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Oleksii Maslo and his foundation evacuated more than 20 thousand civilians in the Kharkiv region

Oleksii Maslo is from Kharkiv, he is 34 years old. Before the full-scale Russia’s invasion, he was engaged in clothing design and manufacturing. But after February 24, Oleksii founded the Kharkiv Help foundation, which took thousands of people away from shelling and bombing in the Kharkiv region. This is a story about his decision to stay in the city, about evacuation through the blown-up dam and about people who didn’t want to leave their homes.

Photo: Serhii Snehyrev Facebook page.

I’ve been living in Kyiv for 13 years, but originally I am from Kharkiv. Two days before the invasion, I came to Kharkiv to visit my mother. On February 24, I decided to stay in the city. It seemed that in Kyiv, where I have more connections, there would be someone to help others, and in Kharkiv, it seemed like everyone was leaving. I had my car fueled as I was preparing to go to Kyiv, so I immediately filled out the form at the first volunteer headquarters I saw and said that I could deliver everything people might  need. I got my first request within an hour.

At first, I delivered food to the military. In the first months, it was very loud: mortars, artillery, planes, small arms. Something was constantly flying nearby, burning, and we were constantly going somewhere. Every day I woke up at 6 in the morning, read messages with a request to take people at least to the train station. I started my day by taking some family there, and only then switched to work with humanitarian aid. During the first week, we provided food to the military, the Security Service of Ukraine, the police, and hospitals, delivering 4,000 meals per day. At some point, the elevators in the city were turned off for safety reasons and many elderly people could not go down to the store or stand in line for hours, so we started helping civilians as well.

My father, an ambulance driver, lived 15 km from Kharkiv towards the Russian border in the village of Ruski Tyshky. We were still talking on the phone at 8:30 a.m. on February 24, and at 9 a.m. he stopped contacting us ― the village was occupied. For 20 days we didn’t know what happened to him. And then he found cellular connection somewhere and called. 

On the 72nd day of the full-scale war, my partner and I went to Poltava to register the Kharkiv Help charity foundation, and then my father called me again. He said the Russians were leaving. I advised him to hide and wait for our soldiers to come. And in two hours, his wife called me and said that he was wounded and bleeding. I knew the director of the Emergency Medical Service of the Kharkiv region, because I brought them ambulance cars from the friendly foundation in the Netherlands. I wanted him to help get my father, who had already been seen by a veterinarian, but it was impossible ― the village was in a gray zone, between two armies. The roads around were mined, no one could physically get there.

A neighbor somehow managed to take my father and his wife to a nearby village, where he was handed over to an ambulance and taken to the hospital. Father was cut by missile debris, he underwent several operations and already got back to work. From that moment I switched to the evacuation of civilians.

Ambulance cars for Kharkiv
from Stichting Zeilen van Vrijheid foundation.
Photo: Oleksii Maslo Facebook page.

Ruski Tyshky was the first village from where we evacuated civilians. We tried to take out as many people as possible under fire. A coalition of five Kharkiv organizations was created for evacuation in the region. The first time it was a small group of 8 cars with 2 people in each. Then we reacted to the requests from local chats, from the regional administration and Security Service of Ukraine.

Now I think about what we did and it was very silly of us to face this level of danger. Fear appeared later, back then everyone was running on adrenaline. We drove a humanitarian truck and took people out.

The streets in the villages were chaotic, sometimes we spent 40 minutes looking for an address, and sometimes we arrived at a smoldering fire and didn’t know if those people had survived. We drove between mines, remnants of Russian positions. No one except the military got there. And this is how we traveled twice a week for 2 months. We rescued 98 people from the first village, many of them were immobile and wounded. We called it a “volunteer caravan” because 20-30 cars were traveling together.

We persuaded people to leave under shelling. They said that we had to go, then 200 meters away Grad missiles fell, we hid, waited, persuaded again ― and people said that they could not go, because they had a cow here, or they did not know where to go, or they were afraid, or have never left the village, or think that after the deoccupation there will be no shelling. They waited for the shelling to stop, but it did not happen and they could have died. Or interfered with the Ukrainian military. For example, we took out of the school an immobile woman who someone had placed on a mattress in an empty room. That school served as the humanitarian headquarters of the Russians, and they mined the building because they knew that civilians would come there to get food. Now that school is completely destroyed. It isn’t hard to imagine what would happen to the woman if we didn’t took her from there in time.

Later we had more large-scale projects with European partner funds dealing with evacuation from the places under occupation. For example, Helping To Leave from Czech Republic. We were no longer focused on Kharkiv, and started operating in other places . That’s how we got to Pechenihy village, where we learned about a humanitarian corridor through the partially destroyed dam ― people left the occupation on foot, and humanitarian aid was transferred there. The foundation had applications from locals for the evacuation through the dam, and we could meet them there. It was the only way out of the Kharkiv region, people could go though the Russian checkpoint but had to pay for that. At 8 o’clock in the morning, we began to take out people who were passing through the dam to us.

Photo: Oleksii Maslo Facebook page.

At some point, the Russians stopped letting cars onto the dam and people walked 4 km on foot. The paralyzed were carried and left in the sun, we took them on our carts. It was physically difficult. We once took 2,100 people in one day. A third of all evacuees were children. Some of them were born during the occupation. There were families of soldiers from the Armed Forces of Ukraine who met them ― there were many tears.

We called it the “Road of Life”, we took about 18 thousand people along it.

One of our volunteers was captured ― saboteurs in a civilian car grabbed and kidnapped him. The volunteer was tortured for month and a half, they tried to recruit him to help their side, but to no effect.

Now I’m more involved in medical evacuation. We have two ambulance cars for this. Not everyone takes on such cases. For example, once we had to bring down a paralyzed person weighing more than 100 kg without an elevator. Sometimes we provided first aid. We came to people who were almost dying, and sometimes to those who had already died.. One woman died the night before our arrival. We also evacuated boarding schools out of the Kharkiv region at the request of the Ministry of Health of Ukraine.

There are different people ― someone wants to leave, someone needs to be pushed or to get an explanation of what is happening. Someone is leaving because there are no longer normal communal services and someone has lost their home. But there are also people that refuse to go because they don’t want to leave their livestock, or they are scared, and for them moving means leaving their comfort zone. Someone gets used to such inhumane conditions. I often post stories about these people on Instagram, their relatives see them, record a video asking them to leave, and it works. If not, then these people probably need some specialized help.

I think that because of this, everyone in our team got psychological trauma a long time ago. At the beginning, we took it personally, but then we realized that you can’t save everyone. It is necessary to treat everything with a cool head.