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  • noahchonlee

When I Drove To The Ukraine War

Last year I drove to the eastern front of the Ukraine War to deliver medical supplies. This post focuses on that experience. For a post about my first days in Ukraine including seeing a kamikaze drone being shot down mid-dive above my head see here: https://www.noahchonlee.com/post/my-first-days-in-ukraine

[Warning: Graphic content]


Meeting Rev Miller, a web3 Founder in Kyiv


May 28, 2023: After a sleepless night on a bumpy train ride to Kyiv, I met web3 founder Rev Miller and learned about how he and his co-founder CJ had chosen to return to Ukraine despite being young males who would not be permitted to leave. They returned because "if we don't stay, who will?" See this video about their decision and why crypto can be essential when banking systems fail.

With Rev and web3 friends after sharing lunch together


Rev has raised millions in aid for mothers and their kids affected by the war through crypto and also helped organize a web3 summit in Kyiv even as the city was being bombed. Vitalik Buterin, the visionary behind the second-largest blockchain in the world Ethereum also joined. As Rev said, "We want to show the world that bombs will not stop the builders." At the time, I was not a blockchain startup founder and was new to the Ethereum community, but these meetings inspired me to be a part of this ecosystem.

Kyiv Day

I discovered that I coincidentally arrived precisely on "Kyiv Day" celebrating the 1500+ years of history of the city (which is older than Moscow.) I met volunteers crowdfunding for their battalion by a memorial of flags for fallen soldiers.

Meeting volunteer soldiers next to a field of flags for soldiers who have died in battle


In the midst of the flags of the fallen I found the picture of one American soldier born the same year as me.


Walking with the group from lunch, we wandered through a display of defeated Russian tanks. I found it a surreal experience to listen to the street musicians as kids climbed over the tanks like they were a playground.

Defeated Russian tanks brought back from the front lines


Russian troops had pushed right up to a few minutes drive from here. As I saw the families and kids around me, I felt that a peaceful life and safety for one's family is both precious and vulnerable.



I also discovered some other displays of Ukrainian pride with a hint of humor.


A photoshop poster in Kyiv showing Putin being put on trial

Sleeping in a Bio-Experiment Lab

My Ukrainian friend Anton Kulaga, a longevity researcher and AI builder I met in Zuzalu, connected me with Dmytro Krasnienkov who runs a bio experiments lab and kindly offered me a place to stay there.

I stayed in a lab where my host works with gene therapy including injecting modified rat semen into rat testes to see if their kids would glow. Basically, I slept in the closet of a mad scientist.



I found the tour of the lab equipment fascinating. Later, walking the halls alone at night in the flickering lights was quite the experience.



My bed was next to a surgery chair or whatever it's called.



Weeks before my friend Svitlana Midianko had connected me with Viktoriia Honcharuk, a former Morgan Stanley analyst who quit her job to return to her country as a volunteer medic on the frontlines. Viktoriia joined our scheduled call despite being in an emergency hospital station because an explosion the day before had collapsed the roof of her shelter on top of her. She explained that the medics tend to be targeted and apologized if she was talking incoherently because she was still concussed.


That evening of my second day in Ukraine, I received word from Viktoriia about a list of medical supplies and a location where we could meet outside of Donetsk.


I launched a crowdfunding campaign to deliver the supplies to Viktoriia and sent a wave of messages to my network. I structured the crowdfunding campaign as a refundable prize meaning it would be awarded upon showing evidence of a successful delivery and refunded within a one week deadline if the delivery did not happen, thereby giving more confidence to funders.


Having slept only a few hours over the last couple days, I rested well including through the noises of bombings which my host informed me were loudly heard during the night. Thus ended my second day in Ukraine.

Dimi the Scientist and His Son Dimi

Dmytro later invited me to stay with him at his apartment with his wife and his two year old son Dimi instead of the lab.

At dinner, 2 year old Dimi would lift up his carrots and pretend they were flying around while saying, "whoooosh..."

I smiled, thinking he was pretending they were airplanes.

Then he dropped the carrots on the table and shouted, "boom!! BOOM! KABOOM!"


