In Ukraine, volunteers make bulletproof vests from old cars

Updated April 1, 2022 12:20 PM ET

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — Before the war, Vasyl Busharov was an event organizer. “I was a master of ceremonies!” he said with a dramatic wave of his hand. Now he oversees hundreds of wartime volunteers in a crumbling Soviet-era industrial complex.

Among other things, the volunteers make bulletproof vests from scrap metal.

“Used cars, old cars, we use them to make [the vests] and it works,” he says. “I can assure you that we fired on the plates and had a good result. They even brought in soldiers to help test their products.

As the war has disrupted normal life, Ukrainians are volunteering in droves to help. Some pledge to fight. Some prepare meals. Others are helping those who have fled find transportation and places to sleep.

Switching between English, Ukrainian and Russian, Busharov recounts everything the volunteers did around this complex in Zaporizhzhia, about 25 miles from the front lines. As well as producing body armor and serving as a logistics center for extracting people from Russian-occupied areas, the complex is a distribution point for humanitarian supplies, its rooms stocked with canned food, pasta, shampoo and soap. layers.

Mechanics work alongside business consultants packing sandbags. Teachers coordinate delivery times.

“We were carrying sandbags from place to place,” Busharov says, to help barricade various branches of Ukraine’s security forces. “Our team managed to transfer 2,000 tonnes of sand in 10 days.”

Becky Sullivan/NPR



Volunteers measure pieces of scrap metal which will be welded together to make plates.

Mechanics fix car windows and welders make homemade bulletproof vests

Most of those who fled to Zaporizhzhia do not stay. Many want to get as far away from the front lines as possible, even as far as Poland. Volunteer mechanics try to help them get there. They help patch up vehicles and replace windshields if they can.

“There is a special division of guys here who help fix car windows,” Busharov says. “Because almost every car that comes in here has broken windows.”

Russian forces heavily shelled areas before intervening with ground troops, and the bombs shattered the windows of apartments and cars everywhere nearby.

Welders and seamstresses are busy assembling bulletproof vests. Aleksii Simchenko uses his welding skills to make breastplates for bulletproof vests.

“First, the root joint is welded,” he explains, lining up strips of steel on a workbench in front of him. The pieces of metal are cut from the springs of a truck’s suspension. Simchenko welds them into a square plate. “Then the sheet metal is sent for resurfacing to the metal shop.”

Men wearing glasses grind the welds to make smooth plates the size of a fashion magazine.

Up a steep staircase from the metal shop, a dozen sewing machines surround a large worktable. The women sew the canvas vests that will hold the steel plates fabricated below.

Elena Grekova leads the sewing part of the production. Before the Russian invasion, she was a fashion designer who sold her designs in boutiques in kyiv.

A month ago, she had never made a bulletproof vest. “Never!” she said laughing. “Only clothes and shoes.” One of the seamstresses says that Grekova does “haute couture”.

Now she makes bulky green camouflage body armor – 30 lbs. clothing designed to deflect a round from an AK-47. “In one day we can produce 20-25 body armor,” says Grekova.

Elena Grekova sews a vest into which steel plates can be inserted to complete a set of bulletproof vests.  Before the Russian invasion, she was a fashion designer who sold her designs in boutiques in kyiv.

Becky Sullivan/NPR



Elena Grekova sews a vest into which steel plates can be inserted to complete a set of bulletproof vests. Before the Russian invasion, she was a fashion designer who sold her designs in boutiques in kyiv.

Some volunteers risk their lives to help others escape from Russian-held areas

The warehouse complex is also a staging ground for volunteers who travel to Russian-held areas every day to try to evacuate people from the conflict.

One of them, Algiz Yarmash, crosses the shifting front lines in an attempt to extract those who have no other way of fleeing. In his pre-war life, just a few weeks ago, he was a business coach for entrepreneurs.

“We started evacuating people from Mariupol and other occupied territories,” Yarmash said. “A lot of times we are stopped by Russian troops, they pull us off the road and point guns at us.”

Several of his cell phones were seized. But he and his fellow volunteers insist they are aid workers, and so far they have been released.

“You can see the big difference between people who are scared and people who are eager to help,” said Busharov, the volunteer coordinator.

Volunteers show up every morning. He says Ukrainians want to help their fellow citizens. The war brought out the best in a lot of people, he says: They want to make sure the guys at the makeshift security barricades have bulletproof vests. They want to extract the elderly couples from Mariupol.

“And this time I’ve seen so many people who will – they’ll probably be called my best friends in the future,” he says.

War, he says, forces ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Hanna Palamarenko contributed to this story from Zaporizhzhia.

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