Ukrainian rescue teams on the war’s front lines work to evacuate the elderly

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VOLODYMYRIVKA, Ukraine – The ambulance ride to Volodymyrivka is long and lonely. The closer the driver gets to the city, and the fighting just behind it, the more traffic thins out. The potholes deepen, the speeding vehicle bounces higher and mile after mile the clock is ticking.

Evacuation missions like this are a race against time. As the Russian troops advance, the towns and villages they are fighting for in eastern Ukraine are emptying, leaving mainly the elderly behind. Volunteers launch dozens of rescue operations every day, often at the heart of the fighting, to save them.

Unlike younger residents, people with mobility issues cannot clamber into basements when artillery shells or rockets land nearby. In tall buildings, the most vulnerable have sometimes sat in the same chairs, unable to move, looking through bombed-out windows as explosions shook the earth. In remote villages like Volodymyrivka, elderly people have been begging for help for weeks, even leaving their front doors wide open in the hope that someone would notice.

Volunteers say it can be difficult to find them and they often hear about new evacuation targets indirectly through word of mouth.

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Sasha, one of the volunteers, said he sometimes drove for hours through a remote area, only to find the location inaccessible. “We have to convince ourselves that these are not mission failures,” said Sasha, who asked not to use his last name for security reasons. “Even by driving into an area, it gives people hope that we can still reach them.”

Sasha drove into Volodymyrivka last week and slowed his ambulance to a crawl as he tried to match the dirt road with the GPS pin on his cellphone. Then he saw her: standing by the gate, her arms folded and her face a study in concern. Oksana Sudavtsova, 41, gestured to the house where her 72-year-old mother, Liubov, slumped on the sofa, unable to walk since suffering a stroke weeks before she became paralyzed from the waist down. As Sasha reached for the portable stretcher, a rocket whizzed by and Oksana clambered to the house in terror.

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

Oksana covered her face as Sasha carried Liubov away.

It is estimated that more than 12 million people have fled their homes in Ukraine since February 24, with at least 5.7 million people flocking to neighboring countries. But people like Liubov and others who have been evacuated with her in recent days have no idea where they might go. Volunteer organizations such as Save Ukraine, where Sasha works, carry them from home and help them reach the relative safety of western Ukraine.

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

When an evacuation vehicle arrives for them, residents are sometimes hesitant to get out the door quickly. “They don’t understand what is happening, or they are afraid of the journey,” Sasha said. “We have to explain it very well.”

Valentina Lushenko, 80, was in the back of an ambulance on Thursday with Liubov, who had been plucked from her home after weeks of waiting. She was small, bundled up in winter coats. She said she had no family 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 beginning of the war was a local bus driver who brought her groceries.

The ambulance jolted as it drove down the road to Pokrovsk. Save Ukraine had reserved 40 places on the daily evacuation train and the clock was ticking. Liubov cringed in pain. Valentina was scared and excited. She also looked deeply saddened. She kept talking about her parents and at one point she opened her bag to look at black and white photos of them. “They’re dead,” she said and began to cry.

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There were still dozens of evacuees at the Pokrovsk train station and they had arrived by any means necessary. One bus came from Ogledar, where Russian troops had advanced amid fierce fighting in recent days. Others came from Kramatorsk, a city 80 kilometers to the south where the train station was bombed by a Russian missile on April 8, killing more than 50 people. A blue train stopped and families climbed aboard. “The half past three train is ready to leave,” the voice sounded through the loudspeaker. “Car 4 for Dnipro, car 23 for Lviv.”

On the platform outside Car 20, Sasha opened the doors of 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 carefully rolled Liubov from one stretcher to another and then onto a metal platform they would use to carry her aboard. Svitlana Glotova, a red-haired medic with a warm demeanor, said she would watch over the two women throughout the journey. “All we can do on the train is be nice to them and show love,” she said.

As Liubov was slowly lifted onto the metal platform, a railroad worker grabbed her hand. Another smiled broadly as he reassured her. “Don’t worry, honey, don’t worry,” he kept telling her. “When this war is over, we’ll take you home. Don’t worry, honey. This is not goodbye.”

Dmytro Plotnikov in Volodymyrivka contributed to this report.

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