“On the front line, you can sometimes hear shooting in the distance,” says David Mastný from People in Need, who works in Donbass
David Mastný had Russian language “left” as a third optional language in school. He started liking it so much, that after his studies he left with People in Need on a humanitarian mission to Eastern Ukraine, where the war is in its third year. There David, in cooperation with local colleagues, supports and improves the logistics within the financial management of projects. To unwind after work, he goes horse riding and cycling. Sometimes he says that his cycling routes can be complicating because he may come across a sign on the road warning that there is a minefield ahead. In this case, David has to find an alternate route. When working however, he is not afraid and he is always glad when he can visit places where People in Need helps people affected by the waging war.
After getting my Bachelor’s degree, I was pondering on what to do, and because work in the humanitarian field appealed to me, I signed up for a so-called assessment centre. I knew that I did not want to be sitting day-to-day my whole life from 8 to 4 in an office. I wanted to try something different and where better to start than at People in Need, the largest and the most reasonable organization in the Czech Republic? I studied international area studies with a focus on Eastern Europe at the Faculty of Social Sciences. I decided to complete my Master’s as well and after I was offered a job at People in Need with the Ukrainian mission.
Were you headed to Ukraine from the very beginning?
I didn’t have any priority, so it was more or less a coincidence. Had I been offered another country, I would have most likely accepted it as well. For example, I do not feel as connected to Africa, but if I had to go to Afghanistan, Syria or Mongolia, I would have taken it too. But as I was offered Ukraine, we matched well. Prior to that I had studied in L’viv, later I was in Kiev and Odesa, so I already had some basics of Russian and Ukrainian.
When did you ever end up studying Russian?
We had to have in total three foreign languages in school, so I was “forced” to choose another language. In Russian, we had a very good teacher. My friend and I were so hooked that after the second semester I went to Moscow and he went to Sankt-Petersburg. After being able to travel there, we fully got into it.
How long have you been working here in Eastern Ukraine in Sloviansk and what exactly do you do?
I have been at People in Need for over 9 months, of which seven were in Sloviansk. We are introducing a new logistics system that is meant to make the work that we do easier and more transparent. For the moment though it is still being developed. So, before we technically prepare the whole thing, I am a financial manager at 90%. It is a blend of logistics, finance and IT.
What is your work day like? Do you sit in front of your computer all day in Eastern Ukraine?
No, luckily no. I try as often as I can to go to meet locals or colleagues, so that I can have personal contact with what is happening here. In addition, to see what money goes where and if we have all processes correctly set up because we have an office on the other side of the frontline in Stachanov. I often go to meet colleagues who work on finances.
You often find yourself near the front line, is your job dangerous?
Here in Sloviansk surely not, it is an ordinary Eastern European town, a bit provincial. When we go to the front line, we rely on our colleagues, who are in charge of security, and on our drivers, who are able to assess the situation correctly. Until now, I luckily have not been in a situation when I have found myself alone in danger. Of course, one can hear in the distance the sound of fighting, but one does not realize that, because it could be shooting from heavy artillery that may be tens of kilometres away. Soldiers would not let us into an area with active fighting. Moreover, most of the shooting happens at night, when we are not there anymore.
How did your family and your close friends react when you let them know you were going so close to the war?
The reactions were very diverse, but overall positive. Of course, mum is a bit scared, but she doesn’t show it. At times, people around me at least started wondering and asking what it was actually like here. Then when I come back, I can at least partially relay my experience and tell them good stories. For example, what my colleagues and I are doing here.
How many Czechs are with you on mission and how do you like working with the local team?
At one point, there were four more Czechs here in total, but now here with me there is only my colleague Lenka. As for my local colleagues, I work well together with them. Especially with our financial team. They are really competent and experienced. What impressed me here was how much the Ukrainians enjoy at times to talk to me in Ukrainian, a language that is not regularly used here in Donbass. I am very glad that we are working in four languages (note: Czech, Ukrainian, Russian, English).
You were saying that Sloviansk is a bit provincial, how do you like living here? What else do you do here besides working?
Provincial very much in “air quotes”. The town now has 100, 000 inhabitants, and with the arrival of humanitarian organisations lately it is reviving in comparison with other towns. It is easy to find what one wants. I used to play basketball in Prague, so I found a couple of people here to go every two weeks to play in the neighbouring town. But I also have a new pastime – horse riding. There is a small farm out of town, where they have around forty horses. I went there a couple of times to have a look with my colleagues. I stopped going just to look and instead, I started to ride. I was so hooked that even as my colleagues left, I keep on going regularly to ride!
So, you learnt how to ride a horse here and now you have a new dream, you want to get a horse and compete in races?
Well… by sheer coincidence the owner has told me today that their competition season would start in about a week and that I should go and try. I started jumping over obstacles about a month ago, so I’ll probably have my butt kicked by young girls, but I’ll try to participate. At least as a joke it will be worth it, and maybe someday I’ll buy myself a horse.
In your free time you then play basketball, go horse riding…
On weekends, I also go on trips in the area. For example, here in Sloviansk there are salt lakes with baths that have healing water and mud. Recently, I have also bought a mountain bike. The local landscape is perfect for biking, because it is not demanding. There is only mildly far-stretching hills. The only thing I came across at times was that at some point I could not go further because there was a sign warning of a minefield. But those are luckily well labelled. When you are on the road, nothing can happen.
And how were you received by locals?
People in Sloviansk are usually fine and most importantly, curious. Sometimes when they hear my accent, or rather notice my height and my appearance, and they realize that I am a foreigner, they are interested to find out where I am from. Their reactions are then usually positive. It similarly happens with the people to whom we are providing support. When I talk to them, they often thank me. It is a pleasant reward for the piece of work we are doing here.