Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Escape From Gorlivka

Volunteers are risking life and limb to help evacuate those left behind in the wreckage of eastern Ukraine.

Photo by ANDREY KRONBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by ANDREY KRONBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by ANDREY KRONBERG/AFP/Getty Images

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Ivan Gubenko spent hours at the bus station one mid-August day trying to escape Gorlivka.

His hometown, a city of just under 300,000 located between the pro-Russian rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, had been occupied by rebels since April and was coming under increasingly heavy fire as Ukrainian forces closed in. Authorities were urging people to leave, but many had no means of getting out.

Public bus services were long gone. An organized evacuation of civilians from the town center stopped weeks earlier, when a coordinator was kidnapped by militants from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic (DNR). While Gubenko waited at the bus stop, he grew increasingly nervous as shelling increased and the DNR-imposed curfew approached. He was about to take refuge in the overcrowded cellar of his apartment block when a member of a local Protestant church approached.

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Ivan Gubenko spent hours at the bus station one mid-August day trying to escape Gorlivka.

His hometown, a city of just under 300,000 located between the pro-Russian rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk, had been occupied by rebels since April and was coming under increasingly heavy fire as Ukrainian forces closed in. Authorities were urging people to leave, but many had no means of getting out.

Public bus services were long gone. An organized evacuation of civilians from the town center stopped weeks earlier, when a coordinator was kidnapped by militants from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). While Gubenko waited at the bus stop, he grew increasingly nervous as shelling increased and the DNR-imposed curfew approached. He was about to take refuge in the overcrowded cellar of his apartment block when a member of a local Protestant church approached.

"He told me to come to the bridge in the morning; I’d have to get across it on foot, but on the other side I would be taken to safety," Gubenko, a 75-year-old former miner, recalled.

On the other side of the bridge — located on Gorlivka’s northern outskirts and impassable to transport since it was blown up in July by the DNR — minibuses arrive at 10 a.m. daily to evacuate refugees for free. Gubenko made the trip the next morning.

"I’ve lived in Gorlivka since the 1960s. It’s my town. But now I just don’t recognize it anymore," Gubenko said as he climbed wearily onto the bus to start the first leg of a long journey to relatives in northern Ukraine.

The fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-supported insurgents in eastern Ukraine — now theoretically halted under a shaky cease-fire agreement punctuated by occasional shelling — has left residents of towns within the region in an increasingly desperate situation. In areas of Gorlivka, water, gas, and electricity have been cut off; there is a chronic shortage of food, medicine, and cash to buy what little supplies remain. Prices have soared, pensions and salaries are not being paid, and banks have long since ceased to function. Refugees who’ve escaped tell stories of dodging shells and mortars as they ventured out to collect vegetables from their gardens — their only source of food.

The Ukrainian government and local administrations have urged people to leave besieged towns, but locals say the few supposedly safe exit routes are still too dangerous, and places for them to go for help are severely limited. Instead, an informal network of volunteers, from church groups to private citizens, has formed to evacuate people all across the two stricken regions of Luhansk and Donetsk and find them accommodation in safer locations.

Word is spread through media and social networks, where a typical post lists pick-up locations and times, sometimes accompanied by laconic, almost wry, provisos like "possible delays on the road." Some posts specify whether volunteers will be bringing humanitarian aid supplies with them into town; others come with the caveat that volunteers will only evacuate women, children, and pensioners. But with erratic mobile coverage and increasingly limited TV, radio, and Internet service, volunteers who opt to stay in besieged towns, like the church member who approached Gubenko, are often the only source of information for those desperate to leave.

The Protestant Good News church in Slovyansk, which runs the Gorlivka buses, began operations in mid-July, said driver Vladimir Parkhomenko.

He and his fellow volunteers bring out some 50 dazed, exhausted refugees from Gorlivka daily. They’ve helped over 1,500 people leave town since starting evacuations, he estimates.

Volunteers have no official agreements with either the Ukrainian army or with the DNR and its Luhansk equivalent, the LNR. There is no guarantee of safety from shelling, despite white flags or notices on windscreens declaring there are children on board. On Aug. 17, a convoy of refugees from villages in the Luhansk region was hit by rocket fire, killing 17 civilians.

