21 December 2022

War is close to heart

Moldova keeps helping hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians

© Vladimir Soloviev

Dopomoga (“help”) is a word from the Ukrainian language: it is a noun, inanimate, feminine. It means someone called for or something designed for the purpose of help. This word provides the most accurate description of what Moldova has been doing for the citizens of Ukraine since the first day of the war. But let’s start from the beginning to tell the story properly, the way all stories should be told.

Disclaimer: In this essay, the names of the creators of the online platform have been intentionally omitted, both at their request and to protect their personal safety.

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Dopomoga (“help”) is a word from the Ukrainian language: it is a noun, inanimate, feminine. It means someone called for or something designed for the purpose of help. This word provides the most accurate description of what Moldova has been doing for the citizens of Ukraine since the first day of the war. But let’s start from the beginning to tell the story properly, the way all stories should be told.

February 24, 2022, Warsaw, very early in the morning

“War. Wojna. Viyna. War” – the word reverberated on the phone again and again, in all languages known to both interlocutors, in all grammatical forms, as if waiting to see which one would resonate with me.

We discussed it the night before, in a circle of colleagues, scholars, political scientists, analysts, and journalists, when the same word was repeated in a dozen more languages, ringing and sounding forth in the air. We turned out to be wrong: all of us, without exception.

Then it started: several hours of frenetic digging on the Internet, an endless stream of phone calls between various cities and continents, with countless variations of the same question: “Do you understand what’s happening?” My flight home had been scheduled for tomorrow, Friday, February 25th. It was already clear that neither departure nor arrival would be possible that day. At the same time, I was struggling to cope with the questions from Moldova: “What is this? Are we next?”

February 24, 2022, Warsaw, morning

It took me around twelve hours to contact the call center of the airport. When I finally managed to get through, a dead tired employee explained to me how to get to Moldova: there was virtually no way to do it, with the exception of one special flight to the Romanian city of Iasi, the closest location to Moldova. All flights from Ukraine and to Ukraine were canceled, flights from/to Moldova suspended, the transport collapse was underway in full swing. I put together all the information received from the airport employee. Then a miracle happened: my telephone call got through the central bus station. Then an even greater miracle happened: I managed to find a dispatcher who tried to explain to me what was going on and where from and where to one could move right now, with some remote chances that it would be possible at all to depart or to arrive somewhere.

I put together everything I learned and write a facebook post with all the information I managed to gather: how to get from Poland back to Moldova if your flight was canceled or if you are stuck, and what can be done about it. Then my private messenger exploded! I was inundated by messages both from people I knew and from some strangers who just discovered my information via reposts and comments.

All roads lead from Poland to Romania. With covid restrictions not yet completely lifted, in order to enter Romania, you were required to fill out an online epidemic control form. Number one, it was not always easy to find. Number two, the use of online translators would break the formatting and turn the entire page into a mess of jumbled table columns. I, therefore, published my second post to explain how it all worked, especially for those who did not speak Romanian – in fact, for the refugees from Ukraine. Although, back then, I was still far from using the word “refugees” – it simply didn’t find its place in my head yet.

It became already clear to everyone at that point that people were running to escape the war –running anywhere and any possible way. Moldova was the closest location, next to Odessa (which had been bombed just recently). People didn’t know anything: it turned out that “the war that we see online” was transparent only one-way. The information about what you should do and where you should run was so scarce that people were ready to believe anyone who looks – and, more importantly, who writes – like someone who knows what to do.

There were a lot of people around me who worked in IT, banking, security. They kept saying the same thing: something has to be done to stop the information chaos. [I don’t know] who exactly coined it: "Let's build an aggregator website to collect everything that may be helpful." I believe it was a collective thought, and the work unfolded within minutes after the phrase was uttered. Our team started with what we were able to do best, trying to collect information, organize it, and make it comprehensible to others. It was our way to contend the spreading panic and to resist the feeling of total vulnerability. That day, the team of founding fathers and mothers consisted of seven persons, mostly employed in the banking sector of Moldova. Actually, the initiative received full support from the bank's management.

February 26, early afternoon

On my way back from Warsaw to Chisinau, which seemed to have taken me forever, on all those infinitely slow planes and trains, I was trying to collect my thoughts and put together everything I had learned over many years of experience in the field of migration research and science journalism about refugees in general and war refugees in particular, about internally displaced persons and spontaneous migration. How could this knowledge be applied to the war that apparently already started?

All the scenarios seemed bad or very bad. According to statistics, over the entire year of 2021, Moldova received 413 refugees who obtained temporary or permanent asylum and 77 more applications were under process. Now we had to be prepared for the rapid development of events within a few days or weeks at most: a new wave of refugees from Ukraine was expected to reach up to 100,000 people, and probably even more. Bălți, the second largest populated city in Moldova, has fewer residents, even taking into account all the suburban villages. It was pretty obvious that having a source of verified information was vitally important not just for the refugees, but for ourselves as well, otherwise we would not be able to manage.

