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Saving civilians: three stories about evacuations from the frontline

The full-scale Russian invasion brought many challenges to Ukraine, and the major disruption to the social system is one of them. Many people woke up on the February 24 with a shattered professional identity. Some scientists, for instance, were no longer sure if their work matters at all. A lot of Ukrainians faced existential questions: What shall I do? What if my previous job has lost its sense? What is my role in the defense of the Motherland? 

Take, for example, Roman, Heorhii, and Eduard. None of the three is a professional soldier. Roman used to teach boxing. Heorhii designed clothes that made it to Ukrainian Fashion Week. Eduard was a truck driver. Despite the differences in their backgrounds, all three took up the same role in the defense efforts. They chose to evacuate civilians from regions close to the frontline. 

A foreigner may wonder why do these people take part in evacuation operations outside governmental agencies. There are explanations both on the supply and demand side of the equation. Foremost, Ukrainian volunteers complement the state capacities. This is true for almost any sphere, evacuation of civilians included. But also, volunteers have a large amount of trust from Ukrainians. And sometimes that may be crucial to persuade someone to leave their home. After all, the three volunteers have already gathered enough experiences to be called professional evacuators. 

Roman, Vostok SOS

Photo from personal archive

Roman has been living next to the war for eight years and is already used to it. A native of the Luhansk region, he started to evacuate people in 2014. “It was a source of income for me at the time, not a nonprofit activity, but “now” and “then” are of no comparison,” he explains. War was different, Roman was even able to cross the frontline, while evacuating people from Kadiivka, his temporarily occupied hometown. 

Since then, he has resided in the town of Kreminna, the Luhansk region. There Roman ran his own business and trained youth to box. On the eve of the full-scale invasion, somewhat saddened by his trainee’s defeat in the quarterfinal of a championship, he was coming home from Lutsk, a city in the West of the country. In the morning of February 24, Roman’s train stopped in Kyiv. This is when Roman found out that the invasion started.

He came back to Kreminna to see his business halted. The Military Commissariat in which Roman was registered left, thus, he could not easily get into the military. That’s when he decided to deliver bread to those in need. He was going around the town, bringing essentials to those who could not move easily. Then, Roman’s friends asked him to get their cars from Kreminna.

He agreed, but with one condition — at least a few seats must remain vacant. Throughout March, he utilized those seats to evacuate people, posting about his operation on social media.

“My plan was first to evacuate all children, and then proceed with elderly,” he recalls. However, on the 18th of April, Kreminna was occupied, and Roman was forced to leave. This is when a Ukrainian NGO “Vostok SOS” contacted him. They were looking for people who would lead evacuations, and Roman’s posts on social media brought him to their attention. After completing a training course with c, Roman returned to frontline regions in May. He has been there ever since, and evacuated thousands of civilians. 

One of the biggest problems volunteers face is unwillingness of people to go. But Roman takes it lightly. Throughout our conversation, he laughs a lot. Roman recalls a recent story: Toretsk, a town just a few kilometers away from the frontline. The evacuation team is there to take care of an elderly woman. She, unlike many, is willing to leave. If her cat comes. Thus, Roman receives an atypical task — catch the cat. Running after the animal, he manages to get a grab on it, but the cat bites Roman and runs away once again. Roman was no longer able to catch it. “We are not going anywhere today, the cat now is in a bad mood,” granny says. Roman and his team tell her they will try again soon and leave for other evacuees.

Heorhii, Rescue NOW fund

Photo from personal archive

Heorhii is less optimistic. A clothing designer from Kharkiv, he also spent eight months busy with evacuations. Previously, Heorhii enjoyed a successful career in design, worked with international firms. In 2020, he even made it to the Ukrainian Fashion Week. “On February 23, I was at my production site, explaining to a colleague that there would be no invasion,” he recalls bitterly. 

Next morning changed everything. After a few days, Heorhii was forced to leave for Dnipro city. Disarrayed, he was trying to find his place in the defense of Ukraine. Territorial defense of Dnipro was flooded with people, and its officers told Heorhii to wait for a phone call. In the meantime, he went to a “bar”, a location where Molotov cocktails were made to fight with Russians. “I can still assemble a cocktail with my eyes closed,” he says.