Every day, volunteers risk being turned back, robbed, or detained. In August, a volunteer from the southeast city of Zaporizhia was detained at an LNR-controlled roadblock as he drove to the occupied town of Krasnyi Luch in the Luhansk region to bring out refugees. He endured six days in captivity, where he was beaten and urged to sign a confession that he belonged to a Ukrainian far-right group against which the LNR and DNR claim to be fighting. He was released after the wife of an LNR leader intervened, but without his documents, phone, or van.

Because they provide their service for free, volunteers have been attacked by supporters of the rebel republics who want to charge extortionate fees to extract families from war zones. Those from Protestant churches like Good News in predominantly Orthodox eastern Ukraine are a special target for the DNR and LNR because of their faith.

Volunteers are not deterred by these dangers. "I do it because I’m unemployed," Parkhomenko said, straight-faced. "It’s my kind of entertainment, an adrenaline rush."

"That’s a Russian joke," he added.

It is only partly a joke. Parkhomenko is indeed unemployed; he once had a business delivering building materials, until the DNR fighters who had been occupying the Good News church helped themselves to his bus as they fled from the advancing Ukrainian army. Since then he has been driving for the church.

"Our pastor saw that we had to start doing these evacuations," Parkhomenko said. "We do it because we do it. Because no one else is doing it."

The Good News buses do not just bring people out; they also provide transport into occupied Gorlivka from the Ukrainian-held town of Slovyansk, located about 50 miles north. On a recent round trip in mid-August, Parkhomenko picked up a mother and daughter, Marina and Nadezhda, just outside Slovyansk. The pair was taking food to relatives who refused to leave Gorlivka for fear their house would be looted — and because they had nowhere to go.

"All the help centers are full," said the daughter, Marina, who declined to give her last name for fear of being targeted by DNR forces. "And they can’t get status as refugees because officially there is no war. There is shooting and bombing, but there is no war."

As the bus stopped at roadblock after roadblock, where it was inspected by Ukrainian troops, Parkhomenko explained that he could only take them to Mykytivka, a district on the northern edge of Gorlivka, on the other side of the bombed-out bridge. The women nodded; they could make their own way further into town, they said, though they weren’t sure how. Dressed in cheap sparkly sandals and clutching shiny handbags, they seemed utterly ill-equipped to be entering a war zone. But, like Parkhomenko, they said, they have to go because no one else will go in their stead.

"No one is providing aid, not the Ukrainian government, and the DNR can’t even feed themselves," said Nadezhda, who also declined to give her last name.

As the bus arrived in Mykytivka and the waiting evacuees pressed forward, Marina and Nadezhda got out and hurried in the opposite direction: into danger, carrying their shiny handbags and their carrier bag of food.

The United Nations estimates that over 1 million have been forced to leave their homes since March due to the violence in eastern Ukraine. The majority have fled to Russia; those who head to parts of Ukraine outside of rebel hands face huge problems finding a place to live. Many end up in Svyatogorsk, a once-popular resort area near Slovyansk, where volunteers and aid agencies have turned summer holiday camps into transit camps for the displaced. In the absence of any centralized government system, local churches, NGOs, and administrations try to accommodate those who’ve fled their hometowns with volunteer families or in converted municipal buildings, but they say it is getting harder with each passing day.

"At first the war was elsewhere and I thought I would be the one taking in refugees," said Olga Bradol, a 50-something resident who boarded the bus out of Gorlivka without a final destination in mind. "Now I’ve had to run away myself."

As the Gorlivka bus pulled away from the conflict zone to nearby Artemivsk, in Ukrainian-held territory, the shellshocked evacuees began to look about. Artemivsk is just a 30-minute drive from Gorlivka, but for the evacuees it was a different world, where shops were stocked, banks were working, and people were peacefully walking the streets. "How sweet it is to be in your own country again and not living under occupation," Gubenko said with a sigh. At the back of the bus a woman cried quietly; no one took any notice. Another woman was on the phone trying to call her son, who had stayed in Gorlivka with his family; soon, she too, started crying.

Gubenko got out in Artemivsk to change to another volunteer-run shuttle that would take him to a railway station. Bradol stayed with the Good News bus heading for Svyatogorsk, because she did not know what else to do. All she had with her was one small bag — no one is able to carry much more out of Gorlivka over the destroyed bridge. She had lived in Gorlivka for 30 years. Now, like all the refugees, she had no idea when or if she would be going home.

"It’s scary to be alive," she said, "because now I have to think about how to live further."

Lily Hyde is a British writer and freelance journalist who covers Ukraine.

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