On the same day, Saturday, February 26, 2022, we launched the first version of the online platform (the redirection from this link to the current version is still active today). By that point, the development team had spent two days without any sleep.

The first version of the website looked like a directory of links that were manually collected and verified in all possible ways. There were a number of categories, such as: housing, transportation, children, food, animals/pets, help and support groups. There was no real information campaign, except for the homegrown initiative that we carried out using our own manpower. Otherwise, we operated through personal mailings across impromptu groups and chats on social networks and instant messengers.

Why did we use this name – “dopomoga”? The name of the portal was supposed to be as clear as possible to everyone who would come our way on those days. Help, support, and all other names for help or assistance were just customary terms. The word "dopomoga" meaning “help” exists in Ukrainian only where its meaning is intuitively clear to everyone. The word “life” in the name was used because we did it for people: everyone believed that life was more important than any conventions. Life will win.

February 27, late afternoon

Over 24 hours on February 26-27, more than 18 000 unique users [joined the platform].

A little bit later, we created a "suggestion" form where users could send a relevant link, an important contact, or any other kind of information. It immediately turned out to be populated with links, almost all of them were helpful and important. We still didn’t understand how exactly it worked, but it did. The ideas for next additions to the website came from live requests and from people’s messages in chats. There were lots of requests, plus we had our own ideas, and so we had to prioritize. First of all, people needed an online map of checkpoints and their levels of busyness in the real-time mode, because many tried to use outdated maps or road signs and ended up running into kilometers-long queues before large checkpoints. Many just didn’t know how to find smaller, local checkpoints where you could cross the border without waiting for hours in a queue.

Chat rooms were quickly filling up with photographs coming from border checkpoints: there were cars with broken windows, with bullet traces, with the inscriptions in large letters saying "CHILDREN." People drove without stopping, without turning off the car engine, once they realized that it was time to run. The border-crossing usually happened with an almost empty tank, and so another vital thing we needed to provide was a map of gas stations with the indication of the available types of fuel.

© Vladimir Soloviev

February 28, afternoon

There was a phone call. “Hello, we are from the Electronic Government Agency of the Republic of Moldova. How about we meet and talk? You did a really cool thing; we want to help.” A meeting? Absolutely! Just let’s do it online: no one is going to waste time on commute.

Many issues were discussed at that meeting, but the main one was “How can we help you? Let's work together." There were no patronizing attitudes like "Thank you, from this point we take over, thanks everyone, you can go now." The state wanted to help – and that was something that does not always happen with someone who has been sleeping at their desks for several days just to save time on commuting and traffic jams.

Decisions should be made quickly: eventually, it will become one of the basic principles of our daily activity. The process of technical implementation takes just a few hours.

March 1, morning

The platform was officially transformed into, with the header "The Official Portal of the Government of Moldova to help the citizens of Ukraine." The night before, we did not sleep, and neither did all those people who volunteered to help us. In addition to the technical aspects, we took all possible security measures to enhance the website protection: it was quite clear to us that there would be hacker attacks. As it turned out soon, we were right: attempts to take down the website occur regularly. We read all public regulations, rules, instructions, and other documents that could be at least somewhat useful for people coming from Ukraine. Not only was it important to collect everything technically in one place, but it was critical to explain quickly and clearly how exactly all these materials would be helpful for the refugees. On that day, the second principle of our work came about: we should explain what exactly is written in all those long legal texts and what it all means, using an intelligible human language.

The support of the Moldovan IT communities and journalists helped us to have a colossal amount of work completed in an incredibly short period of time. We just published a request for the assistance via the group messenger and were pleasantly surprised to have received a huge amount of support from people, most of whom we had not been familiar with. People spent all night and the next morning making endless online calls, getting into arguments and discussions in all possible languages at the same time – and they helped us a lot. The contribution of these people was invaluable!

To anticipate questions, no political discussions occurred in the course of those interactions. The State Platform for Assistance to Refugees from Ukraine in Moldova has never shied away from calling a spade a spade, a war a war, and missile strikes against civilian targets missile strikes against civilian targets and not anything else – that was the official position of the Moldovan state.

Over the first few days of work in the new format, more than 71,000 unique users visited our website.

March, bottom line

In March, a tremendous amount of work was done: we managed to collect, clear out, double-check, specify and pinpoint virtually all useful information for refugees that existed in the Moldovan internet at that moment. The options available ranged from assistance initiatives coming from private businesses to endeavors of ordinary people who just wanted to help: doctors, psychologists, veterinarians, drivers, or potential hosts who were willing to allow visitors to stay in their homes.

