Галина Балабанова Halyna Balabanova

* 1989

  • "We were living under this uncertainty and threat, where you didn't know what would happen. All these protests near the Mariupol City Council were just beginning. Tires were being burned, Maidan was rallying, and Anti-Maidan was rallying. The Anti-Maidan, of course, gathered first because there was a massive number of people bussed in. And then I started quietly going out into the city to film it all. Back then, these predecessors of reels appeared on Instagram when you could shoot a few seconds of videos, and I was filming this process, these fringed people, for my Instagram. It was such a very difficult emotional period because you felt threatened. Still, you look closer, you get closer to those people who occupied the city council and those few days when we were supposedly under non-Ukrainian authorities. But you see what they look like, those who are on the streets. These are some homeless people, people with obviously, well, some problems, either mental health... or addiction. And you look at the overturned trolleybuses in the city center, take pictures of them all, or post them somewhere, and you can't wrap your mind around it all. I did it to come to some kind of understanding and show it. Then, international publications began to approach me about using these materials to show what was happening in Mariupol. But it was still a period when psychologically you’re freezing up, you can't react, and you don't go to rallies, although our people were already going to pro-Ukrainian rallies. And then, I think, even after the first one, there were beatings. And all I could do then... then we were freed, right? In the spring, two months later, Donbas, Azov, and several other units cleared the city council and liberated Mariupol, and it was such a relief like you can exhale, and then you join the rest of the party."

  • "And at the end of [20]15, it started to take shape... 'Let's try to hold the first few pilot events.’ That is, we would not try to, although we already knew we wanted to, launch something big, but we did not know what to call it yet because we were not people ‘in the know’ and did not know other projects so well. There was some kind of hub, some kind of anti-cafe. And we were thinking of creating a series of entertaining and educational events, let's say: some psychology, some photography, something about the city, some role-playing board games, just for playing and getting to know each other better. And so many people showed up to these pilot events. The volunteer center was located in an old merchant's house at that time — an ordinary house with a few rooms, a kitchen, a bathroom, and an exit to the courtyard. And every room was filled to the brim with bulletproof vests, medicine, and other stuff, all of which had to be cleaned up — we had a team building event, I guess, to clean up stuff, to shuffle things around. And there was no proper heating there, and it was winter, February-March, early March. There was no reliable heating, there were power outages, and for the first two days of these pilot events, on top of that, we had... Well, we often have this kind of uncertain weather, like now in Lviv, when the sun shines in the morning, and in the evening, there is hail, black ice, and well below freezing temps. That's exactly what happened to us back then. On that day... on these two days, so many people came in that we could not fit them, and no one wanted to leave. No light, no heat — they keep sitting there, playing Jenga or Mafia, and you're like: ‘What's going on?’. And this was <…> the moment when I became a ‘we’ when this team had already given rise to something, and we had to move forward, and the scale was getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And it all came together. Got the same values because this is the foundation for volunteers, active citizens, people who came out in [20]14, people who support the causes that are important to me, who don't need a sit-down: ‘Oh, let's discuss our values before we can work together.’ I mean, you don't even have to talk it over, you just do something. And then it was such a big challenge, in terms of being kicked out of that volunteer center because it turned out that the premises were under seizure, there were some court proceedings, but we didn't know about it, we just rented it, and that was it. And we had to move very quickly, and then we organized a community workday <...> people moved all these shelves and all this stuff. We found a place in the nick of time, or rather, we were looking for it for a very long time and found it on the very last day. On the very day we had to move out, we found... or literally, in one day, Dima found a large room, enough to spread your wings, 350 square meters — here, you have a place for volunteering and a place for holding events, and this was the period of trying to do everything. We don't have furniture — ‘Let's make furniture out of pallets,’ we don't have a cleaner — ‘We'll clean up ourselves every night,’ we don't have a... I took on the role of... back then, I think the team called it an art manager — to do all the operations regarding filling the space, both what is needed for everyday life and events. For the week ahead, I had to come up with ideas, find people who could do something with us for free, for some kind of volunteer donation, and so on. And that's when this period began when you learn about all sorts of interesting things happening in the city. For example, someone... say, Varvara makes rag dolls and gives them away, sells them as collectibles, but she can also give a master class, and it's quite interesting. Someone teaches painting and... together with a guy from Britain, he lectures on a particular artist because he's an art critic. So, there you have an English language club, and you're painting something at the same time. This was when Mariupol began to flourish precisely because of people, not because of large and medium-sized enterprises, not because of the municipality, but because of people. And it was the period when donors took notice of Mariupol — the first to come in were, of course, USAID and European donors. It was a surge in the creation of various platforms. We were very proud at the time [that] ‘we actually started ourselves without any donors, and we pay our rent here on our own, look how cool we are.’ But still, it came to the point where... we had a constant need, even as simple as a place to put people in. I'm just looking at the photos from [20]16 or the video of Ukrainer, which came to us in the summer, after a couple of months of our opening, how it looked like then and how it looked five years later — so different in terms of visuals, style, content — oh yeah and the projector. Back then, we chipped in and bought a projector for 800 hryvnias, something so small and simple, and we needed... This is the former gym, and there are small skylight windows. And before the gym, interestingly enough, in this building, there were... It was a huge area, maybe not a district, but what they call a block, not far from my house, where there were various factories: a medical plant, medical equipment, manufacturing, some chemicals, and so on. And this is one of them, where my father's grandfather worked. On my dad's side, there was a dynasty that worked at this plant, but I found out about it later when we opened ‘Khalabuda’ [The Shack] there. And so, to turn on this projector... Mind you, big names started coming to Mariupol: Nestor group, Yevhen Hlibovytskyi, Mustafa Nayyem, and others, who were... famous people, and here we are: ‘Excuse us, we need to stack three pallets to close the skylight so that the projector can turn on.’ And it was like this... it was just like this [period of] building a shack when you have nothing, you find something somewhere, put it together, make it stick, and you have something."

