From gun gear to prosthetic leg covers, volunteers boost Ukraine’s army

From gun gear to prosthetic leg covers, volunteers boost Ukraine’s army

Chernihiv, Ukraine – In combat, the speed of loading your assault gun’s magazine is a matter of life and death.

Sometimes, a soldier has to load the rounds in sub-zero temperatures, with wet or wounded hands. An improperly loaded magazine could jam the rifle and get its owner killed.

A simple and inexpensive accessory – magazine speed loaders known among gun enthusiasts as “magloaders” or “thumb savers” – pushes the magazine’s top so that the rounds are inserted with little or no pressure.

Widely available in the United States, the speed loaders were virtually unknown in Ukraine until Take Back Our History, a volunteer group in the northern city of Chernihiv, began manufacturing and supplying them to the military, free of charge.

“They could save a life,” Bohdan Sereda, a 36-year-old engineer who volunteers with the group, told Al Jazeera.

“I loaded a magazine with one without any training in 30 seconds,” he said, standing next to a buzzing 3D printer and a plastic bag with 100 completed loaders ready to be shipped to the front line.

Novice soldiers spend days or even weeks to achieve such speed.

Armed with a speed loader, one serviceman can load enough rounds for three more soldiers who can keep firing at the enemy non-stop.

The assembly line is spartan and can fit on an office table.

Magazine speed loaders, also known as thumb savers, may save lives in combat-1715077408
Volunteers say the magazine speed loaders, also known as thumb savers, they make may save lives in combat [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

A 3D printer unhurriedly transforms filament, a thick, black plastic thread, into one of three parts of a speed loader that are then put together by hand.

“The servicemen say, ‘Give us more of ’em’,” Sereda’s colleague Oleksandr Antybysh, 35, also an engineer by education, told Al Jazeera.

The group is part of a wider volunteer movement that involves tens of thousands of Ukrainians and supplies the front line with almost anything needed during a war.

Schoolchildren make trench candles of tins, cardboard and wax, and weave camouflage nets to cover trenches, artillery and armoured vehicles.

Volunteer groups turn civilian drones into lethal flying machines that rain explosives on Russian troops or even fire attached firearms.

The groups raise money and buy and deliver night goggles, medical equipment and first aid kits, footwear, batteries and heaters.

They evacuate the elderly, children and pets from front-line towns or help rebuild houses damaged by shelling or during the Russian occupation.

“It took them three days to find and get insulin to me,” said Mikhail, a 67-year-old diabetic from the village of Yahidne, south of Chernihiv, which was occupied by Russian forces in March 2022.

Mikhail, 67, shows bullet holes plastered by volunteers in his house in the village of Yahidne in northern Ukraine-1715077415
Mikhail, 67, shows bullet holes plastered by volunteers in his house, in the village of Yahidne in northern Ukraine [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

One of more than 300 villagers forcibly herded into a school basement, he nearly died of an insulin shock after almost four weeks in the damp, rancid and suffocating darkness next to women, children and bodies of his dead neighbours.

Another volunteer group helped plaster the bullet-riddled walls, tiles and roof of his house that stands next to the forest where Russian armoured vehicles duelled with Ukrainian forces.

Volunteers sometimes switch to other, more sophisticated tasks on the go, depending on the front-line needs.

Army SOS, a group that supplied flak jackets and paper maps, ended up developing software for tablets or smartphones that let soldiers acquire and transmit coordinates for precise artillery or drone attacks.

The volunteers’ speed often cannot be matched by government agencies mired in bureaucracy and occasionally accused of corruption.

“Volunteers replenish the deficit of logistics and, to some extent, assembly capacities,” Kyiv-based analyst Aleksey Kushch told Al Jazeera.

Authorities declared that they would create The Street of Masters, a digital platform to select and support the most promising innovations by volunteer groups, but so far, it is not online, he said.

“Apparently, volunteers cover the lion’s share of needs and it’s easier to get [help from them] than to get it from government agencies,” Kateryna Klimenko, a lawyer who worked with volunteer groups, told Al Jazeera.

There are rare cases of fraud, however.

Occasionally, commanders of military units receive drones from a government agency – and find a fake “volunteer” group that raises money to “buy” it and shares the profit with the commanders, an army veteran stationed in the eastern Donetsk region told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

And while the West stalls military aid for months, and Ukroboronprom, a state-run arms manufacturer, undergoes a painful transition, volunteer groups multiply and evolve.

“Ukroboronprom can’t deal with such petty things” as speed loaders, Antybysh said. “We are filling the niche Ukroboronprom can’t occupy.”

Take Back Our History began with just one 3D printer at a time when the full-scale invasion changed all walks of life in Chernihiv.

The city sits close to the border with Russia and its ally, Belarus, which lets Russian forces use its territory to invade northern Ukraine.

In the war’s first days, Russian armoured vehicles were shot down while trying to roll into Chernihiv.

But soon Russian forces nearly encircled the city and started relentless shelling that struck residential areas killing hundreds of civilians.

The bombardment also destroyed or damaged dozens of historic buildings in the 11 centuries-old city.

The Russians lifted the siege and withdrew from northern Ukraine by April 2022, but continued the shelling.

On April 17, a missile attack killed 18 civilians and wounded dozens in downtown Chernihiv.

These days, the group has enough resources and volunteers to churn out 100 speed loaders a week.

A 3D-printed cosmetic cover for a prosthetic leg-1715077399
A 3D-printed cosmetic cover for a prosthetic leg, complete with art, is made for an amputee veteran [Mansur Mirovalev/Al Jazeera]

Apart from boosting the production, they have other, bigger plans.

The group has already started 3D-printing frames for drones and is tackling the adaptation of war veterans to civilian life.

After losing a leg, some veterans do not like the way their prosthetic legs – mostly, titanium rods – look under their clothes.

The group uses a scanner to create the remaining leg’s image, reverse it digitally and 3D-print a cosmetic cover that mimics the lost limb’s shape.

They can even add an image, such as a replica of a tattoo lost with the limb.

“For a veteran, this is better socialisation,” Antybysh said.

The group, which also collects funds for a rehabilitation centre for veterans, feels capable of manufacturing anything.

“Send us resources and equipment – and we’ll make tanks!” Antybysh declared.

Read More

Zaļā Josta - Reklāma