In a potholed backstreet on the outskirts of Lviv in western Ukraine, Ostap Datsenko's workshop is cutting, welding and painting around the clock to keep the nation's soldiers on the move in the war with Russia.
“The main thing they want is for the vehicle to be ready as soon as possible,” he says, beside a pick-up truck that he is reinforcing with armour plates and is about to paint camouflage green.
“A Ukrainian benefactor has just bought 100 used cars from various countries for our military, so now we expect two vehicles to come here every day to be prepared for service,” says Datsenko.
“Some units just need any transport urgently, so we give their car a paint job and they take it away. But others want more, such as armour to protect weak spots like the radiator and the rear windscreen of the cab, or a turret for a heavy machine gun to be mounted on the bed of a pick-up truck.”
Datsenko (31) also fabricates smaller metal gadgets for soldiers and bomb-disposal crews to make life on the front line a little easier and safer, and he is working on innovative ideas for body armour and other equipment in his small but meticulously tidy workshop.
“War is a big lottery. Someone asked me why I was so detailed in painting camouflage on a vehicle, when we have no idea if it will even make it to the front line. Well, I think the big picture is made up of lots of pixels, little details like this, and each one can add safety or efficiency and make a difference,” he says.
He is painstaking in his work, but not sentimental about the vehicles he hands over to the military. “Usually the feedback that soldiers give us is that our vehicle got destroyed. What can you do? It’s war,” says Datsenko.
“One of the soldiers’ main concerns is how to get the wounded quickly from the front line to a safe place. So we’ve started adapting old minivans, putting in shelves for medical supplies, benches for doctors and lots of lights so that they can work on a casualty. We sent three of those to the front line yesterday. They seemed really happy to get them.”
Datsenko works for free, as part of a vast volunteer effort to help Ukraine’s military and millions of civilians displaced by Russia’s invasion, which unites people across the country of 42 million people with the Ukrainian diaspora and other supporters abroad.
“This is my contribution. I would like to do more if I could but space is an issue,” he says, as two ageing pick-up trucks with British number plates and an old Swedish ambulance wait for attention in the rain outside his workshop. When a sudden boom thunders outside, Datsenko barely reacts.
“Don’t worry about that,” he says. “It’s just test firing at the military factory nearby.” Datsenko was finishing off his first pick-up truck for the army last month when he heard the sound of a jet engine closing in.
I was concussed and bleeding from my nose and ears
“I looked up and saw a missile flying along, parallel to the ground about 200m in the air. It was very close, close enough for me to see its fins. I thought missiles flew in an arc, but this flew straight and then just dropped and exploded about 150m away,” he recalls.
“I was standing on the pick-up and the huge explosion blew me off. I was concussed and bleeding from my nose and ears. The workshop was full of dust from the blast wave and all the tools were blown off the wall. I found pieces of the rocket on the roof of the building.”
Cars from Ireland
No one at the military plant was hurt in the attack, says Datsenko, whose workshop is one of several that are now preparing donated vehicles for Ukraine's soldiers, who seem to prefer versions of the Nissan Patrol and Mitsubishi L200, he adds. "It's good to see how glad soldiers are to get a vehicle that seemed unattainable for them a few days before. It's hard to put a price on that," he says.
With life expectancy for vehicles on the front line being so short, Datsenko says Ukraine’s forces needs a constant flow of donated cars from abroad, which he and colleagues in other workshops are ready to prepare for military life. Including used cars from Ireland? “Absolutely,” he says.