ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine — As Russian artillery pummeled the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol in April, one family decided to flee, walking for miles with three young children in tow to a nearby village. They were able to escape Russian-held territory thanks to the help of a volunteer driver.
“The driver, Zhenya, is a saint,” said Luda Lobanova, 58, after stepping off a minibus in the central Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia in early May along with 8-year-old Ihor, 7-year-old Sofia and 2 1/2-year-old Vlad. They turned us around so many times. If it wasn’t for Zhenya, we wouldn’t have made it.”
With tears in her eyes, Lobanova thanked him before he slipped away, clambering back into his minibus. There was more humanitarian aid to be delivered and more people to collect.
On the edge of the conflict zone in Ukraine, which runs along the country’s east and south, volunteer drivers are risking everything to deliver humanitarian aid to Ukrainians behind the front lines, and to get people out. Drivers could be detained, injured or killed if they drive dangerously long routes. Ukrainian activists claim that more than twenty-six drivers were captured by Russian-backed separatists from the eastern Donetsk area and held there for over two months.
A few do it for money, some drivers said, but many do it for free, either alone or in organized groups.
“I decided to do it because there are women and children there,” said Oleksandr Petrenko, who carried out several evacuations from areas in and around Mariupol before he deemed his risk of detention too great because of his repeated forays into Russian-held territory.
“I also have a mother, I have a girlfriend. They don’t need to remain in the human grinder. There are many lives lost. He said, “If you don’t do it they might die.”
Joining more experienced drivers at first, Petrenko learned the routes and how to operate. Petrenko learned the routes and how to operate by joining other experienced drivers.
His first trip was the scariest. The weather looked bleak. He said, “It was grey and gloomy.” It was pouring. And when you enter a city of black color that burned down — it’s like a movie.”
Petrenko estimated that he managed to evacuate about 130 people from Russian-held areas before he stopped driving because of the risks.
Now he helps with logistics for a team of volunteer drivers operating out of Zaporizhzhia, the first safer major city encountered by many people fleeing Russian-held territory, particularly in the south from Mariupol and the surrounding areas.
None of the drivers who were still crossing front lines would speak on the record, for security reasons.
The risks are clear. Among the detained drivers is Vitaliy Sytnykov, a 34-year-old rock-climbing Mariupol taxi driver. According to Alevtina Shvetsova (a journalist who fled Mariupol with her family in March), he has been detained since March.
“He is a person with a big heart,” Shvetsova said, speaking in early June in the central city of Kryvyi Rih. She said that Sytnykov was able to escape Mariupol, but he joined a team of volunteers who were evacuating other people. He was then captured on one of his runs. The reason is not known.
The status of his and other drivers’ detention is unclear. Shvetsova stated that information is not available, but it can be gleaned from other detainees who were later released or limited footage from Russian television.
“He could have stayed in a safe place with (his) family,” after he got out of the city, she said. “But … he knew there were many women, children left in Mariupol.”
Farther to the east, in the Donetsk and the neighboring Luhansk regions where Russian forces are doubling down on their offensive, volunteers’ vans and minibuses zip through towns and down 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 start of the war. His first step was to evacuate people from Kreminna (now Russian-held), north of Sievierodonetsk. He then moved on to the Donetsk area.
Working with the Ukrainian aid group Vostok SOS, most of those he evacuates now from towns and cities such as Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Sloviansk are elderly or ailing. Many are unable to walk and must be carried from their homes and apartments in stretchers, or in his arms.
“I would like to have a more quiet life,” he said, pausing briefly from ferrying a group of elderly evacuees. “But it is war now.”
On the back of his van, a sticker bears his organization’s logo and a hashtag: “#LeaveNoOneBehind.”