Living in Ukraine as a Venezuelan

Living in Ukraine as a Venezuelan

José David Chaparro, a 56-year-old lawyer from Táchira, Venezuela, has spent the past year in Ukraine, more than 5,000 kilometers away from his home country, fighting alongside Ukrainian troops against Russian forces. He has been delivering humanitarian aid and rescuing people in cities attacked by Russian forces and his experiences have been both harrowing and life-changing.

José David Chaparro: A Venezuelan Lawyer’s Journey of Duty and Service in Ukraine Fighting Russian Forces

One particularly vivid memory for Chaparro is of a young Ukrainian boy he found hiding in a basement during the March 2022 massacre in Bucha, a city 33 kilometers from the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. The boy, who had been without food for over 15 days, clung to Chaparro in relief when he saw the blue and yellow flag on Chaparro’s uniform.

For Chaparro, time seems to have lost its meaning in the midst of war. “It no longer matters what time it is,” he says. “What matters is living. Focusing and living.”

In Ukraine, the weeks have blurred together since Russian troops invaded the country on February 24, 2022. Both soldiers and civilians have lost track of the days and it is difficult to distinguish one day from another.

As the first anniversary of the conflict approaches, Chaparro reflects on the past year and the experiences that have changed him forever. He remembers the young boy he rescued in Bucha and wonders what has become of him. He also thinks about the 2.2 million children who have been forced to flee Ukraine, according to Unicef.

Chaparro’s decision to join the Ukrainian army and fight against Russian aggression was a difficult one but he feels a sense of duty to help those in need. He has put his legal career on hold for the past year to focus on delivering aid and rescuing people in danger.

Despite the danger and the toll that the war has taken on him, Chaparro remains committed to his mission. “It’s important to live every day as if it were your last,” he says. “To appreciate the small things in life, to be grateful for what you have. That’s what keeps me going.”

Chaparro’s experiences in Ukraine have taught him the importance of resilience, perseverance and compassion. He has seen firsthand the devastating impact of war on civilians, especially children and he remains determined to do what he can to help. As he looks back on the past year, he is filled with a sense of purpose and a commitment to continue fighting for what he believes in.

From Venezuela to Ukraine: A Journey of Duty and Service

José David’s life began in 1967 in San Cristóbal, Táchira, where time flies by. Those swift days near the border with Colombia ended in the late 80s. In 1990, Ukraine welcomed him, just before the Soviet Union disappeared and the maps had to be changed.

Chaparro had a plan to study International Law there, as he found it one of the most interesting places on the globe, despite being considered one of the poorest in Europe.

At that time, the country was different, a territory still marked by communism, bidding farewell to nuclear weapons and undergoing an economic turnaround – first a recession and then some stability that barely lasted. Chaparro studied International Law for several years and shortly after, he married a local citizen.

“As a person who came from a democratic and capitalist country back then, it was incredible for me to see all the changes that occurred,” he says. He did not lose sight of the course of Venezuela in the following years and even worked as a business representative in Moscow between 2001 and 2005. His life was spent shuttling back and forth. The months ran without pause.

In 2014, he realized that he would never sympathize with the regime of Nicolás Maduro and that year, he briefly participated in protests against the government, on Venezuelan soil which left 43 dead, according to official figures.

Disappointed by Maduro’s continued stay in power and determined to stay in Europe, he returned to the old continent. Ukraine remained alert after the start of tensions with the Russian government in 2014 but was still standing.

Less than a decade later, it became a gray nation, of rubble and landmines hidden in remote locations with 7.2 million refugees wandering in Europe and 6.9 million displaced internally, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

After the entry of Russian soldiers into Ukraine, the Chaparro couple joined the Ukrainian army reserves. José David watched the destruction pass in front of his door and decided to support the country that gave him a home.

“It is a moral and very personal obligation that I have assumed because I myself wanted to,” he says. “We have risked our lives so that others can be saved and I think it is the greatest satisfaction a man can have.”

He dressed as a soldier and took a rifle. He then went from being a lawyer to becoming a “commander,” as the men in the subdivision he leads call him. His mission is to bring humanitarian aid to different regions and rescue people in the most affected cities.