  • "As Mariupol residents who are used to living with the sounds of artillery, mostly our outgoing [fire], not incoming [fire] on the outskirts of the city, but still, you have this feeling... The survival instinct seems to fade because people get used to things, and it’s been quite a while; well, more than six years have passed since [20]15 when the shelling of the Eastern neighborhood happened. This emotional blunting and probably the stage of denial against the backdrop of media hysteria, as a bunch of journalists from some organizations who came to Mariupol and were pestering us for the last three weeks, probably up until the full-scale [Russian Federation's invasion of Ukraine]. We each had some interviews set up, and every day, someone would come in: ‘Tell us, how are you preparing? What about the community? Tell us what’s happening?’ We had this big feeling... that nothing would happen. Maybe, if something happens, it will be some shooting here or some shelling there, and that will be the end of it. It was probably a psychological defense mechanism kicking in. And all of this, respectively, was happening against the backdrop of both the president and the mayor smiling with Cheshire cat smiles and saying that everything would be fine. And you kind of feel this tension. Emotionally, it was more like the Maidan period, when something seems to be happening, and you feel like everything is calm, but you feel like something is buzzing around you. Then this huge demand for information from someone who is constantly draining the resource from you: tell me how, why you don't panic, and all that stuff, didn't result in any action. A year before (almost a year), during our stratagem, we planned, had to plan, what we would do in case of a full-scale war, like if they came into the city center, and we reacted to the proposal of our facilitator in a joking way, as if... We have some people here who have already been through the war, the ATO, and then the war, and were military volunteers — they know what to do. In general, we have an assembly point there, and the main thing is to save the lives of our team, and this is the main thing we need to know, so there was no such action plan. Now it's interesting to look at it in retrospect and think about it. At that time, it was such a foreboding feeling... Just to illustrate, on February 23 or 22, I was contacted by a friend who asked for a big press tour for one of the American journalists who was in Kyiv at that time, and she wanted to see how, overall, the agencies were preparing, and hold some meetings… I had a full-day itinerary for her (because my friend asked me to help out); we’d meet her in the morning, take her to the mayor, he would tell her something, and then we would take her to organizations that assist... charitable organizations. We planned to take [the journalist] to each of the stakeholders in Mariupol to cover everything. On February 23, I had everything arranged. On February 23, I had a full itinerary — what, where, why, where to eat, who to meet. And on February 23, around 11 pm, this journalist’s assistant wrote to me that she might not be able to come by train on February 24, that they’d think of other travel arrangements and let us know later. At night, after 1 a.m., they said she would not come. So, that's a bit of premonition there."

