“I’m too old for this”: the harrowing escape from Donetsk’s dangerous border towns | Ukraine

It was Nina’s 88th birthday and she celebrated it by leaving everything she knew behind. Volunteers, not particularly young or fit, carried her down three flights of stairs from her apartment, past the irises threatening to bloom in her neighbor’s garden.

Apartment buildings hid the ruins of the local school, which was destroyed by a Russian missile last week, but war invaded the courtyard anyway, the regular rumble of distant artillery echoing through the sunny afternoon.

This corner of the Donbass is one of the few parts of Ukraine still threatened by an advancing army, and the fear has largely emptied the city of Konstyantynivka of its families.

Defeated at Kyiv, pushed back by Kharkiv, Moscow threw its fury and many additional troops across much of the Eastern Front.

Targets are pulverized by artillery and airstrikes, then Russian soldiers advance a few miles and declare the “liberation” of places like Popasna — more ruin than town when it was taken, survivors say.

“There is no popasna now,” said Oleh, a construction worker who was trying to survive the fighting with his family in a basement shelter until their own home was hit. “Even when you look at photos and videos, your brain can’t understand what you’re seeing. It’s hard to know you lived here.”

Residents of places that could be next have been urged by the government and relatives to leave while still possible, advice many heeded weeks ago. Driving through the region is a journey through ghost towns with empty streets with closed shops, abandoned houses and deserted parks.

An eerie silence, broken only by air raid sirens or explosions, hangs over these half-abandoned communities – from Bakhmut, the last major Ukrainian frontline outpost at Popasna, west to Kramatorsk, scene of a bloody attack on civilians aiming at a Evacuation waiting train or south through Druzhkivka to Konstiantynivka.

A man with a cane is helped out the door of a block of flats by two men, one wearing a cowboy hat
Oleksandr is picked up by the convoy from Druzhkivka. Photo: Ed Ram/The Observer

Only the hospital’s trauma wards are busy, filled with the horrific shrapnel wounds of a war mostly fought with missiles and artillery, involving severed limbs and torn bodies.

Those who have gambled on staying – in the hope that the Russians won’t arrive or their homes won’t be hit – are mostly the old, sick and poor who are physically unable to leave because they fear they won’t be able to afford it able to live somewhere else or just can’t bear to start all over again so late in life.

“I’m too old for this,” said Oleksandr, 67, his face breaking into tears as he waited to be evicted from his 33-year-old home with his wife Tanya, 64. He’s a stroke survivor who can barely walk, and his daughter had urged the couple to accept an offer of evacuation from Druzhkivka before they were engulfed in a rain of Russian shells there.

“I’m a little scared,” Tanya admitted. “We’ve been hearing heavy bombing raids for a week, there was one last night.” As she waved goodbye to a couple of reticent neighbors, all of whom were retirees like herself, a woman in sandals asked how she could get on the ride-sharing list.

Like so much of the civilian response to the Russian invasion, this evacuation is an unlikely and improvised effort being carried out by volunteers willing to risk their lives for strangers. They help those who are too ill to walk in regular cars, or who cannot afford to pay for their own travel, or who are intimidated by the logistics of fleeing through a country at war.

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Vlad drives the lead car, finds addresses and calms the evacuees. Mark Poppert, an American who left his home in Doha to volunteer with local Ukrainian charity Vostok SOS, is at the wheel of a van that serves as a rudimentary ambulance for evacuees who can’t sit up. They have already visited Druzhkivka to pick up Oleksandr and Tanja; now the provisional convoy has arrived in Konstjantynivka.

Poppert wears a Stetson as a nod to his Nebraska roots. “So Ukrainians know they have international support,” he says, although it’s unclear how many locals are picking up on the gesture of solidarity. The two men communicate using Google Translate as they have no common language to complete their urgent mission together.

Russian bombs aren’t the only threat the residents of these small towns are trying to offset. The pressures of war have thrown daily life into chaos and left people vulnerable in other ways. Nina and her daughter Irena, 60, were both being treated for cancer at Kramatorsk Hospital, but with the Russian advance, their doctors left the hospital and the oncology ward was closed. Nina’s grandson Anatoly, 43, is disabled and Irena is clearly distraught with worry about what the interruption of her treatment could mean for him.

A young woman with the first signs of a baby bump talks to a young girl who is walking with her, carrying bags
Irina, who is five months pregnant, and her daughter Amina hope to reach Poland. Photo: Ed Ram/The Observer

“We didn’t have relatives to help us organize health care,” Irena said. “My mother is paralyzed and can’t speak, but we weren’t even given painkillers. We are going to Dnipro now: someone said they would help us get to the hospital there.”

After being carried down the stairs by her rescuers, Nina is carefully placed on a bedroll spread on the floor of Mark’s van, her head protected by pillows, for the two-hour ride to a special evacuation train that departs from Pokrovsk.

Signs in the windows say “Invalid”, more for the railway guards than for Russian attackers. When the convoy arrives, everyone on the platform is a bit nervous after last month’s strike at nearby Kramatorsk station.

For many of those who climb aboard, this escape from imminent danger will be the most painful but uncomplicated step in a long and difficult journey toward a new life.

Also in Vlad’s car are Irina, who is five months pregnant, and her nine-year-old daughter Amina. “I was afraid to be alone with a child, they said the city was being encircled and we should leave,” Irina said after reading the gas meter one last time and handing her the key to her rented apartment landlady.

She leaves behind an aunt who is like a mother to her, a job at a local gas company, and – like everyone else who leaves – the only place she has ever called home. Pregnant and with a child, she sets off into the unknown with little more than a friend’s phone number in Poland.

“She said we could stay, I will call her when I get near Warsaw and she will give me the exact address,” she said. Charities have warned against the trafficking of women like Irina who are vulnerable and alone when they make it to Europe.

An elderly woman is lifted out of an ambulance through a train car door
At the train station in Pokrovsk. Photo: Ed Ram/The Observer

The risks of this journey into the unknown are one of the reasons some stay close to the front lines. “We have relatives in the West, but we don’t have jobs. How will we feed ourselves when we get there?” said Oleh, who drove his wife, son, daughter-in-law, two granddaughters and their cat to Bakhmut through heavy shelling.

After the intense battle for Popasna, the ghost towns of Donetsk seem like some kind of refuge, and they have free beds in a shelter, so for the time being, despite a steady increase in shelling, they intend to stay in Bakhmut.

“A recent hit was in a college dorm. Children had been playing there half an hour ago, but fortunately they had just left,” said Bakhmut Deputy Mayor Maksym Sutkovyi. He estimates that at least a third of the city’s pre-war population of about 100,000 remains, a number that has increased with people fleeing fighting in the east.

“Of course I’m worried: we understand that the war can come here in its next phase,” he said, but he wants to stay, along with the rest of the city council. “Those who remain need basic living conditions, and we need to maintain critical infrastructure … people will better support our army and our country when we are here.”

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