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So no one is left behind

Accompanying a police rescue team on civilian evacuation missions to Krasnohorivka, a town in the Donetsk region of Ukraine, the delicate situation on the front line becomes clear. Partially captured by the Russian army, the town presents a formidable challenge when it comes to saving life.

June 4, 2024 - Kateryna Pryshchepa - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

Evacuations in Krasnohorivka. Photo: Kateryna Pryshchepa

The police team known as the White Angels delivers basic supplies to civilians caught up in fighting in the front line towns of the Donetsk region. They most famously evacuate civilians – dead and alive – from the spots where other rescue teams do not dare go. The group formed by the Mariinka police department is now known as the White Angels. On its missions in a white ambulance, policemen always try to bring some toys or sweets for the children trapped in the war zone. As a result, they started to call the team the “White Angels”. More than two years after the beginning of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the team has been continuing humanitarian response work on top of their normal police duties. They continue to work thanks to the help of charities and volunteer groups, who have been providing funds to repair the evacuation vehicles, buying first-aid supplies and sometimes also delivering fuel. In spring this year the White Angels were based in Kurakhove, a town some fifteen kilometres away from the front lines in Donetsk oblast.

Heading to Krasnohorivka

On the day we meet, police criminologist Vasyl Pipa and his colleagues in the White Angels team have already made one trip to Krasnohorivka, a town fifteen kilometres from Kurakhove, which is already partially occupied by the Russians. We get in a van painted in dark green and talk about the White Angels’ work on our way to the town. The van winds about the fields to avoid the asphalted road, which is now too dangerous to take. A former delivery vehicle, the van has the additional protection of reinforced metal inside it. The vehicle is also equipped with a radio jamming device to protect the team against possible drone attacks. The team’s trips to the area close to the combat line are always coordinated with the army, so that they are not mistaken for the enemy.

By police estimations, there are between three and five hundred people still living in Krasnohorivka, which used to have a population of over 16,000. “We estimate the number of people based on information from the locals who act as humanitarian aid distribution coordinators in their streets. People can withhold information from the authorities, but the aid distribution is a pretty accurate method,” explains Vasyl. Most people who request evacuation do so reluctantly. They do not want to leave their homes but just get too exhausted with life under regular shelling. The other day, Vasyl says, the team managed to evacuate a family with four children. “The adults have been hiding the children from us for some time but luckily we managed to convince them to leave the place,” he adds.

Police chief on the mission

On a small street on the outskirts of Krasnohorivka we meet Artem Shchus, the chief of Kurakhove police who is waiting there with a smaller car. This afternoon the team is going to pick up people in several Krasnohorivka locations. Shchus has already taken three of them from their homes inside the town. Among them is Halyna, who is trying to calm down her cat called Samy, who is poking her head out of a cardboard box.

In a few minutes, Shchus and Pipa leave to collect another group of people inside Krasnohorivka. The rest will be waiting for them at the spot. It takes the evacuation team between thirty minutes and one hour to go to an address in Krasnohorivka and come back with another group of evacuees. The people leaving the town are prepared to never come back and try to take as many of their possessions with them as possible.

Suddenly, two women walk out from behind the gates of one of the houses. One of them, Olga, says she came from the centre of Krasnohorivka some days ago to stay with her mother here. It has became too dangerous to stay in the town. The other day, she says, she had to come back to collect some documents at her apartment. A pastor from the local Evangelical church Nove Zhyttia (New Life) had accompanied her as they cycled there. It becomes apparent later that Nove Zhyttia members are a very well integrated group in the town, having formed their own safety network.

It is not exactly safe in the Krasnohorivka outskirts. Olga says that shelling hit the street we are talking on just some hours earlier. In the middle of our conversation, a local man passes us on a bicycle. “Do we have a chance for electricity today, Valera?” Olga asks him. Valera replies that he will see. One of the remaining local residents, Valera is on his way to to see if he is able to repair the local electricity supply line damaged by the shelling. The locals have no other choice than to do repairs themselves. The local electricity company staff do not come to Krasnohorivka anymore. It has become too dangerous.

There are no other indications of normal life. Olga says that there used to be a small shop working in the neighborhood until two weeks ago, but the owner has left and the store is closed. “She promised us she would come in a van and bring some bread and groceries for sale in a few days,” Olga says. In the meantime the locals depend on their homegrown food, the stock in their pantries and the occasional humanitarian aid delivery. Still, the Krasnohorivka outskirts are a “cosier” place compared to the town centre. While talking, we are watching a column of intense smoke rise over the town. The next group of Krasnohorivka evacuees arriving some minutes later tells us that the Russians dropped a gliding bomb over thereabout an hour ago. They are trying to guess what building exactly has caught fire this time.