  • "It's this neighborhood where the block is made up entirely of former factories and plants. There were large warehouses, a large yard, and there was also a bakery there, a small family-run business. We randomly found out that all of the equipment was still there, but the place was shut down. <...> We saw the owner of this [bakery]; he probably came by to check if everything was okay there and if [things] had been stolen. We coaxed him, and he trained our volunteers how to do it [bake bread]. Caritas Mariupol helped a lot because they had a field kitchen running on a diesel engine — a huge platform on wheels where you could cook. It was a huge help. People from the army helped, teaching us how to work with a huge cauldron, how to cook all these porridges and soups, and how to be frugal, like adding less meat. That's all... it was a huge commitment, but at the same time, in about five or six days, we all ended up living in ‘Khalabuda’ because some people had a fire in their house or nearby, some people like me or Dima [Chychera], just... you only had time to sleep and work. You couldn't afford to spend another 40 minutes going home, taking a shower, drinking a cup of coffee, and it was like that... The pace was picking up, and in those small moments when I was trying to run to my parents and neighbors who were hiding in the basement and to these little houses next to ours. I would bring... the first thing that everyone really asked for: it was bread. Hot bread, for some reason, not even meat or stew. When I came, they would say: ‘We can’t quite catch on; you speak so fast that we don't understand.’ You realize later that you were so sharp and quick-witted — you thought so fast, you did things so quickly... Nothing lingered in your head. At the time, I had only one thought, that I’ve got a part of our team and Caritas Mariupol, which operates on the streets, right? They’d make rounds every morning, see what's going on in the city, go to Azovstal, and deliver what we could to the shelters for as long as possible. We’ve got a team. Got Dima, who also made trips by himself and attended every planning meeting. Every morning at eight [am] or seven… at eight, I think, there was a meeting at the city council where all the utility services and agencies met. He tried to get some information there. And there was a team here, staying on the premises; that is, I was the person who was at ‘Khalabuda’ all the time. For almost a month, 90 percent of the time, that was me there, and you're trying to manage this, run this life. You have no water, no power, no nothing — you have people melting snow to keep the place clean, and you have to keep going. You have to think about safety, about logistics on the premises, about logistics on the road, and about the safety of those making the deliveries. So back then, the morning started with this meeting with Dima, and then everyone went out, and the whole day went on with these constant... you got a list, and you checked it; for example: ‘At this address, they have not yet received 300 food packages.’ I check the approval box, and it’s sent. So, even in such circumstances, we tried to have all this under control. Got some people to manage distribution so it doesn't turn into chaos. At the same time, you somehow try to make sure that your volunteers eat and that you don't forget to eat. At that time, your life was condensed into a notebook to write down everything; otherwise, you couldn’t remember a thing. Someone says something to you, then by the time you get down the hall, it slips your mind completely. So, I wrote everything down as much as I could and tried to rely on several volunteer assistants to take notes as well — someone had to keep track of our helpers so that I could give out our volunteer IDs to identify our people so that the patrol officers would not stop them for questioning but would recognize that this is so-and-so that can be trusted. And so, my life came down to this notebook with everything in it: who went where and when. You come to the understanding that if something happens to me, a person can take the notebook and look at it — here are the goals for our day, here are the people who should be there at such and such a time, and if they are not there, you know about which way to go to find them, at least like that."