Surviving the Devastation: One Man’s Account of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict and the Continual Need for Aid

Time seems to have frozen but life still goes on. Chaparro believes that it’s terrible relativity that one gets used to in order to survive.

On February 24th, 2022, Kyiv, Kharkiv and Odesa were the first regions to report the invasion, followed by Luhansk, Sumy, Chernihiv and Zhytomyr, according to reports from the Ukrainian defense. One year later, these places suffered losses of 10 billion dollars in destroyed buildings, according to figures provided by the Minister of Infrastructure, Oleksandr Kubrakov.

“The infrastructure has been devastated. The little that remains standing is in the capital, which has a better defense system,” narrates Chaparro.

Churches and ancient buildings collapsed noisily, crushed by bombs and Ukraine’s architectural history crumbled. As Chaparro explains, it could have happened a year ago or yesterday. To remain aware of the passing days, he receives and distributes humanitarian aid, a practice that requires concentration and organization.

“I command a group of several people, including civilians and military personnel. We have handled tons of medical supplies and food from other countries. We are always between the third and second lines of combat. We go on peace missions to deliver equipment and evacuate people but we are prepared to defend ourselves,” he specifies.

To date, the 27 countries that make up the European Union have sent over 77,000 tons of resources to Ukraine. Organizations such as the International Red Cross and UNHCR continue to work in the territory.

On Wednesday, February 15th, 2023, the United Nations requested $5.6 billion to help those affected by the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. “My wife is a visual artist. She’s on other missions, dealing with aid, contacting volunteers and working at the borders,” says Chaparro.

Horror and Humanitarian Work: Stories from the Frontline of Devastation

The horror has a shifting smell, as José David attests that devastated villages don’t always have the same scent. Sometimes it’s gunpowder in the air, while other times it’s the smell of blood.

“In some places that have been recently bombed, you smell burnt remains. Other sites have a musty odor, the smell of blood that has dried in the sun,” he notes.

He has witnessed scenes he doesn’t speak of aloud and prefers to silently forget. Ukrainian civilians are tense, terrorized. If they had weapons, they would have massacred the Venezuelan team months ago because of their military uniforms. They have lost the ability to differentiate between armed men and they all seem equally dangerous.

“After a certain period of time without food and sleep and under that pressure, people lose their sense of time and their own situation,” he comments.

He understands them and always approaches them with caution. The fear on the faces of the people he tries to help isn’t the worst part of his job. The difficulty lies in rescuing the injured. In a year, he has encountered dozens of men with broken bones, barely breathing, mutilated or lacerated, who refuse to be rescued.

“They ask you to let them die,” says the Venezuelan. At least 7,068 civilians have died since the Russian invasion in 2022, according to records from the United Nations Office for Human Rights (OHCHR), while another 11,415 have been injured.

“When you find yourself in such a situation, your values change completely. You no longer see things as you did before,” he adds.

Surviving Danger: A Glimpse into the Harsh Reality of the Ukrainian Conflict

Death doesn’t care that time has stopped and Jose David knows it. He’s aware that danger is real and any day could be his last. The weather doesn’t help either with the heat and cold being cruel in Ukraine. Temperatures melt the asphalt in the summer and drop drastically in winter.

Carrying kilograms of humanitarian aid for 150 kilometers, in a point under attack, is no easy feat. Bullets can come from any direction, be it from aerial fire, artillery or infantry. Chaparro’s men must not only be mindful of a shot to the head or chest but even the ground can explode if they come across a hidden explosive.

In early 2023, the Human Rights Watch organization accused Ukraine of using anti-personnel mines in the war, despite the country being a party to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty. At least 50 civilians have been injured as a result. Russia is not exempt from such accusations, having also used lethal artifacts on numerous occasions.

“There are countless opportunities not to survive,” says Chaparro. “All of us who work here know that at some point, we won’t be here anymore.” The US government reported in November 2022 that nearly 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died or been injured in the conflict.

Johan Obdola, an analyst, security expert and evacuation coordinator in Ukraine during the first months of the war, informed Efecto Cocuyo that there are around 150 Latin American volunteers in the Ukrainian army with at least 15 being of Venezuelan nationality. However, to date, Chaparro has not seen any other compatriots.