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Vulnerable Ukrainians rely on ragtag network of helpers to escape danger in Donbas

When 83-year-old Lydia Boyko left her home in Kramatorsk on a sunny day last week — lying on a thin mattress in the back of a van as air raid sirens wailed — she had no idea if she would ever see it again.

Or where she was going. 

She gave a slight cry of pain as two volunteers lifted her clumsily into the van, and worried that her housedress was rising up. She tried tugging it down until someone handed her a sheet to cover up with. 

Her crutches and the bag she’d prepared for the journey were also handed into the van.

“She has such a condition that she cannot cope on her own, and we will not be able to run to her,” said Lyudmila Lyadskykh, the wife of Boyko’s nephew.

Boyko’s departure was hasty and unceremonious and representative of how many of the frail and elderly residents of the Donbas find themselves saying goodbye to lifelong homes as fighting intensifies, along with Russia’s steady advance in eastern Ukraine.

She is also one of countless older Ukrainians who are relying on an ad hoc network of drivers and aid groups to get them out of the danger zone.

WATCH | Aid groups help older Ukrainians escape dangerous areas:

Fear under fire in the Donbas region

Sloviansk, in the war-torn Donbas region of Ukraine, is almost a ghost town. The exception? The brave, the old and soldiers defending them.

Widowed 20 years ago, Boyko lived on her own but relied on her nephew’s family for help. Lyadskykh says the worry is that if Boyko doesn’t leave before things here get even worse, she’ll be trapped — as will they, unable to leave her — if or when the front line reaches Kramatorsk.

Lyadskykh has no firm idea where Boyko is headed beyond the major city of Dnipro, 250 kilometres to the west.

“They said [she’ll go] to Dnipro, and then the volunteers will send her either to Western Ukraine or somewhere. I don’t even know.”

‘It’s my duty’

The Russians are already in control of almost all of the neighbouring province of Luhansk.

The fight there for the key city of Severodonetsk has been grinding and bloody. On Sunday, Russian troops came a step closer to taking it when they destroyed one of the bridges still allowing access in and out of the city.

The van and the volunteers sent to collect Boyko have been sent from East-SOS, a Ukrainian NGO that helps extricate people from conflict zones, among other things.

They negotiate some of the most dangerous roads along front lines, both to deliver aid and bring people out. 

Driver Edward Skorik decided to volunteer for East-SOS after the group helped his own parents escape from Bakhmut, a village close to Severodonetsk caught in the middle of endless artillery exchanges between Russian and Ukrainian troops.

“So I’ve seen [East-SOS’s] work and I understood that that was what I wanted to do,” he said. “It’s very dangerous, but I feel it’s my duty to do that.”

Edward Skorik is a volunteer driver with the Ukrainian NGO East-SOS, which helps to ferry vulnerable civilians out of conflict areas. (Jason Ho/CBC)

As the van pulled away from Boyko’s home, the garden in front of it in full bloom, the sirens were sounding, as if in lament.

They were still sounding when the van pulled up to collect the next passenger, 80-year-old Alla Lisitska. She was able to make it into the vehicle under her own steam, with the help of a cane and a friend named Nina who had come to see her off. 

Lisitska had dressed for the journey, wearing smart trousers and a blouse, her hair perfectly coiffed.

“I haven’t left my apartment in seven years,” Lisitska said. “And the social workers have been taking care of me all that time.”

They were the ones who suggested it was time Lisitska thought about going. “I was afraid to leave and I didn’t know what would await me. So it was they who convinced me.”

Alla blew a kiss to Nina, who stepped forward to clasp her friend’s hand in a moment that seemed to stretch time, before the door closed and the van moved off again.

Alla Lisitska, seated, says goodbye to a friend as she is driven from her home in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, to a safer haven in the west. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Some refuse to leave

More than three-quarters of Kramatorsk’s residents have fled the city, leaving large parts of it boarded up, empty and eerie.

The preponderance of elderly people in Donbas towns and villages speaks to the fact that they’re usually the most reluctant to leave their homes, while at the same time making sure to send children and grandchildren away to safety.

Natalia, who preferred not to have her last name published, is one of the municipal social workers who helps aid groups like East-SOS identify those ready to leave and in need of help doing so.

“The main argument is whether [people] are ready to stay without water and gas and electricity,” she said. “We ask, if the shelling gets worse and we can’t come to help, are they ready to face that alone? That convinces them [to go].”

But not all. Natalia says she has 60 clients still unwilling to leave the city, even though its infrastructure is being steadily degraded by the war.

Russian missile attacks knocked out power in Kramatorsk and the nearby city of Sloviansk on Saturday. Parts of Sloviansk are already without clean drinking water in the taps, and humanitarian groups in Kramatorsk say they’re making plans to truck water in.

Public transportation is still running and there are pockets of life and people who say they’ll stay no matter what happens.

Pensioner Olena Khudyakova, sitting at a bus stop, appeared ambivalent. 

“We’ve probably gotten used to it,” she said when asked if she’s frightened by the shelling the city has come under. She said she will stay regardless of whether Ukraine or Russia emerges from the war victorious.

Pensioner Olena Khudyakova, seen sitting at a bus stop, said she will stay in Kramatorsk regardless of whether Ukraine or Russia emerges from the war victorious. (Jason Ho/CBC)

“Where would I go? I was born here and I will stay here. I feel that we will not have hostilities. Where [Kramatorsk] will end up — which shore it swims to — depends on high-ranking politicians.”

The bus stop Khudyakova was sitting at is directly across from the railway station. Kramatorsk was a major regional rail hub for those fleeing the conflict in eastern Ukraine up until April 9.

That’s when a missile reportedly carrying a cluster bomb slammed into a crowd waiting outside the station, killing more than 50 people.

‘Of course I’m worried’

The only way out of town now is by road. Edward Skorik drives his passengers about 60 kilometres to a town called Pokrovsk, where evacuation trains leave for the west every day.

When CBC caught up with him, he’d parked right up on the platform, along with an ambulance carrying others destined for the train and the long journey to Dnipro.

Evacuation workers carry Kramatorsk resident Lydia Boyko to a train in the town of Pokrovsk, where evacuation trains leave every day for western parts of Ukraine. (Jason Ho/CBC)

Emergency workers were standing by to help passengers get on board, using an electric lift attached to one of the railway car doors and carrying those who can’t walk and are without wheelchairs on fabric stretchers.

That’s how Lydia Boyko boarded. She was soon stretched out across a row of seats in a carriage, Alla Lisitska seated across from her, checking her makeup.

The train showed its age, a bit like its passengers. Staff bustled up and down narrow corridors carrying walkers and portable toilets.

Neither woman knew where they were likely to end up at the end of their journey.

“They told me there are volunteers that will meet me and I will get a free place to stay, free food and everything will be fine,” said Lisitska, seemingly in good spirits.

Boyko seemed relieved to be settled in one place, offering a thumbs-up from her couch when asked how she felt about heading off alone like this.

“Of course I’m worried,” she said. “But I’m already alone. I say take me anywhere as long as I am among people…. It’s easier to die when you are among people and not alone. If you feel bad, someone will lend a hand. Someone will give [you] a glass of water.”

Lydia Boyko is seen on the train after being ferried from her home Kramatorsk, Ukraine, to the town of Pokrovsk. (Jason Ho/CBC)

A few days later, Lisitska reported by phone that both women had made it to Dnipro and into the hands of the promised volunteers. 

The two women were waiting for doctors to examine them. Then it would be decided if they are strong enough to send further west, to places unknown.

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