Resident Natalia Prikodko returned to Ukraine on June 9, 2022, after she and her 17-year-old daughter left as refugees outside Kieu in February as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continued. Looking out from the burnt-out apartment. / Marco Julica
Zaporizhia, Ukraine: When a Russian cannon struck the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in April, a family decided to flee and walked miles to a nearby village with three young children. But thanks to volunteer drivers who crossed the front lines, they were finally able to get out of Russian territory.
“The driver, Zenya, is a saint,” said eight-year-old Ihor, seven-year-old Sophia, and 21-year-old Ruda Robanova after getting off the minibus in the city of Zaporizhia in central Ukraine in early May. / 2 year old Vlad. “There were so many times that they looked back at us. Without Jenya, we wouldn’t have done it.”
Donova wept and thanked him before he slipped back into the minibus. He provided more humanitarian aid and welcomed more people.
At the edge of the Ukrainian conflict zone, which runs along the east and south of the country, volunteer drivers are providing humanitarian aid to Ukrainians behind the front lines and endangering everything to drive people out. The route is dangerous and long, sometimes taking days, and the driver faces detention, injury, or death. According to Ukrainian activists, more than 20 drivers were captured in the eastern Donetsk region after being detained for more than two months by Russian-backed separatists.
Some drivers do it for money, but many do it alone or in organized groups for free.
“There are women and children there, so I decided to do that,” said Oleksandr Petrenko, who had evacuated several times from Mariupol and the surrounding area, repeatedly to Russian territory. I said before thinking that the risk of detention was too great because of the invasion.
“I have a mother. I have a girlfriend. These people don’t have to stay there with that human grinder. They lose their lives there. Otherwise, they may die.” He said.
At first, joining an experienced driver, Petrenko learned the route and how to operate it. He adopted a set of strict rules that apply equally to drivers and passengers: wiping photos and messages from mobile phones, not criticizing Russia and Russian-backed separatists, and never politics. Don’t Participate in Conflict-Wrong Comments With Wrong People You May Sacrifice Your Freedom or Your Life.
His first trip was the scariest. I even had a feeling of the weather. “It was gray and dark,” he said. And when you enter the burnt-out black city, it’s like a movie. “
Petrenko estimated that he was able to evacuate about 130 people from Russia’s territory before risking quitting driving.
He is now supporting the logistics of a team of volunteer drivers working in Zaporizhia, the first safer major city encountered by many fleeing Russian territory, especially in Mariupol and the southern part of the surrounding area. ..
For security reasons, none of the drivers who were still at the forefront spoke on record.
The risks are clear. Among the detained drivers is Vitaliy Sytnykov, a 34-year-old rock climbing Mariupol taxi driver. According to one of his friends, journalist Alevtina Shvetsova, he has been detained since late March and fled Mariupol with his family in early March.
“He’s a big-hearted person,” Shvetsova said in early June in the central city of Kryvyi Rih. Sytnykov was able to get out of Mariupol, but he joined a group of volunteer drivers to evacuate others. In one of his runs he was captured. The reason is not clear.
The status of detention of him and other drivers is unknown. According to Shvetsova, the information is lacking and was collected from others in the same detention facility and later released, as well as limited footage from Russian television.
After leaving the city, “He would have been able to stay in a safe place with (his) family, but … he knew that Mariupol had many women and children left. I did. “
Further east in the Luhansk region, adjacent to Donetsk, Russian troops are doubling the attacks, with volunteer vans and minibuses running through towns and country roads, competing to evacuate civilians as combat approaches.
Since early March, just days after the war began, Roman Zirenkov, a meaningless man with no words, has helped evacuate people from the path of conflict. He started by taking people out of Kreminna, north of the city of Severodonetsk, now Russia’s hometown, and then stayed in the Donetsk region.
In collaboration with the Ukrainian aid group Vostok SOS, most of the people he is currently evacuating from towns and cities such as Bakumut, Kramatorsk and Slovyansk are elderly or ill. Many are unable to walk and must be carried from a block of a house or apartment on a stretcher, or even in his arms.
“I want to live a quieter life,” he said. “But now it’s a war.”