Donetsk: On the Road to Safety

It’s hard to bear the ongoing shelling in the east; but it’s also hard to leave.

Donetsk: On the Road to Safety

It’s hard to bear the ongoing shelling in the east; but it’s also hard to leave.

An elderly lady collects fallen tree branches to use as firewood on October 21, 2022 in Bakhmut, Donetsk oblast, Ukraine.
An elderly lady collects fallen tree branches to use as firewood on October 21, 2022 in Bakhmut, Donetsk oblast, Ukraine. © Carl Court/Getty Images

Tensions are running high on the evacuation bus taking civilians from areas under fire in the Donetsk region to relative safety further west.

One middle-aged woman with bleached blonde hair can't stop talking, directing a stream of incoherent stories and statements at other passengers and the bus driver Sergiy. Irritation grows, and she takes offence when one passenger asks her repeatedly to quiet down.

The ongoing conflict is taking a toll on everyone. Sergiy says that he has been helping evacuate traumatised civilians since the first days of the war, and that he himself has become shell-shocked.

In early August, after heavy battles led to the temporary loss of the entire Luhansk region to the Russians, Kyiv announced the mass evacuation of the Donetsk region. The area was expected to be the next target of massive Russian bombardment; but the main reason the authorities gave was the possible disruption of gas supplies, leaving Kyiv unable to guarantee heating during the winter.

Indeed, Russian rocket strikes on Ukrainian power stations in October and November affected the entire country, including the eastern regions. Kramatorsk is experiencing six to twelve hours of daily blackouts, and despite the regional administration proclaiming the partial restoration of gas supplies, there is no heating.

Volunteer initiatives continue to help people leave for safer locations. The city’s Tato (Dad) Hub used to function as a club for fathers organising weekend activities with their children; it is now a local humanitarian centre.

"For some reason, I don't want to leave."

Olexandr Ivanov, one of the volunteers, said that they had begun by helping evacuees at the Kramatorsk railway station. When the station was shelled on the April 8, leaving 61 people dead and 121 wounded, many of the original volunteers left.

"I am the only one who remains - for some reason, I don't want to leave," he said.

The Tato Hub runs a telephone hotline for people to request aid, and volunteers compile lists of evacuees. Every day, volunteer drivers take the list of prospective passengers and travel to specified pick-up points. 

Having driven to the town of Pokrovsk, passengers are gathered in the hall of a protestant church and given a meal, then reloaded with their luggage to larger and more comfortable buses which bring them to the railway station.

From there, the single still available train takes them - free of charge - to the relative safety of the cities of Dnipro, Kropyvnytskyi and Lviv.

"We started to do evacuations from the first days of the invasion," said Yehor Avikin, a member of Pokrovsk's Grace Church. "Initially, by our own means, then other volunteer organisations joined. Our first evacuations were from Mariupol and Volnovakha."

Evacuations directly from the war-affected communities to the railway station in Pokrovsk rely mostly on volunteers like minibus driver Sergiy. Originally from Kyiv, he previously evacuated people from Irpin, the suburb heavily damaged during the first stage of the Russian invasion.

When in late March the Ukrainian forces pushed the Russians out of the north of the country and the heaviest fighting returned to the east, the 48-year-old also redirected his efforts there.

"I have been here since March 28,” Sergiy said. “I took part in the evacuations of Lyman, Sviatohirsk, Seversk, Lysychansk, Rubizhne, Bakhmut, Soledar. It was very difficult at the beginning. There has been no help from the government. When there have been problems with fuel, I have gone from gas station to gas station collecting five litres from each."

Although the government described the evacuation announced in August as mandatory, it also emphasised that no one would be relocated by force. Sergiy said that many people signed up to leave but then changed their mind.  

He recalled one family of nine from Lyman that came to the assigned pick-up spot only to refuse to board at the last minute because the grandmother, unwilling to abandon the house, had decided to stay. The family changed their mind again within two hours because of heavy shelling, but the volunteers were no longer able to reach them.

Their house was hit that day, Sergiy said. One young woman from the family was killed as a result, and her small son lost a limb.

"It is painful and hard to bear," he said. "I feel that I didn't find the right words [to convince them to board]."

Sometimes people’s reluctance to leave the Donetsk region is exacerbated by fears of being rejected elsewhere in Ukraine.

On a minibus leaving the frontline town of Bakhmut, a bespectacled woman in her eighties, with a miniature blind, toothless poodle in a dirty bag, is near tears as she surveys the pockmarked road. This is where she learned to drive as a young woman, she says.

Although Bakhmut has lost any strategic value, given Ukrainian advances elsewhere, heavy concentrations of Russian forces still try to capture the town.

But despite family waiting for her in the west of the country, the elderly woman said that she was unwilling to leave her house.

She said that in 2015 a Ukrainian soldier knocked her dog's teeth out, kicking the animal after it barked at him.

"He said that all of us are separatists here," she said, petting the dog in the bag. "I can't understand. This is the same as hitting a child."

Some people might be prejudiced towards those from the east but she insisted she was Ukrainian "to the very roots of my being".

Her neighbour, a very overweight woman with swollen legs, was bemoaning the fate of her husband, sent to a hospital in Dnipro with serious injuries after their house was shelled.

She recited her woes and worries until someone from the back seat shouted to her to change topic as the passengers were already scared enough.

Clearly unable to tolerate the journey in a shaky, overcrowded minibus, she began vomiting, apologising each time she retched. When the minibus finally reached Pokrovsk she was helped into the church hall. There she sat, still confused and overwhelmed, waiting for the next stage of her journey.

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