  • "On the 15th, it seemed that everything was not so bad. Like, okay, the encirclement around us is closing in, explosions and all that, but we are ready, we will fight. Although our warehouses were already running out of supplies, there was no way to restock them. Overnight March 15-16, early in the morning, as we found out in the morning, Tyra and her assistants were taken captive near Mariupol, and on the 16th, an order was issued to the police, all the security forces in Mariupol, that they could leave the city. It was the last line for us, the last line for me, and for some of the team, indicating that we had to leave. My personal motivation... It took me just twenty minutes to pack. And I was quite motivated after part of our team, the guys from Caritas, went on a morning round, came back, and said that a checkpoint was one intersection from ‘Khalabuda.’ A Russian mobile checkpoint, which they were lugging all over Mariupol. "What was the purpose of their round?" “First of all, to check where it's safe, and where it's dangerous, which places we can reach, where we can deliver bread, food, and so on, and to collect the needs that people have. Many new shelters, bomb shelters and so on spontaneously appeared. And on top of that, meeting everyone with whom we made arrangements. Someone has a borehole and we take water there, someone can provide petrol. That's the first coordination activity and the first round in the morning. And after they said that they [the Russian military] were here, two of them said that they would pack up and leave the city. I still thought that I would not go, but as they said... I realized that I have parents here and what would happen to them... if I am captured or something, I will be coerced, using them as leverage, and they [my parents] will be in harm's way. At that time, it clicked for me; it all came together. It took, like, 20 minutes to get into the [Volkswagen] Golf. We were one, two, three, four? — six people, two dogs.” "Who were those six people?" "It was one of our volunteers who was evacuating us, our team, and his neighbors, someone's mother, people who did not know each other. It was just a chance to put us in the car and drive out there." "Your parents?" "No. And that’s when Dima said he was staying. I had 20 minutes to run home and pack a small backpack. I came back, and though at our morning [team] meeting, we all sort of decided together that we were leaving, and then I came back, and he said that he was staying, that there was still some of the stuff that could be distributed to people. Not only did he stay, but a certain part of our team stayed, mostly some guys... some couldn't go because they had relatives there, and some couldn't go because they didn't have a way or they didn't want to go alone and leave their family behind. But his [Dmytro Chychera's] decision was... he managed to evacuate his family on March 15. His decision was to stay. It was a decision of a soldier, a fighter, so to speak. I did not understand it then, and even after that, I tried to come to terms with it for a very long time. For me, it was mind-blowing. It took us almost a day to leave Mariupol. In Zaporizhzhia, I was so happy to hear him as he got in touch with his wife. That is, I left and met up with his wife to hand over their dog. He called, and he was there on the call at that moment; I heard him. It was the last time. The last time he got in touch was on [March] 17th, and she [Dmytro's wife], of course, could not accept [that he was missing] and all that. But then... I understand on some level, maybe if I were in a different situation, I would have stayed too. On March 18, Russian special forces showed up [at ‘Khalabuda’], so I left just in time. But some of the guys who stayed went through much more. Searches, tearing up sofas, searching for something, I don't know what. Also, we had bulletproof vests there... belonging to NGOs, not the military, but these could also arouse suspicion. We had [Russian] soldiers, security forces, and so on. The survivors endured shots fired at their feet and all that. Well, actually, looking back, it all looks like everything came together as it should have, but when you are in the middle of it, it's difficult."

  • Full recordings
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    Lviv, 21.02.2022

    duration: 02:59:39
    media recorded in project Voices of Ukraine
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The power of horizontal communities

Halyna Balabanova during the interview, 2022
Halyna Balabanova during the interview, 2022
photo: Post Bellum Ukraine

Halyna Balabanova was born on January 21, 1989, in Mariupol. Memories of the interwar repressions were so strong in the family that her parents tried to shield their daughter from any political issues. Therefore, in 1996, a few months after their daughter started studying at the first Ukrainian-language school in Mariupol, they transferred her to the Russian-language school No. 11, from which Halyna graduated in 2006. She discovered her Greek heritage and Ukrainianness gradually in her childhood and teenage years through home celebrations, cooking, parties, literature, and music. The decision to study Ukrainian philology at Mariupol State University, from which Halyna Balabanova graduated in 2013, was a return to her roots. Her exploration of the city, passion for journalism and photography, as well as her belief in the power of communities, became central to Halyna’s public work. In 2014, she documented the Euromaidan and Anti-Maidan rallies in Mariupol and life under occupation. In 2015, in the city that was no longer under Russian occupation, she realized that she had to take an active part in the changes that the frontline region was experiencing. The educational hub Khalabuda, which Halyna opened together with photographer and volunteer Dmytro Chychera, became such a transformative initiative. As the art manager of the space, she built a community that proved its importance in the spring of 2022 when the city was surrounded by the Russian army. Now Halyna Balabanova lives in Lviv and develops the “Mariupol diaspora”.