“The war kind of broke my heart,” says UW Tacoma senior David Pavenko. “These are my people and to see them struggling and dying — I had to do something.”
Pavenko is Ukrainian-American. His parents left Ukraine in 1996. “They sought to move to the U.S. in 1992, just as the Soviet Union began to collapse, but were finally accepted to the U.S. in 1996 as refugees,” said Pavenko.
Pavenko’s parents settled in Tacoma and eventually had seven children (David and his younger sister were born in the United States; the other five siblings were born in Ukraine). “We are very involved in supporting Ukrainians,” said Pavenko. “We still have family over there.”
David Pavenko lost two cousins when the Russo-Ukrainian War started back in 2014. The Russian military along with Russian-backed separatists annexed Crimea from Ukraine. “My cousins were killed in Sloviansk,” said Pavenko. That conflict never ended and ultimately escalated in February of 2022 when Russia launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. “Another cousin was killed just in February of this year,” said Pavenko.
It is difficult to get reliable information about the impact of the war. Still, most estimates put the total number of casualties on both sides at over 200,000. That number includes thousands of civilians. The damage to Ukraine’s infrastructure is estimated to be worth more than $130 billion.
Pavenko was barely an adolescent back in 2014. He is now 24 and is only a few months away from completing his degree in electrical engineering. For the past year he has waited for a chance to be able to help the people of Ukraine. “Over the summer I got an internship with Potelco,” he said. Potelco is a utility contractor based in Sumner, Wash. “I made good money, enough to go to Ukraine for a few weeks,” said Pavenko.
Pavenko used that money to purchase a plane ticket to Ukraine. “I left in early September and spent about three-and-a-half weeks there,” he said. While there Pavenko purchased food and other supplies that he donated to Ukrainian civilians and soldiers. “I worked with a volunteer who delivers aid provided by an organization called Samaritan’s Purse,” he said.
Pavenko intends to return Ukraine. “My plan is go back in June, before graduation,” he said. “My hope is that I’d stay there for a few months and then get an engineering job. I have my pilot’s license and my long-term goal is to be part of the U.S. Air National Guard.”
Below are pictures Pavenko took during his time in Ukraine. The words underneath the images were also written by him.
An unexploded rocket in a field off the side of the highway. Photo was taken in eastern Ukraine.
At a grocery store in Dnipro buying sweets and energy drinks for soldiers in Avdiivka.
There are a lot of grocery stores that are still running. So where we were, we would buy food, and then we would drive to the war zone. Two and a half hours away.
Ukrainian soldiers near Avdiivka. I gifted them an American flag patch and they gifted me a Ukrainian flag patch. (The soldiers faces have been masked to protect their identities.)
I will say is that the highway between Orlivka and Avdiivka is the sketchiest place I have ever been in my life. It’s just open fields. You have Russians just across the fields in Donetsk, Ukrainians here in trenches, and open highway. And we're driving through this, trying, hoping not to get hit.
Entrance to Bakhmut in September 2022. I am going to feed and evacuate civilians. Bakhmut is currently (March 2023) the main focus of the war.
Photo taken in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Sept. 20, 2022. Shelling took place on Sept. 15. I was there that day, just hours after the attack. Firefighters were still removing victims from the rubble.
On the roadside next to a sign for Soledar, Ukraine. The city has now been captured and is under Russian control. This was the scariest place I visited as I had artillery shells fall near me. I heard whistling constantly from artillery shells flying over my head.
I love this photo. It was taken on the road to Bakhmut. We fed this soldier at a Ukrainian checkpoint. He is 22 years old. He appreciated me being there and agreed to a photo. (The soldier's face has been masked to protect his identity.)
Hugging a homeless dog in the village of Paraskoviivka, Ukraine. There are so many homeless cats and dogs in the village. Most are hungry and skinny.
Supplies my brother Mikhail and I purchased in Olympia and I gave to a Ukrainian sniper. Supplies include boots, hand warmers and gloves.
My brother, Mikhail, is a volunteer chaplain for the Ukrainian military. He has an American passport, but he goes to Ukraine all the time. His job is to keep a high morale, take care of the soldiers, feed them, clothe them.
A destroyed Russian tank near the city of Izium.
A destroyed restaurant outside the city of Izium, Ukraine.
Brought food to this elderly woman living in Izium. She lived under Russian occupation for months and her apartment was destroyed.
September 21, 2022. Feeding civilians in Paraskoviivka. This village is between Bakhmut and Soledar. It is currently under Russian control. The village has been completely destroyed.
This is a flechette projectile in the palm of my hand. I found this in Avdiivka, Ukraine. Thousands are packed into a rocket and due to their indiscriminate nature, they often kill non-combatants.
Sept. 15, 2022. Feeding a civilian in Bakhmut, Ukraine.