group largely bypassed Izyum and headed straight to a village called Kamyanka, five kilometers further. Everything had been flattened. A village without any significance, already poor to begin with, had been mostly reduced to rubble, with the school and hospital destroyed, and unusable car wrecks scattered at the edge of the dirt roads of this forgettable village.
Only 72 of the pre-war 1,000 inhabitants have dared to come back. One wonders if there is any future for a village like this. And yet, the aid was delivered, the locals were happy to see a foreign group, and some even gave out Ukrainian flags as gifts.
In Izyum, the group had two main stops on their Ukraine tour. The local NGO Right Direction, which helps with a wide range of things that locals need, given that the government is too busy fighting the war 40 kilometers away, was delighted to provide a short city tour of a town whose scars will clearly be long-lasting.
Many destroyed blocks had become tombs for people hiding in the basements, with almost every government building shattered or at least partially incapacitated. The ‘I Love Izyum’ sign stands almost ironically amidst the ruins, and the group posed in support.
The other meaningful stop was witnessing grannies sewing camouflage for their soldiers. These women, who could have escaped and complained, chose to stay put or had returned to their hometown and were stoically using their skills for their war effort.
Defiance is the name of the game, not only in Izyum but also in Kharkiv. In front of the shelled Town Council building, right across the square where Lenin once stood, only to be brought down in 2014, there is a bus painted with the word ‘Hugs.’ Bombings continue, such as the one near the group’s hotel just a few days before their arrival.
And yet, both the hotel and the city keep on going, and many of the residents have now returned, even though schools and kindergartens are still closed. The neighborhood of Saltivka, to the northeast, has largely been reduced to rubble.
This will certainly be on people’s ‘Dark Tourism’ Ukraine tour route in years to come, when there will no longer be air raid alerts.. The group experienced one just as it arrived at the Kharkiv railway station, preparing to head west to Kyiv.
Just as a reminder that the dangers are always there and that what they had done in relative safety was certainly not safe at all.
Kyiv may indeed be relatively safe, business as usual, but close to Kyiv are the places that were, in fact, occupied by Russia for a little more than a month in 2022. These small towns are part of what the State Travel Development Agency calls the ‘Memory Route,’ and NomadMania was the first group to pilot the effort to showcase what has happened in a meaningful and sober way.
In Irpin, the bridge was deliberately destroyed by the Ukrainian army, preventing the Russians from advancing to Kyiv. The rubble will be preserved as it is, and a memorial will be built in due time to ensure that nothing is forgotten and that those who perished while trying to flee to safety are always remembered.
Irpin is now almost totally rebuilt, and there is very little sign of what once was. It’s very different from Kamyanka and even Kharkiv; here, it would seem they are already in a post-disaster mode.
Bucha was harrowing. Not the place itself, but rather the photos of the first days of liberation that the group witnessed within the Orthodox Church of the town. The Ukraine tour provided a unique perspective on the region’s recent history. The Vice Mayor’s matter-of-fact explanation of the 33 days of occupation and how a quarter of the people who stayed were essentially executed by the occupiers made this one of the more difficult moments of the trip.
Though Bucha, like Irpin, is much rebuilt, unlike Borodyanka further west, where efforts at reconstruction have yet to fully start. The ‘Memory Route’ ended with a Banksy painting by a bombed-out block and a tour of a makeshift ‘war museum’ which exhibits the horrors that the locals were subjected to and commemorates those from the community who didn’t make it. A local historian has written a book about the occupation, and half the group wanted a copy in solidarity.
It only took five days for almost everybody on board to feel like an honorary Ukrainian and to feel that something important had been achieved through this visit. It wasn’t even all that ‘Dark’.
In many ways, the warm welcome from the locals during our Ukraine tour signified a much-needed journey into the light, a hope that everyone clings to during moments of profound despair. It was a poignant reminder for the ‘fortunate ones,’ those with non-Ukrainian passports who could swiftly ‘escape’ when needed, to appreciate their privilege and gain a deeper understanding of the struggle for freedom.
Thank you to the following participants who joined our tour:
- Sean Brannan 🇬🇧
- Gustav Sorensen🇩🇰
- Allan Have Larsen 🇩🇰
- Khadija Musa 🇰🇪
- Orest Zub 🇺🇦
- Lee Sandberg 🇺🇸
- Per Besson 🇺🇸
- Slawek Muturi 🇵🇱
- Harry Mitsidis 🇬🇷
- Lucy Hsu 🇺🇸
- Dondon Bales 🇵🇭
- Max Leyerer🇦🇹
- Boris Kester 🇳🇱
- Kim Borup Frederiksen 🇩🇰
- Harris Legome 🇺🇸
- Nick Zoa 🇺🇸
- Edward Hotchkiss 🇺🇸
- Miguel Rivera 🇺🇸
- Palle Bo 🇩🇰
- Tony Xutong Wang 🇨🇳🇦🇺
- Reiner Elgetz 🇩🇪
- Laerke Helene Ehlers Mikkelsen 🇩🇰
- Mette Ehlers Mikkelsen 🇩🇰
- Kasia Szaniawska 🇵🇱
- Anne-Sophie Redisch🇳🇴
- Marta Trotsiuk🇺🇦
- Petro Marais 🇿🇦
- Ildiko Szabo🇭🇺
- Maurizio Giuliano 🇮🇹