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Inside a volunteer mission to evacuate civilians from Donbas

by Anastasiia Lapatina July 16, 2022 10:38 AM 6 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

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People call them angels.

In a blue van stuffed with bags of food, sleeping mats, water, and medicine, volunteers Artem Belan and Volodymyr Antonov, both 41, drive out of Kyiv’s suburbs for a daring mission: evacuating civilians from the frontline towns of Donetsk Oblast.

The fighting in Donbas, an eastern region of Ukraine comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, intensifies by the hour. But the two men aren’t worried – this isn’t their first trip.

Since the beginning of Russia’s all-out war on Feb. 24, Belan and Antonov say they have evacuated over 3,000 civilians from Kyiv Oblast and dozens from the frontlines of Donbas.

“We understand very well that, when people are near the contact line, our soldiers can’t fight the enemy to their fullest potential, because our people are there,” Belan told the Kyiv Independent.

“And there is also a clear understanding that no one can escape this war,” he continued. “All of us have to fight for our freedom, one way or another.”

The Kyiv Independent joined the two volunteers on their seventh trip to Donbas.

On the road

Belan and Antonov leave Irpin on a hot morning on July 6 after several last-minute stops at volunteer hubs to collect humanitarian aid. Five hours later, they arrive for the night in Dnipro, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, a city in central Ukraine. At 5:30 a.m. the next day, they are on the road again.

When Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the two men lived in Irpin, a suburb of Kyiv that experienced some of the heaviest fighting in the first month of the war. As hostilities escalated, Antonov’s friend offered the men his van to deliver food and evacuate civilians, knowing they were brave enough to put themselves at risk.

“It was complete chaos,” Belan said, describing the scene near a wrecked bridge in Irpin that the city’s residents used to escape to the capital. Although the bridge was destroyed during the Battle of Kyiv in early March, its remnants facilitated the evacuation of civilians from the area.

“There was no coordination. People were fleeing Irpin disoriented,” Belan said. Knowing the area well, Belan and Antonov began to help people flee to Kyiv.

Their work earned them the nickname “Angels” within their community – the men even put it on the plate of their evacuation van.

As Ukraine’s military pushed Russian forces out of Kyiv Oblast, Belan and Antonov shifted their efforts toward Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

A few hours into their trip with the Kyiv Independent to Donbas, they get a call.

“Artem, I’ve got a task,” says Kyiv-based volunteer Natalia Fedorchenko, who works with Rescue Now UA, a fund that arranges evacuations from Ukraine’s war-torn east.

“I know you guys are the only ones that can take it.”

Volunteers Artem Belan and Volodymyr Antonov burn documents from a Ukrainian military base found in the rubble of a destroyed building in Kostiantynivka, Donetsk Oblast, on July 8, 2022. (Anastasiia Lapatina)

Fedorchenko tells the volunteers that twenty people need to be evacuated from Adamivka, a village north of Sloviansk, Donetsk Oblast, just a dozen kilometers away from Russian-occupied territory.

Adamivka is located in a grey zone – 5 kilometers south of the village stands a checkpoint with a large Ukrainian flag, signaling the end of Ukrainian-controlled territory.

Inside the village is a church whose basement presumably shelters around 60 locals, relying on stockpiled humanitarian aid.

Belan and Antonov frantically scour the grounds of the church whose white walls have been severely damaged by Russian shelling. They eventually locate 12 people, including 4 children, who want to evacuate.

For those who decide to remain, the men unload the humanitarian aid they brought with them from Kyiv.

As they search the premises, they also find the body of a killed civilian.

The day before, a 52-year-old local church-goer left the basement to take out the trash. He was reportedly killed instantly by mortar fire. The volunteers take the man’s body to a morgue in Kramatorsk, a Ukrainian-controlled city in Donetsk Oblast. All other evacuees, except for one family that decided to stay in Sloviansk, are also taken to Kramatorsk.

Having completed the mission, Belan and Antonov return to their friend’s house for the night. Rather than exhaustion, however, their faces radiate excitement and hope.

“Trust me. When the war is over, we will have fabulous lives. You can’t even imagine,” Belan comforts his friend over a drink at dinner, as artillery fires off in the distance. “We will rebuild everything that Russia destroyed.”

Hours away from tragedy

On the morning of July 8, Belan and Antonov learn that people want to evacuate from Chasiv Yar, a small city in Donetsk Oblast located just kilometers away from the frontline.

As they get ready, a series of loud blasts go off periodically in the distance, likely near the suburbs of occupied Donetsk Oblast.

“Don’t worry,” Belan says, finishing his morning cigarette. “It’s our artillery firing at the Russians.”

In Chasiv Yar, residents are waiting to be picked up near the local city hall. Ten people – mainly elderly, but also two children – take their seats and the volunteers set off for Pokrovsk, a city about an hour away.

On the road, the evacuees thank Belan and Antonov for helping them, but the men interrupt them.

“No, thank you,” Belan says. “Thank you for making the right decision and leaving. You are helping our military do its job,” he adds, as a patriotic Ukrainian rap song continues blasting in the speakers.

Locals load their belongings into a bus before evacuating to Pokrovsk from Chasiv Yar in Donetsk Oblast on July 8, 2022. (Anastasiia Lapatina)

The Ukrainian government has been encouraging civilians living near the frontlines to evacuate, as battles often move from the fields to the cities, endangering residents.

When the full-scale war began, Ukraine’s railway operator Ukrzaliznytsia facilitated hundreds of free evacuation trips from eastern and southern Ukraine, mainly to the west. Over 300,000 civilians have been evacuated by rail since Feb. 24.

An hour later, the group arrives at a church in Pokrovsk, where dozens of locals are running a volunteer center to help resettle those who have been internally displaced. Hundreds of people reportedly arrive there every day.

Among the evacuees is Oksana Kibkalo, a 41-year-old mother of three. Her entire family is from Chasiv Yar.

Like many, she was reluctant to leave all her belongings behind and start a new life elsewhere. Everything changed when her nine-year-old daughter Violetta nearly got killed by Russian shelling.

“To be honest, what has been happening is really terrifying,” Kibkalo told the Kyiv Independent.

A few weeks ago, she says her husband was sitting with a friend at a playground when a Russian missile struck the area. Luckily, both men were not injured.

A few days later, Kibkalo’s daughter was picking cherries and strawberries in their garden when a Russian missile landed right where the little girl had been standing not long ago.

“After that, how could I let my kids go play anywhere?” Kibkalo said, failing to hold back her tears. From that moment, she forbade her children from leaving their basement for over a week before they finally evacuated.

With the evacuees fed and given over to the volunteer center’s care, Beland and Antonov take off. After spending another night in Donbas to recharge, the two men leave for Kyiv.

Frontline fields burn in the distance amid fighting in Donetsk Oblast on July 8, 2022. (Artem Belan)

Less than 24 hours later, news arrives that a five-story residential building in Chasiv Yar, where they were just a day prior, was hit by Russian missiles. The building collapsed, folding like a house of cards, with civilians buried under the rubble. The attack took the lives of as many as 48 people, including a child, Ukrainian authorities report.

“This is why we go to hotspots,” Belan says after seeing the news.

“People’s fear of losing their belongings, the material things, leads to them losing their lives. They need to get out. They have to pack up and get out, while they still can.”

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