As Russian artillery struck the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in April, a family decided to flee, walking for miles with three young children in tow to a nearby village. But it was thanks to a volunteer driver who crossed the front line that they finally managed to get out of the territory under Russian control. “The driver, Zhenya, is a saint,” said Luda Lobanova, 58, after getting off a minibus in the central Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia in early May with Ihor, 8, Sofia, 7, and 2 Vlads, 1/2 years. “There were so many times they turned us around. If it wasn’t for Zhenya, we wouldn’t have made it.” With tears in her eyes, Lobanova thanked him before slipping away and getting back into his minibus. He had more humanitarian aid to deliver and more people to pick up. On the edge of Ukraine’s conflict zone, which runs along the east and south of the country, volunteer drivers risk everything to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukrainians behind the front lines and get people out. The journeys are dangerous and long – sometimes several days – and the drivers risk detention, injury or death. More than two dozen drivers have been captured and held for more than two months by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donetsk, according to Ukrainian activists. A few do it for money, some drivers said, but many do it for free, alone or in organized groups.
“I decided to do it because there are women and children there,” said Oleksandr Petrenko, who carried out several evacuations of areas in and around Mariupol before judging his risk. of detention too large because of its repeated incursions into Russian-held territory. “I also have a mother, I have a girlfriend. Those people don’t have to stay there, in that human grinder. Lives are being shattered there. If you don’t, people might die,” he said. more experienced drivers in the beginning, Petrenko learned the routes and the operation. It has adopted a strict set of rules, which apply to both drivers and passengers: delete photos and messages from cellphones, do not criticize Russia or Russian-backed separatists, and never, ever enter political discussions – the wrong comment with the wrong people could cost you your freedom or your life.
His first trip was the scariest. Even the weather was worrying. “It was gray and dark,” he said. “It was raining. And when you walk into a black-colored city that’s burned down, it’s like a movie.” Petrenko estimated that he managed to evacuate around 130 people from areas under Russian control before he stopped driving due to the risks.
Today, he assists with the logistics of a team of volunteer drivers operating out of Zaporizhzhia, the first major, safer city encountered by many people fleeing Russian-held territory, particularly in and around southern Mariupol. . None of the drivers still crossing the front lines would officially speak, for security reasons. The risks are clear. Among the drivers arrested is Vitaliy Sytnykov, a 34-year-old taxi driver from Mariupol who practices rock climbing. He has been detained since the end of March, according to one of his friends, journalist Alevtina Shvetsova, who herself fled Mariupol with her family at the beginning of March. “He is a person with a big heart,” Shvetsova said, speaking in early June in the central city of Kryvyi Rih. Sytnykov had managed to get out of Mariupol but had joined a group of volunteer drivers who were evacuating others, she said. Then, during one of his races, he was captured. We do not know why. The status of his detention and that of the other drivers is unclear. Information is scarce, gleaned from other people held in the same detention center who are later released, or from limited footage shown on Russian television, Shvetsova said. “He could have stayed somewhere safe with (his) family,” after he left town, she said. “But … he knew that there were still a lot of women, children in Mariupol.” Further east, in Donetsk and neighboring areas of Luhansk where Russian forces are stepping up, volunteer vans and minibuses drive through towns and country roads, rushing to evacuate civilians as the fights are getting closer.
Roman Zhylenkov, a sensible, quiet man, has been helping evacuate people from the path of conflict since early March, just days after the war began. He started by moving people out of his hometown of Kreminna, now under Russian control, north of the city of Sievierodonetsk, then continued to the Donetsk region.
Working with Ukrainian aid group Vostok SOS, most of those it is now evacuating from towns like Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk are elderly or sick. Many cannot walk and must be carried out of homes and apartment buildings on stretchers or even in their arms.
“I wish I had a quieter life,” he said, pausing briefly after carrying a group of evacuated elderly people. “But it’s war now.” On the back of his van, a sticker bears his organization’s logo and a hashtag. : “#LeaveNoOneBehind.”
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