fbpx
Go to Top

Russia escalated its eight-year invasion of Ukraine to a full-scale war on February 24, 2022. Since then, we’ve witnessed World War III scares and economic ripple effects as the world watches the people of Ukraine defend themselves against overwhelming odds. 

News coverage has been constant as Ukrainian cities fall prey to Russian artillery attacks forcing people to evacuate. But unfortunately, not everyone has the means to escape, leaving them vulnerable to modern urban warfare. In these critical circumstances, there is always a way to lend support beyond changing a profile photo on social media. One shining example of this is André West. When the war started, the 21-year-old ex-armored car mechanic decided to quit his job, sell everything (except for two vintage Honda motorcycles), and drive to Ukraine to volunteer. He wanted to help the people of Ukraine using whatever he had at his disposal, which in this case was a 1991 Audi 100 2.3E sedan.

Photo via André West

West arrived in Ukraine in April, and after a month he organized a group of volunteers to help evacuate people from small towns and villages on the frontlines. Since June, his team of civilian drivers and mechanics have been conducting search and rescue missions using regular cars. These high-speed humanitarians drive through kill zones and evade artillery shelling to evacuate people before their town becomes occupied by Russians. This fleet of vehicles have drive through bombed-out roads and over ground fields, at live or die speeds, with no armor plating, no four-wheel-drive, and often with no military support. I discovered André West’s story on social media and reached out to him to learn more about his organization, SAR Kharkiv/Donbas, and its efforts in helping the people of Ukraine. 

Hoonigan Training in the German Hills 

André West’s background in automobiles involved working as an armorer in Germany. His job was retrofitting new Land Rovers, G-Wagons, or Toyota Land Cruisers, with ballistic steel armor and bulletproof glass to withstand high caliber rifles and improvised explosives. This job allowed him to gather extensive knowledge on vehicle drivetrains, braking, and suspension. However, in November 2021, he purchased a 1991 Audi 100 2.3E sedan. The first car purchase. 

The decision to buy a 30-year-old Audi sedan came from his childhood. West’s mother used to own an Audi 200, so owning a model similar in size, drivetrain, and identical black leather interior provoked a sentimental connection to simpler times. However, while West has fond memories of riding in the back seat, he never took his mom’s car out street racing. In the hills of Germany, West honed his car-control skills and became familiar with the Audi 100’s handling and limits, as is customary with drivers and their cars. 

During the interview, he mentioned a time when he nearly flew off a ridge not protected by a guard rail at 100 mph (160 kmh). However, quick thinking forced the Audi 100 to turn into the hillside, preventing a serious crash. At the time, West had no idea this youth-fueled hooning would develop the muscle memory required to drive through war zones. 

André West, the High-Speed Humanitarian

André West’s decision to travel to Ukraine to volunteer started with hesitation but quickly boiled over into determination. As he puts it, “I couldn’t just watch the war unfold.” So, in March, he quit his job, canceled the lease at his apartment, and sold off most of his belongings, leaving him with enough supplies to fit into the Audi 100. West arrived in Ukraine in April. The original plan was to join the International Legion of Ukraine, formed by President Zelensky. With his background in armored vehicles, one would assume he would be a helpful asset. However, when he arrived, the Legion wanted to turn him into an MG3 assistant machine gunner carrying ammo for lead sprayers. 

André West’s decision to travel to Ukraine to volunteer started with hesitation but quickly boiled over into determination. As he puts it, “I couldn’t just watch the war unfold.”

After declining the offer, West traveled to Kyiv, where he found it challenging to find volunteer work. Eventually, he started helping clean up the cities of Bucha, Borodyanka, and Irpin. In addition, he dug trenches for the Ukrainian army throughout the Kyiv Oblast Region. However, he was always looking for more efficient jobs before noticing something. There was a need to arrange evacuations for people in smaller towns and villages. That’s when the light bulb went off. West had time, driving skill, and a reliable old Audi with a back seat and trunk space. With that, West founded the SAR Kharkiv/Donbas with a Ukrainian citizen in a similar situation. Having an organization allowed them to gain volunteer certifications from officials, set up a home base, and gather  information about the territory. 

Audi 100 Search and Rescue 

As with any startup company, the first mission is getting the word out. On June 1, West and his team of two volunteers drove from Kyiv to Kharkiv before traveling south, leaving their contact information for evacuations in every town they came across. By June 3, they had received their first mission to evacuate people from Sloviansk. On the 7th, a young woman called requesting search and rescue for her schizophrenic mother. She provided details, the address, and photos of her mother, who was in Vovchoiarivka, south of Lysychansk. 