His parents explained that he had learned to imitate the bombings even before he had learned to talk. I didn't cry about this until many months later when I began sobbing uncontrollably on a plane ride as I watched the newest Hunger Games movie and found myself remembering this for some reason.


That night Dmytro woke me up so we could all huddle together on the floor of the bathroom during an airstrike. At one point I felt a rumble as something hit close enough that the door shook. I felt the others shudder as we were pressed shoulder to shoulder. At the time, I felt rather calm or somehow numb. The bombings continued on most nights, though the American anti-missile patriot system shot down most projectiles.


Finding the Supplies

I continued my posts and messages for fundraising including requesting Viktoriia make this video thanking donors for their support.


A massive thank you to: All the donors who contributed with a mix of fiat and eth

Rev paying for the medical supplies and then I reimbursed him with crypto (the only way available for me to send him money) Serhii for his driving and help sourcing supplies



Supplies I spent the funds on:

https://zahist-torg.com.ua/ua/taktychna-medytsyna-ta-hihiiena/plivka-oklyuzijna-hyfin-chest-seal

30 hyfin chest seals


https://zahist-torg.com.ua/ua/taktychna-medytsyna-ta-hihiiena/dzhgut-turniket-cat-tourniquet-gen-7-original

20 Gen 7 CAT tourniquettes


15 SICH tourniquettes


https://zahist-torg.com.ua/ua/taktychna-medytsyna-ta-hihiiena/krovospinnij-zasib-quikclot-combat-gauze-z-fold

30 quikclot combat gauze Z fold


Car rental, eye protection, helmet, vest, boots, knife, small medical pouch for myself. Met another volunteer from Brazil also stocking up on supplies in the store.



A Trip to Kharkiv

I drove with Rev and visited his wonderfully kind friends and family outside of Kharkhiv only 40km from the Russian border. I found myself falling in love with the beautiful forests and lakes in Ukraine. Thank you to his mother for the warm welcome and for packing me wonderful home-cooked meals before my journey. In the morning, I began my drive towards Donetsk.

Driving into the Donbas

The marks of the war quickly became more intense. At all the military checkpoints I simply showed my American passport and explained that I was a volunteer and the soldiers would wave me through. I generally felt high-spirited as I blasted music through the speakers, but the moment I was most shaken occurred when I saw a toy truck left out in the middle of the destruction in a town called Izyum. There were memorial pictures nearby.



In the midst of this, I noticed civilians enthusiastically continuing their lives. I saw a farmer's market vibrant with energy in Izyum. I remember my friends elsewhere in the world being shocked that I would drive towards a warzone, yet locals here were choosing every day to stay in their home continuing their lives.


A Pack of Wild Dogs and Kind Strangers

As it grew dark, I stopped in a small town and wandered out in search of a place to sleep. I noticed some silhouettes and a growling sound and realized a pack of dogs were creeping towards me. I clapped my hands and shouted at them, expecting them to run away, but they only hesitated a second before coming closer. I started backing up and they kept advancing. I started jogging while keeping my eyes on them, and they also picked up their pace. We both started moving faster, and I was readying to break into a full sprint when a car pulled to a stop in front of me and the dogs ran off. The car was just a metal shell with doors missing, filled with trash, and the windows either nonexistent or consisting of tape. A skinhead covered in tattoos wearing a black wife beater and ripped up denim shorts stepped out of the vehicle and said something to me in Ukrainian. After pulling up Google Translate, I discovered he was asking if I was doing okay. After a brief explanation, his girlfriend stepped out of the car and kindly offered me her seat as her boyfriend drove me to a couple spots to ask around for an available bed until I met a sweet elderly lady who hosted me in her motel.


The Delivery

The next day in Selydove within a half hour drive of the frontline battles, I found a bustling town with families walking the streets and hanging out in the parks. It felt that everyone lived shockingly normally considering that if one battle goes wrong a short drive away then all these families could suddenly be in the midst of intense fighting as the front moves.

It felt especially surreal when I had lunch with one soldier who just came back from an insane world of people dying from bleeding out because they only had cheap, poor-quality Chinese tourniquettes that would break. And yet we sat peacefully eating food in a restaurant as kids played outside, and I knew he would be going back soon.


