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People are paying to write messages on Ukrainian war weapons before use

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

As the war in Ukraine drags on, some of the volunteers seeking to support the country's military are struggling to raise money. So they're getting creative. Think crowdsourcing, memes and thank-you gifts. NPR's Tim Mak has more from Kyiv.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Three months into the war, the initial shock of the invasion had begun to drop off. Anton Sokolenko, an IT student, noticed his fundraising efforts were starting to drop off, as well.

ANTON SOKOLENKO: We were getting less and less donations. We were asking like, please, we need to buy these. We need to buy that. And people stopped giving us donations.

MAK: He heard of some volunteers with an unusual fundraising idea. They had gotten Ukrainian soldiers to write custom messages on mortar shells before firing them. He was skeptical at first until he learned how much money they were raising.

SOKOLENKO: They got, like, 2,000 or $3,000 in a few days. So that amount of money changed our volunteer's mind. And we started doing this.

MAK: Working with a humanitarian group called the Center for Assistance to the Army, Veterans and Their Families, he found soldiers ready to help them carry out the task. The first message that someone paid for was an anime meme. Then the jokes began flooding in from donors all around the world.

SOKOLENKO: I can say most of them are jokes because we got, like, 60 or 70 orders saying Happy Father's Day, happy birthday. One sign was from Ukrainian guy, and he proposed to marriage to his girlfriend.

MAK: They expanded their fundraising efforts, allowing the public to donate in order to write messages on tanks or on grenades.

SOKOLENKO: I'm happy with this because we can get donations. We can get cars for soldiers. And everyone is happy except Russians.

MAK: He's raised $130,000 from more than 1,500 written messages on weapons of war. They've used that money to purchase cars, rifle scopes, medicine, food and basic supplies for soldiers on the front lines. And he shakes off the suggestion that some might think he's turning the very serious business of killing into a joke.

SOKOLENKO: I don't care about such people. They're stupid if they don't understand that we get donations for soldiers, and we buy what soldiers need to fight to defend our country. So they're brain dead, I think.

MAK: One of the ways they're trying to defend their country is by crowd funding money for drones. Multiple campaigns have been started to purchase the multimillion-dollar Turkish-made Bayraktars, and the smaller handheld ones can be easily purchased by civilians and modified for lethal use. They've proven to be game changers on the battlefield. Dmytro Lytvynenko has been one of those raising funds to buy drones for the Ukrainian army.

DMYTRO LYTVYNENKO: When war have started, I had COVID-19, so I didn't feel well at all. And that's why I had no any chance to join the army and to join any battles that were going on. So I have to try some ways, how can I help with that?

MAK: As he recovered, he had an idea. He would do long profiles of individual Ukrainian soldiers in a small Telegram channel he had, using it as a venue to inspire others to give money. One soldier profiled asked for a drone, and Lytvynenko managed to raise more than $1,000 in a single day towards that cause.

LYTVYNENKO: It's one of the first successful cases.

MAK: The success got him hooked. Soon, they were experimenting with everything that came to mind. He and his friends began designing NFTs to sell, auctioning off war trophies like used rocket launchers or captured Russian patches and medals, even selling videos showing Ukrainian soldiers delivering a custom message from the front lines. They started selling books from their libraries or designing postcards and pens to sell. Lytvynenko has raised more than $20,000 for the Ukrainian military through these myriad methods.

LYTVYNENKO: I want to win the war. That's pretty important because it's not, like, just a war. It's fighting to stay alive for the country, first of all. And I associate myself with the country. So me and country - it's kind of one thing which lives together. And I can't imagine myself without this country.

MAK: For him and the other volunteers suddenly thrust into the war, it's their way of contributing to the war effort and using their creativity to contribute to the war's end.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.