Then Roman saw an announcement on social media saying that the “RescueNow” fund is looking for people to participate in evacuations. With March setting in, he was back at his hometown. Among the first of his assignments was Saltivka, a residential area of Kharkiv. It lies in the North of town and has been heavily shelled by Russians. “That was really hardcore,” Roman says. The team did not even have the stretchers to carry people with limited mobility. “We carried them on bedsheets,” he recalls. 

Later, Roman moved to evacuations from the Donetsk region. Unwilling evacuees is a problem that haunts him all the time. It arises from the fact that there is no internet connection in the frontline regions. Therefore, the locals cannot apply for evacuation via the “RescueNow” website. Their friends and relatives do so instead, sometimes without the consent of the evacuees.

Heorhii developed a complex understanding of why people do not want to flee. When speaking to people hiding in basements near the frontline, you grasp “that for them the basement, in which they have been staying for months, has become the safest place.”

Such “safe” places generate hope that you can outwait the war near your home. “It is false hope,” Roman argues. 

These people manage to speak to their relatives from time to time. They know that Russian air attacks are present in any part of Ukraine. It makes them feel like it makes no difference where exactly in Ukraine to be, since the danger is omnipresent. 

Winter is coming. Heorhii has been thinking about this since summer. He knew that critical infrastructure would be shattered. Speaking to civilians on the frontline, he said that a basement may be a comfortable place to stay in summer, but in winter it may become a deathbed. 

Heorhii has been through extremely dangerous incidents. Once, the engine of the evacuation car stopped while the area around was shelled by Russians. The Ukrainian military saved people and their car by bringing them into relative safety. 

Not every such event has a happy ending. “We had some bad stories,” Heorhii says. There was an evacuation from Zelenopillia village. The team were supposed to bring two locals to safety. Their older relatives declared that they want to stay behind. In such cases, volunteers simply bring essentials. That’s what Heorhii with the team did. Evacuation had gone smoothly. The next day, one of the elderly was killed under the Russian shelling. Then the team went to save the other elderly, but on their way back were hit by an explosive. The car was destroyed, but the people were still alive. Therefore, the Ukrainian military was sent to save them.

At the same time, Heorhii still manages to find something positive among the sufferings he sees daily. Recently, he has seen happy children. They were amused by the fact that their house was bombed, because their relatives have finally agreed to evacuate. “These children were too tired to go to basements every now and again,” Heorhii recounts. 

Eduard, Vostok SOS

Photo from personal archive

Eduard is a native of Bakhmut, a town at which Russia has been fixated for months. The fighting around it is so fierce that Vostok SOS does not run evacuations there. Recently, Eduard learned from a friend that his house no longer exists. 

Prior to the full-scale invasion, the young man has been working near his hometown as a driver of special vehicles, such as dump trucks and excavators. When Russian forces attacked, the production site closed. He felt lost and did not know what to do. His friends already were taking part in evacuations and offered him to try too. Eduard studied how these operations ran and understood how he might help. He was shocked by what he saw closer to the frontline. “A group of 15 people would only boil three eggs to eat,” he recalls. Thus, he became committed to the idea of helping people in such circumstances. 

At the same time, he was too afraid for his family to leave them in Bakhmut. Therefore, he talked them into evacuating. With his family evacuated, he started to persistently ask members of Vostok SOS to get him on board. He has been a member of the teams since mid-May.

“At first it was very difficult to handle each case psychologically,” Eduard explains. But as his experience expanded, Eduard also took his emotions under control. “If you become obsessed with each situation, you would go mad,” he says. 

An evacuation volunteer is not a taxi driver. You need some emotional commitment to make people follow you, while leaving their home.

“Almost every day I face situations, when the evacuees are not willing to leave,” Eduard recounts. He is empathic about their concerns. “Many people are not happy to be evacuated, it is natural and understandable. But when we are safe, I mostly see happy faces and gratitude,” Eduard says. 

Despite acknowledging that at times he is afraid for his life, he is happy to help people leave. “I make a change for our state, for our country, for our people,” he concludes.