In that town, I met volunteers including Anita from Portugal, Nick Duckworth from Colorado (https://www.instagram.com/nduck_inukraine/), Mary McAuliffe a journalist from the USA now living in Israel (https://www.instagram.com/marym.mcauliffe/), and Viktoriia Honcharuk from Ukraine.


They were out of their goddamn minds crazy people and I loved it. They were a crew worthy of any TV show as they chugged energy drinks and made raucous jokes with one another in a way that only people who regularly face death know how to.


I drove out in a car with Mary and Viktoriia wearing my helmet and bulletproof vest as they took me along the backroads by the battlefront. No videos for security reasons.


My favorite moment was when Viktoriia pointed to a spot of open field and said, "You see that? When we drive through there that's when the Russians can see us. Put your helmet on," then she turned up the volume blasting "Highway to Hell" on the speakers and floored the accelerator.


I successfully delivered the supplies on Jun 03, and I also subtly handed some candles and a box of pastries behind my back to Mary for Viktoriia's birthday which was coming up next week.


Within a couple weeks, Viktoriia informed me that they had used up all the supplies I brought treating 45 injured and without a doubt saving multiple lives.


She also sent this message to give insight into their experience...


"Let me put a picture in your head:

We evacuate at night, it’s complete darkness, it’s hot as hell, you jump in a tiny “armoured” vehicle, go to zero line, get as many guys as you can fit, on the road you try to do anything at all in complete darkness (no light is allowed), it’s you and a lot of guys who are screaming out of pain, puking, bleeding all over you and you barely have space to even stand on your knees. Then you get to your ambulance which had to drive 800 meters from russian positions, no armored protection or anything because there are too many injured and your ambulance had to risk everything to try to save as many lives as possible. You sheet out of the stupid MTLB. I ask to take the hardest injury. The rest goes in the other ambulance. We carry the guy to my ambulance. He is bleeding heavily. He is big, we can barely fit him in our stretches. We drive on the worst possible roads, the guy keeps jumping up and down on the stretches on the bumps on the road, anti tank missiles are hitting the road we drive on. We are allowed to use the headlamps but we still barely see anything. The guys keeps bleeding. He had two fake tourniquets when we got him, we put the good ones. He is still bleeding from everywhere. I put my fingers in his wounds and tamponate them to try to stop the bleeding. He still bleeds. He has no pulse on his arms. He only reacts to pain. We can’t put an IV in 7 times in a row, his veins are gone. I look at his foot injury, a piece of his bone falls on the ground. He keeps bleeding. The roads are shit. It’s hot as hell, im wearing full body armour and trying to hold the injured with my body so he doesn’t fall off the stretchers. We somehow manage to give him IV. He is still bleeding and unconscious. It’s hot as hell and dark. My commander tries to reach me by radio but he doesn’t hear me back. We arrive to handover point to brigade medics. They are not there, they are all busy and the closest car will be in 40 min. My injured is dying. I close the ambulance and we drive straight to a stabilisation point, we drive as fast as we can, the step on our car literally falls off on the way when we make a sharp turn. We get to a stab point, the guy is still alive. He regains consciousness thanks to the medicine we gave him on the way. You get to stab point completely soaked in your own sweat and his blood. You hand over the injured and run back to the ambulance because you need to drive back and do the same."


I interviewed her when we met and here is one short clip:


And the full interview:


During a stop on my way back westward, I idiotically locked the keys inside the car. I called the rental company to see if they could unlock it remotely and they responded, "we can't, and why does our vehicle tracker show that you are right next to the front lines?" I gave them an honest answer and thankfully they decided not to press charges or add extra fines.

The kindly elderly lady running the motel where I stayed the previous night eventually called a neighbor who helped me get the door open. The elderly lady refused the extra pay I tried to offer her.


It was one of many ever-abundant examples that I'm not that smart, but I just go after whatever I think is important to do and then kind people help me out when I end up making mistakes along the way.

