Volunteer rescue crews evacuate elderly Ukrainians from front lines

Photo for The Washington Post by Nicole Tung
An elderly disabled woman is assisted by volunteers as she is evacuated further west to safety, as seen in Prokovsk, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 6, 2022.

VOLODYMYRIVKA, Ukraine — The ambulance ride to Volodymyrivka is long and lonely. The closer the driver gets to the town, and the fighting just beyond it, the more traffic thins out. The potholes get deeper, the speeding vehicle bounces higher, and mile upon mile, the clock is ticking.

Evacuation missions like this are a race against time. As Russian forces advance, the towns and villages they are fighting for in eastern Ukraine are emptying out, with mainly the elderly left behind. Volunteers are launching scores of daily rescue operations, often into the heart of the fighting, to save them.

Unlike younger residents, people with mobility issues are unable to scramble into basements when artillery shells or missiles land nearby. In tall buildings, the most frail have sometimes stayed in the same chairs, unable to move, watching through bombed-out windows as blasts shake the earth. In remote villages like Volodymyrivka, the elderly have sometimes spent weeks begging for help, even leaving their front doors wide open in the hope that someone will notice.

Volunteers say that finding them can be hard, and that they often hear of new evacuation targets indirectly, through word of mouth.

Photo for The Washington Post by Nicole Tung
Valentina Lushenka, who was evacuated from her village near Soledar, is assisted by volunteers on to a train to to be transferred to safety in Prokovsk, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 5, 2022.

Sasha, one of the volunteers, said he has sometimes driven hours through a remote area, only to find the location inaccessible. “We have to tell ourselves that those aren’t failed missions,” said Sasha, who asked that his last name not be used because of security concerns. “Even driving into an area gives people hope that we can still reach them.”

Pulling into Volodymyrivka this past week, Sasha slowed his ambulance to a crawl as he tried to match the dirt track to the GPS pin on his cellphone. Then he saw her: standing at the gate, her arms folded and her face a study in worry. Oksana Sudavtsova, 41, gestured at the house in which her 72-year-old mother, Liubov, was sitting slumped on the sofa, unable to walk since a stroke weeks before left her paralyzed from the waist down. As Sasha grabbed the portable stretcher, a missile whizzed by and Oksana, terrified, scrambled toward the house.

Inside, Liubov was in an almost childlike state, her eyes wide and lip trembling. By the time Sasha helped her onto the stretcher, she had barely uttered a word. “She’s been so scared here,” Oksana said. Tears slipped down her mother’s cheeks.

Oksana covered her face as Sasha carried Liubov away.

Photo for The Washington Post by Nicole Tung
Liubov Sudavtsova, 72, who is paralyzed from the waist down, is seen being transferred out of her house to a stretcher outside before being evacuated by Save Ukraine, near the village of Soledar, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 5, 2022.
Photo for The Washington Post by Nicole Tung
Liubov Sudavtsova (left), 72, who is paralyzed from the waist down, is seen on her sofa at home before being evacuated by Save Ukraine, near the village of Soledar, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 5, 2022.

More than 12 million people are believed to have fled their homes in Ukraine since Feb. 24, with at least 5.7 million spilling into neighboring countries. But people like Liubov, and others evacuated with her in recent days, have little idea of where they might go. Volunteer organizations like Save Ukraine, where Sasha works, carry them from their homes and help them reach the relative safety of western Ukraine.

In the eastern town of Pokrovsk, a church has become a way station. Nuns doled out hot tea and borscht. At one table, three elderly women in bright headscarves whispered conspiratorially. “Hey, are you eating?” a nun asked them. The women giggled and turned back to their soup.

When an evacuation vehicle arrives for them, residents are sometimes hesitant to leave home quickly. “They don’t understand what’s happening, or they are scared of the journey,” Sasha said. “We have to explain very carefully.”

Joining Liubov in the back of the ambulance Thursday was Valentina Lushenko, 80, who had been plucked from her home after weeks of waiting. Bundled up in winter coats, she was tiny. She said that she had no relatives to help her; her husband was dead and her only surviving son was in prison. The only person who had checked on her since the war began was a local bus driver who brought her groceries.

The ambulance bounced jarringly as it sped down the road to Pokrovsk. Save Ukraine had booked 40 places on the daily evacuation train, and the clock was ticking. Liubov winced in pain. Valentina was scared and agitated. She also looked deeply sad. She kept talking about her parents, at one point opening her purse to look at black-and-white photographs of them. “They are dead,” she said, and started to cry.

There were scores more evacuees at the Pokrovsk train station, and they had arrived by any means possible. One bus was from Ogledar, where Russian forces had advanced in recent days amid heavy fighting. Others were from Kramatorsk, a town 50 miles south where the train station was bombed on April 8 by a Russian missile that killed more than 50 people. A blue train pulled in and families climbed aboard. “The 4:30 train is ready to leave,” came the voice over the loudspeaker. “Car 4 for Dnipro, Car 23 for Lviv.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Nicole Tung
Disabled and elderly residents of Donetsk Oblast are seen after arriving at the Prokovsk train station in Prokovsk, Ukraine, on Thursday, May 5, 2022, before being evacuated further west of Ukraine and out of the country to safety.

On the platform outside Car 20, Sasha opened the doors to his ambulance, and the staff carefully carried out Liubov and Valentina.

The two women looked anxious, and the platform staff tried to comfort them. The men rolled Liubov carefully from one stretcher to another and then onto a metal platform they would use to carry her aboard. Svitlana Glotova, a medic with red hair and a warm manner, said she’d be watching over the two women throughout the journey. “All we can do on the train is be kind to them and show them love,” she said.

As Liubov was raised slowly up on the metal platform, a railway worker took her hand. Another smiled broadly as he reassured her. “Don’t worry, dear, don’t you worry,” he kept telling her. “When this war ends we’ll bring you home. Don’t worry, dear. This isn’t goodbye.”