Soldiers abandon defence of an airport in Luhansk after heavy clashes with what Kiev says are Russian tanks.
Kiev, Ukraine – Every day volunteers stand with clear plastic collection boxes in Maidan, the scene of deadly protests that eventually escalated into full-blown war.
People walking past flower-strewn steps in Independence Square or along the memorial-lined streets leading to it pause and dig into their pockets for small bills.
The donations are for the Ukrainian army in the conflict-ridden east, and for the military hospital in the capital, Kiev. Funds are being raised by a plethora of volunteers who have stepped up where they saw the government failing.
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“Volunteers play such an important role in making defence-related decisions at the moment, and I think it is pretty unique for Ukraine,” David Arakhania, an IT executive who founded the crowdfunding website The People’s Project, told Al Jazeera.
The effort even funded the Ukraine army’s first drone last year.
“[Volunteers] kind of replaced the ill or broken governmental functions during the beginning of the conflict in the ATO,” he said, referring to the Anti-Terrorism Operation zone, the term used by the government for the region where Russian-backed separatists have taken territory.
“About 45 percent of material supplies in the ATO, everything besides weapons, were supplied by volunteers as a direct source. One of the strengths of the volunteer movement is that you cannot kill it or destroy it because it does not report to anybody.”
A truce signed in February between the two sides fighting in eastern Ukraine remains tenuous. More than 6,100 people have been killed in the year-old conflict – a death toll that continues to rise despite the ceasefire.
Time of need
Ukraine’s economy, meanwhile, is in serious trouble with a seven percent contraction in the first quarter of 2015. Inflation has surged with food prices skyrocketing 53.4 percent this year.
You get these calls from the guys at the front saying they don't have anything and they are having to buy their own kit.
In its first six months, The People’s Project raised $5m with an average donation of just $2 – giving an idea of the number of Ukrainians willing to donate to the army despite severe economic hardships.
“The army used to be a very closed system, only a small part of the Ukrainian population was involved, and now every single citizen has at least one guy who they personally know who was sent to the army,” Arakhania said.
“That’s why you start to care about the situation, you get these calls from the guys at the front saying they don’t have anything and they are having to buy their own kit.”
Arakhania also works as the head of a volunteer council that advises the Ministry of Defence. He said the government response to the soldiers’ plight is getting better.
“One reason volunteers came to work with the Ministry of Defence is that we are kind of tired of replacing its function, and we wanted to fix the system to make the MoD fulfil its primary functions,” he said.
Despite improvements and the government’s recent announcement it will increase defence spending to 90 billion hryvnia($3.9bn) this year, many Ukrainians see it as their duty to donate whatever they can to the front-line troops to make up for financial shortfalls.
“My parents don’t work any more, but still they give money every month,” said Peter, a veteran and now a fisherman from Odessa, who only gave one name.
“I give money as well. If I didn’t then the soldiers would be using the same equipment as when I did national service during the Soviet Union. When the war first started, they went to the front with old Soviet weapons.”
One of the many groups working to bring supplies to the east is Phoenix Wings.
Headquartered in a warehouse in Kiev, it has provided soldiers with clothes, first-aid kits, medical training and food since the conflict began. Volunteers deliver the goods, driving each week from Kiev to the conflict zone in supply-packed vehicles.
“Last year we took a military transport aircraft and fitted it with mobile medical equipment, and right now it makes trips from the east to Kiev with soldiers that need help. Right now, we are equipping another aircraft,” Phoenix Wings coordinator Antonina Buzilio told Al Jazeera.
Phoenix Wings even has plans to launch a mobile laundry – giving soldiers rare access to clean clothing.
“We will only stop this [work] when the soldiers do not need our help any more, and when the hospitals are fully equipped,” she said. “People can see on our website exactly where their money goes.”
It is this transparency that has developed trust among the public and volunteer groups, and led many people to volunteer themselves.
“I volunteered because I understood that our previous lives would not return quickly, and that I could do something to help,” Buzilio said.
“These are donations from our hearts and this is the power of Ukraine – not weapons but its people. Because of this togetherness we have shown, I think everything will be good in this country.”
Follow Philippa H Stewart on Twitter: @Flip_Stewart