Psychological Considerations

Since reading Tribe by Sebastian Junger at around age 15, I intended to experience the following four things: -Living with indigenous tribes in the Amazon Jungle (see here) -Life in the military (I'll write about my time with the Marine Corps in the future) -A natural disaster struck area where neighbors formerly separated by economic class all have lost their homes (still have yet to experience this) -Warzones (Ukraine and Syria though I still have yet to be in the midst of active firefights) The questions in my mind for years include: Do we need an enemy to feel united? What can remind us that we are designed as humans to pull together as neighbors to take care of one another? Is there a positive way of uniting towards building something together without something horrible happening? My short time there seemed to confirm that people were not hardened and unkind or unwelcoming after seeing so much conflict. People were quite kind, helpful, and there was a general sentiment of a sense of purpose and solidarity. Of course, this comes at a horrible cost. As I cried with one mother there who was worried if her husband would be called to war, this was in sharp clarity. I am considering the hypothesis that everyone ought to have a tribe, and every tribe should have an enemy. That enemy can be an anthropomorphized concept such as the devil or the way the Ethereum ecosystem describes the idea of bad coordination as Moloch - an enemy which we must slay through collaboration. Or the enemy can be the struggle and difficulty of building a cabin together which is how Jon Hillis and others have formed a community in Texas that has expanded to a global network of interconnected homes. This is an appealing example of a positive, uniting goal.


There is also a form of "shared trauma" that brings a sense of solidarity. I experienced this in the military as standardized training or "hazing" when described with a negative connotation. Perhaps a set of standardized experiences and shared struggles that people choose to enter into, such as building a cabin together, can be a powerful way to bring people together. Why does this matter? The book Tribe explains that the correlation between experiencing active conflict and reporting PTSD among Veterans is shockingly negligible. However, the correlation between having a community they feel understands what they have been through is the greatest predictor. Meanwhile, in Israel the PTSD rates are a fraction compared to American soldiers. The hypothesis is that in Israel where there is widespread mandatory service, veterans return to a community that understands what they have been through. In other words, it's not terrible experiences that leads to trauma by itself, it is a sense of isolation.


When my family moved from a poorer neighborhood where I'd play on the streets to a cookie-cutter white picket fence suburb when I turned 10, I felt incredibly disconnected from the people around me. It lacked walkability, it lacked community gathering spaces, and I felt that everyone could have died from a plague and be sitting in their houses as skeletons for months before anyone would notice the difference. I would research genocides at age 15 and feel powerless as I stared at the computer in my room, wondering if all humans deserve eternal damnation in Hell the way I was being taught in church. I felt increasingly indifferent to whether I lived or died for some years and finally said "fuck this," and started searching out the most extreme experiences I could find. Whether listening to bombs dropping, living with hippies in downtown Buffalo, sharing meals at the kids' shelter in Ecuador, or wherever I've been where I am around people who I feel share in an understanding of how wild and brief life is and how we need to band together... I have felt a greater sense of purpose and furious joy than I ever knew as a teenager in that god-forsaken fucked up perfect suburb that I escaped from. Today I am still driven by a need to answer this question: How do ignite a sense of community and belonging in a healthy way? I intend to write much more on this, but the short answer is that my focus is on empowering communities with the right tools to come together and support one another, which is why I am focused on crowdfunding.


After the Trip

This crowdfunding campaign in Ukraine was the final moment convincing me to found the company viaPrize.org with a focus on refundable crowdfunded prizes. We are now a startup with a full-time team of 5 with around 25 prizes won mostly supporting open-source software projects as well as traditional fundraisers helping good causes such as a kids' shelter in Ecuador and one in Thailand. Feel free to see our updates here: https://x.com/viaprize


My journey in Ukraine in photos and videos can be seen here: https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/17922747299708804/

1 commento


Ospite
13 lug

Thank you Noah. I appreciated the psychological considerations section a lot. "Tribe should have an enemy" - wondering maybe the deeper root need here not as much as enemy, but a triggering of the survival mode of being? Survival mode of being -> you have no other choice but to synergize and unite. Comfortable mode of being -> oh well, i am fine as i am why would i try hard to unite? Maybe, we, humans, naturally still carry the patterns of "survival highs" that charge us up from, like in those times when Homo had to fight lions to live through? Maybe it is that old pattern is speaking, a pattern of needing to feel deep feels in order to…


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