That was the moment when Moldova – a small, poor, disunited country, nearly disassembled into parts – attained its unity. We heard from hundreds of people. There was an elderly mayor of a small Moldovan rural town, who spontaneously organized, together with his fellow townsmen, a real refugee center, but “had no idea how to write about it on the Internet.” There was a border church pastor, who created a shelter: he was ready to drive out at night to help out the people who found themselves at the border without knowing where to go. There was the owner of a small cafe with just a few tables offering free meals to anyone in need, who worried about the location of his cafe in a “bedroom community”: it would be hard for the visitors to find his place in the densely built residential neighborhood.

As we realized around that moment, besides the developed technical functionality, the project needed a live person, someone who could speak in public and not look like a press release mechanical reader. I had no choice but to become this someone, since I had already been responsible for the writing part and for the audience research.

The human dimension of communication is something that many assistance projects are still missing out on today, and not just in the areas of war emergency assistance or humanitarian crisis aid. Abundant humanity makes people really understanding and forgiving to a lot of things, while they would never be as indulgent toward a faceless organization.

From the very beginning, we were aware that we had to speak with people in a plain language and not in some officialese. But the extent to which our language should be human became totally clear to us only when we began to see real people “on the other side of the screen.” For example, there was a mother of multiple children from a Kherson region village occupied by Russians. She made four attempts to get out of her basement before she finally managed to escape: it only happened when she realized that her sick son would no longer survive without medical help. Another example was an elderly couple who had not left their backyard for many years because of their weak health and their walking problems: when the war broke out, they were compelled to stand in a queue in the freezing cold for several hours at the checkpoint, which resulted in a minor stroke. Once we realized that our texts were read by all those real people with their real life stories, the true importance of simple human communication became clear to us.

I don’t know if it is possible at all to be prepared for this: these stories broke the hearts of many volunteers. To the people who flee the war, it is important to be listened to, but the things they want to tell you can break you into pieces. Eventually you will get used to it and people will be grateful to you.

April, bottom line

In April, the number of refugees simultaneously located in Moldova reached its peak of approximately 105,000 people. The website cemented its place at the information forefront. Everyone with the intention to provide any sort of help to the migrants; the refugees themselves; the Moldovan diaspora – all of them visited our portal first thing for the answers.

Thanks to the work of the e-Government Agency (, we were able to launch an online service that has no analogues today even in the countries of the European Union. Via this system, any citizen of Ukraine who crossed the Moldovan border could receive a Moldovan state identification number (IDNP) online within 10 seconds. All you have to do is to enter your data in the identification system. People don’t have anymore to physically go to the offices of the public services agencies with long waiting lines – all this is left in the past.

By the end of April our website had almost 200,000 unique users. Total involvement remained the fundamental principle of our work: we collaborate with everyone and anyone who can provide any assistance. The entire process is transparent and the information is updated once in a few days.

The results of more than nine months of work

By mid-December, more than 430,000 unique users have checked out our online platform, and each of the pages was opened and viewed more than 2.2 million times in total.

Geographically, the users are located not just in Ukraine, Moldova, and Europe, but also in the USA, Canada, and Israel. In terms of their interests, the diversity is even more impressive: some read the rules for crossing the border looking for the least congested border checkpoints, some are interested to learn the regulations for brining humanitarian aid to Moldova, some are trying to find out the banking information of the account officially established by the Moldovan State Treasury to help Ukrainian citizens in the country, some are investigating the legal procedures for transporting a cat from Dnieper to Dresden via Chisinau, including the information on where in Moldova you can obtain a veterinary passport.

Part of our everyday work includes constant monitoring of ongoing events: we need to understand what kind of information is most needed and relevant right now. We do not consider ourselves humanitarian aid operators – we are rather operators of information aid, which is a powerful tool to solve lots of problems. People address us with a variety of questions: what kind of documents are needed in this and that situation; what procedure is required on this and that occasion; how to get this and that certificate and where exactly in Chisinau this office is located, and so forth. We, therefore, are trying to collect all this information for them to find out what kind of documents they need and for what purpose; which office is supposed to handle their request; where they can obtain those papers; what official service they should call, at what time they should come and what documents they should bring with them, etc. Then we write it all down following one general rule: if the instruction does not fit a standard laptop screen, it is too long and needs to be abridged.

In addition, three-quarters of our users read it all on their smartphones only, which means that in the mobile version, no material should take longer than four screen scrolls – in the current situation, people have no time to read a lot. Moreover, there are people with poor vision, and so we have to make sure that zooming in would result in proper rearrangement of the text, without breaking the format into a mess. And so on and so forth…

Looking back, it is very difficult to tell: what moment was the turning point of our project, what was the exact moment that made our success inevitable? Perhaps the first attempts to record the information on how people can get back home when all the airplanes are canceled and no new ones are going to be scheduled for the next month? Or maybe it was the launch of the first aggregator which was manually designed by just seven people within a few days? Or perhaps it was the contribution of the government agency that stepped in, indeed, to help us? There is no simple answer. Just one thing is clear – we managed to be helpful to people, and our work shall go on. Say no to war.

Translated from Russian by Kun