ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine (AP) – When Russian artillery stormed the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in April, a family decided to flee, walking 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 leave the Russian-occupied territory.
“The driver, Zhenya, is a saint,” said Luda Lobanova, 58, after getting off a minibus in the central Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya in early May, along with 8-year-old Ihor, 7-year-old Sofia and 2 1/2 year old Vlad. “There were so many times that they turned us around. We wouldn’t have made it without Zhenya.”
With tears in her eyes, Lobanova thanked him before slipping away and clambering back into his minivan. He had to deliver more humanitarian aid, pick up more people.
On the edge of the conflict zone in Ukraine, which runs along the east and south of the country, volunteer drivers are risking everything to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukrainians behind the front lines and to get people out. The routes are dangerous and long – sometimes several days – and the drivers risk arrest, injury or death. More than two dozen drivers have been arrested, held for more than two months by Russian-backed separatists in the eastern region of Donetsk, Ukrainian activists say.
Some 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,” said Oleksandr Petrenko, who conducted several evacuations from areas in and around Mariupol before deeming his risk of detention too great because of his repeated trips to Russian-occupied territory.
“I also have a mother, I have a girlfriend. These people don’t have to stay there, in that human mill. There lives are broken. If you don’t do it, people can die,” he said.
Petrenko initially joined more experienced drivers and learned the routes and how to operate. He passed a set of strict rules that apply to drivers and passengers alike: wipe photos and messages from cell phones, don’t criticize Russia or Russia-backed separatists, and never, ever get into political discussions — the wrong ones. commenting with the wrong people could cost you your freedom or your life.
His first trip was the scariest. Even the weather was ominous. “It was gray and gloomy,” he said. “It was raining. And when you go into a city with a black color that burned down, it’s like a movie.”
Petrenko estimated that he managed to evacuate about 130 people from Russian-occupied areas before he stopped driving because of the risks.
Now he helps with logistics for a team of volunteer drivers operating out of Zaporizhzhya, the first safer major city encountered by many people fleeing Russian territory, particularly in the south from Mariupol and surrounding areas.
None of the drivers still crossing the front line wanted to speak officially for safety reasons.
The risks are clear. Among the detained drivers is Vitaliy Sytnykov, a 34-year-old Mariupol taxi driver who is a mountain climber. He has been detained since late March, according to one of his friends, journalist Alevtina Shvetsova, who fled Mariupol herself with her family earlier in March.
“He is a person with a big heart,” Shvetsova said in the central city of Kryvyi Rih in early June. Sytnykov had managed to get out of Mariupol but joined a group of volunteer drivers who were evacuating others, she said. Then, on one of his runs, he was captured. It’s not clear why.
The status of the arrest of him and other drivers is unclear. Information is scarce, coming from others held in the same detention facility and later released, or from limited images that have appeared on Russian television, Shvetsova said.
“He could have stayed in a safe place with (his) family,” she said after he left the city. “But … he knew that there were still many women and children in Mariupol.”
Farther east, in the Donetsk and neighboring regions of Luhansk, where Russian forces are redoubled their offensive, volunteer vans and minibuses drive through towns and country roads, racing to evacuate civilians as the fighting draws closer.
Roman Zhylenkov, a no-nonsense man of few words, has been helping evacuate people from the path of the conflict since early March, just a few days after the war started. He started by removing people from his now Russian-occupied hometown of Kreminna, north of the city of Sievierodonetsk, then moved on to the Donetsk region.
In collaboration with the Ukrainian aid organization Vostok SOS, most of those he is now evacuating from cities like Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk are elderly or sick. Many cannot walk and have to be carried out of houses and condominiums on stretchers or even in his arms.
“I’d like to have a quieter life,” he said, pausing to transport a group of elderly evacuees. “But it’s war now.”
On the back of his van is a sticker with his organization’s logo and a hashtag: “#LeaveNoOneBehind.”
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