The sounds of war echo throughout Bakhmut, a largely deserted city in eastern Ukraine, just 10 miles from the front. Even with a trained ear, it is hard to tell what artillery fire is outgoing or incoming.
The terror can be all the more acute for the vulnerable and those unable to care for themselves, among them Zinaida Riabtseva, 77, who is blind and cannot leave her fifth-floor apartment on her own.
As Russian forces bear down with intensifying ferocity in an effort to control the Donbas region, which borders Russia, aid workers are scrambling to evacuate the old, the infirm and the disabled. Those who leave their homes don’t know if they will ever be able to return, joining the more than 12 million Ukrainians who have been displaced by Russia’s invasion.
Last week, British and Ukrainian volunteers with the aid group Vostok-SOS, were called in to evacuate Zinaida, along with her husband, Juriy. After carefully placing her on a stretcher, volunteers carried her down five flights of stairs, while Juriy followed behind with a few pieces of luggage.
Since the invasion began in February, Vostok-SOS has evacuated 15,000 people from eastern Ukraine. On one such evacuation mission, Vostok staff recently drove through back lanes to reach the home of their latest evacuee, Mykhaylo Silichkin. When they arrived in front of his tidy house, he hopped out through the front gate on his crutches, a cigarette perched in his mouth. One volunteer picked up his prosthetic leg. Others carried his luggage. Silichkin locked the gate as he left, not knowing if he would ever return.
The conflict in Ukraine has also upended the lives of many young people caught in the line of fire. Maria Alefirenko, 31, was paralyzed in a mortar attack during the fighting against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine eight years ago. On a recent day in Mykolaivka, a city the Donetsk region partly ruled by pro-Russian separatists, an aid worker lifted her into a car. Her father, who had cared for her for years, stayed behind. He cried as she left.
Ukrainian officials say that about 80% of the civilian population of the Donetsk region, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbas, have already fled. Cities like Bakhmut have become ghost towns, their shops boarded up, their streets deserted but for military vehicles and ambulances zipping through. Some residents who remained behind cook food on campfires in their yards because there is no gas in the city.
But vulnerable people remain, and evacuations continue daily even in front-line towns that face regular shelling.
As towns and cities in eastern Ukraine empty out in the face of the Russian offensive, volunteers drive around in minivans, working off lists of addresses of elderly or disabled people who have remained behind, well past the time when it was safe to flee.
In Slovyansk, an industrial city in the eastern Donbas region, residents who haven’t left are now at risk from daily artillery and cruise missile strikes, which blow out windows in apartment buildings.
Maksym Sutkovy, a deputy mayor of Bakhmut, said Russian forces were advancing on an arc to the south and east. About 65,000 people had already fled, he said, from a prewar population of about 100,000, and heavy fighting persisted every day.
“We cannot climb into the heads of people,” said Sutkovy, adding that some residents had stayed behind because they were too poor to move or desensitized to danger after weeks of being bombarded. “People get used to living with explosions,” he said. “What in peaceful times is inconceivable becomes ordinary, everyday.”
So the effort to evacuate the old and vulnerable goes on, even amid the thud of explosions. The departures and displacement provoke strong emotions, as people who have lived their whole lives in one place are finally, sometimes grudgingly, persuaded to leave.
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“Now I’m going to a safe place to get better,” said Anatoliy Shevchenko, 73, who was injured in early May.
Valentyna Evtushenko cried as she waved goodbye to her brother Oleksandr Evtushenko, 68. who was being evacuated from a hospital in Slovyansk and transferred to one in Chernihiv, where his nephew lives, in northern Ukraine. Oleksandr, his sister said, “has only me,” adding that they live together in a private house on the outskirts of Slovyansk.
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Amid painful goodbyes, there are small gestures of comfort.
In Bakhmut, Pavlo Boreyko leaned in close to his 90-year-old father, Petro, gently explaining that it was time to go. His father sat on a sofa in front of a woven red carpet hanging on the wall before volunteers carefully slipped a stretcher under him. Incapacitated and no longer able to speak, Petro was carried down the stairs of his apartment building. Once he was inside the minivan waiting below, his son made sure his father was comfortable. Then one of the volunteers placed Petro’s cat, in a travel box, beside him.
It was the start of a long journey, including several hours by minivan to the city of Pokrovsk, where Petro was then transferred to an evacuation train that took him to the relative safety of western Ukraine. It was also a journey fraught with danger. Russian missiles have been continuously targeting critical infrastructure across Ukraine and just four days before Petro’s evacuation, the depot at the train station in Pokrovsk was hit by a missile strike.
“It is important to show calmness to people even when the shelling starts, otherwise it will be hard to deal with their panic,” said Vladyslav Arseniy, a former construction worker who volunteered to evacuate residents from front-line towns.
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Arseniy said he has been driving on daily evacuation missions and has helped about 700 people leave their homes and find refuge elsewhere.
Arseniy said he had met many people who refused to leave. Every evening, his group studies a list of people willing to evacuate, dividing them up among evacuation teams. The teams then drive from house to house in the front-line towns and villages, picking up people and bringing them to train stations, where they then head west.
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In Bakhmut, there is a particular urgency to work fast as the area is under attack.
Medical evacuation trains are not scheduled every day. On days when there is none, volunteers transport people to a hospital in Slovyansk and evacuate them the next day.
While helping her bedridden mother into an evacuation minivan, Oksana Zakharenko appeared distressed. She didn’t want to leave, having become accustomed to the continuous explosions. But aid workers with Arseniy’s group persuaded her the time had come to go.
“Why did we have to get used to it?” she asked.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.