There was a need to arrange evacuations for people in smaller towns and villages. That’s when the light bulb went off. West had time, driving skill, and a reliable old Audi with a back seat and trunk space.

They asked a soldier for the best (read: safest) route into town. Amazingly, they found the mother and quickly turned the convoy of reasonably priced SAR vehicles around to get out of dodge. This meant speeding through overgrown fields, the first time off-road for the Audi 100. SAR Kharkiv/Donbas would go on to evacuate 200 people from the Vovchoiarivka area and even had to endure a sleepless night under Russian artillery bombardment. 

By the end of June, SAR Kharkiv/Donbas had shifted its efforts to Novoluhanske, which became the location for some of their most dangerous drives. One instance required the Audi 100 2.3E sedan to drive through a five-kilometer Russian ambush kill zone multiple times to reach a small village. This route might as well have been the moon, with Hummer EV-sized craters and potholes littering the road. 

Not wanting to be sitting ducks, West had to drive his Audi 100 as fast as possible while dancing between the carters. During the interview, West talked about what it was like driving through this area, “Once I did a Scandinavian flick through the ambush to go even faster when we had artillery shelling near the area. On the road, I would drive 130-150 kmh (80-90 mph) while avoiding the carters and potholes, which was extremely scary for the evacuees.” The Ukrainian army would later inform them that a Russian tank had clear sights on their route. 

Audi 100 2.3E’s Battle Scars

Photos of the 1991 Audi 100 show some Mad Max styled front end damage. That is a result of shrapnel and debris from BM-21 Grad rockets and artillery shells exploding near the car. In several instances, SAR Kharkiv/Donbas often found themselves driving through clouds of dust kicked up from artillery attacks that occurred minutes ago. 

Photos of the 1991 Audi 100 show some Mad Max styled front end damage. That is a result of shrapnel and debris from BM-21 Grad rockets and artillery shells exploding near the car.

The front windshield sports a bowling ball-sized impact caused by a grad rocket landing about 30 meters from the Audi. A piece of shrapnel hit the windshield, right in front of the steering wheel, but thankfully didn’t penetrate through. 

“I personally have been shelled about six times,” said West. “One time, we ripped two tires near Semyhirya and had only one spare and drove all the way to Bakhmut with a flat tire, and somehow we reuse the light alloy wheel.” The front and rear lights are taped and painted over for nighttime runs to avoid becoming a lit target. Like a whiskey runner in the Black Hills of Tennessee, West drives fast at night with no lights. 

The 1991 Audi 100 2.3E’s battle wounds include needing to reweld the rear trailing arm multiple times. In addition, its exhaust system has taken a beating worthy of a Purple Heart. It’s lost two silencers, so the 2.3-liter five-cylinder engine now roars like a T72 tank. Yet, the car soldiers on like a ’90s action hero and never lets West down during a mission, even when major mechanical components fail. For example, once, the gearbox mount broke after hitting a bump in Kodema while en route to Novoluhanske. 

The front and rear lights are taped and painted over for nighttime runs to avoid becoming a lit target. Like a whiskey runner in the Black Hills of Tennessee, West drives fast at night with no lights. 

After being stuck on the road for ten minutes, the team realized that the Audi’s forward gears were shot (no pun intended), but the reverse worked just fine. Thus, they drove away in reverse only to see artillery shells land in the exact spot they were at less than a minute ago. The Audi 100 traveled in reverse to Semihyria, where they dropped off humanitarian aid supplies before returning to their home base in Bakhmut. During the trip, the cracked radiator required 20 liters of water to prevent overheating. Nevertheless, the Audi 100 2.3E got them home.

Donate an Oil Change to Help Keep SAR Kharkiv/Donbas on the Road

SAR Kharkiv/Donbas has evacuated nearly 400 people since it was founded in June. In addition, there is a fundraiser on Fundrazr for SAR Kharkiv/Donbas to raise money used to keep their fleet of cars on the road and continue their humanitarian efforts. Besides search and rescue, SAR Kharkiv/Donbas helps small forgotten towns and villages on the frontlines by providing people with food, medications, hygiene products, and even fresh bread. 

André West has no plans to leave Ukraine, “I’ll stay in Ukraine for as long as the frontline moves, so probably as long as the war takes. I can drive whatever. We are in the process of getting a 4×4 for autumn and winter. I’ve been driving a Volkswagen T4 a lot and been told by co-drivers that they’ve never seen a T4 van doing the things I did with it. However, I obviously prefer my Audi.”

If you want to support André West and SAR Kharkiv/Donbas, you can donate by clicking here. You can also follow André West on Instagram and YouTube, where he posts videos of their SAR missions. 

Comments