Finally, the policemen decide that the next address in Krasnohorivka they are about to go to is safe enough to take a journalist with them. When we arrive to the next evacuation address in the town, the phones that went silent once we left Kurakhove start beeping. Surprisingly, there is a mobile network signal in Krasnohorivka. But the houses around are damaged by shelling. The signs of shrapnel on the walls and fences are “mixed” with stickers from different charities, which have been sending humanitarian aid to the town. The flowerbeds outside the houses are in full bloom.

Saying goodbyes

As Shchus and Pipa are looking for the women who requested evacuation, the locals are gathering around the car to exchange some words with the visitors from outside. They are still not ready to leave themselves despite the encouragement by the policemen. One of the women leaves behind her father, a man in his seventies, who is not willing to leave his home. As the women get into the car they say goodbye and everyone on the street has tears in the eyes. They do not know if they are going to see each other again.

On our way to the evacuees gathering point it turns out that Shchus and one of the evacuated women had known each other since they were youngsters and are now chatting about the past and present. The following days it becomes apparent that the White Angels know a significant part of the residents in their area of operations. Some of them are old childhood friends. And some got to know each other during humanitarian aid deliveries over the last two years.

Finally, the group is ready to leave Krasnohorivka for Kurakhove. There are nine people inside the bigger van, not counting Vasyl Pipa who is driving, their luggage and a box with the now quiet cat Samy inside.

Pipa says the team record for the van so far is 24 people and their luggage taken out on one trip. “Sometimes we have to evacuate the living and the civilians who were killed by shelling or died of other reasons at the same time,” he said. “There may be no other chance to come back and evacuate the body of a civilian again. We might be not able to get to the place again, or the body can be damaged by another shelling. And if the body is not evacuated we as the police will have to deal with the missing person case and the families will have all sorts of administrative complications, not speaking about the chance to bury their loved ones.”

Families and volunteers

On the way to Kurakhove, the van makes a stop at one of the towns further away from the front lines. A group of cars is waiting here in the dark. Some of the Kurakhove evacuees are collected by their family members who live in Donetsk Oblast further away from the front lines. A married couple, members of the Nove Zhyttia church, are being picked up by volunteers to be taken to Lviv. And while the luggage is unloaded from the van, the two policemen get news of a car full of Krasnohorivka civilians who were trying to take a woman injured by shelling to the hospital. The car had broken down on the way. The policemen have to go back in a smaller car to pick up the injured woman and help with the broken car. They come back about an hour later and the van finally continues to Kurakhove. One of the evacuees is dropped off in the village where his mother in law lives. His wife had left for the village ahead of him.

Of all the evacuees that time, only one woman goes to Kurakhove. She will spend the night in a Kurakhove shelter and will then go to Kyiv by train the next day. Her daughter and family had moved there after the first Russian invasion in Donbas in 2014, when the line dividing the territory under Ukrainian government control and the breakaway territories came very close to Krasnohorivka. In the shelter, she meets another Krasnohorivka evacuee, a woman in her eighties. She says her children live in Donetsk, which has not been controlled by Ukraine since 2014, while her granddaughter is in Crimea. So maybe she would go to a shelter in Zaporizhzhia but she is not sure. Her family are calling her from Donetsk and Crimea, telling her that she should come to them. “I would go anywhere quiet now,” the woman says, “but I heard they are bombing Zaporizhzhia as well and I am not sure if I should go there.”

Noah’s Ark

The next day the team returns to Krasnohorivka to pick up more people and more animals. This time Vasyl Pipa is accompanied by Andriy Drumov, a chief of the Volnovakha police now based in Kurakhove. Vitaliy, a local resident, is waiting for the evacuation team in Krasnohorivka. He has finally decided to leave for Dnipropetrovsk Oblast, where the members of the Nove Zhyttia church have offered him a place to stay. Before he leaves, Vitaliy needs to see the animals left in his care by people who left Krasnohorivka earlier be evacuated as well. A dog called Roma is barking outside the house as Vitaliy is trying to catch a ginger cat named Bonia, who is hiding inside. While Vitaliy is negotiating with Bonia, a sound of a drone becomes clear in the proximity of the evacuation van. It is impossible to say if the drone is Ukrainian or Russian, and Pipa hurries Vitaliy up. The van leaves for the next address.

The address is on the same street where two women were picked up as the last evacuees the previous day. The man who saw his daughter leaving a few hours before is now saying goodbye to his neighbours. They are leaving food supplies and two dogs to take care of. The man himself says he is not going anywhere. He says he is too old to leave and has nowhere to go where they would take him with his dog. An elderly woman approaches the two policemen, asking them if they could take her out of the area in a few days. She has not packed yet and still needs a bit more time. The policemen leave contact phone numbers and encourage the woman to give them a call as soon as possible.

Next stop is a house whose owners had already left, leaving their two dogs in Vitaliy’s care. While Vitaliy’s dogs are loaded in the van, a woman looks out of the neighbouring house and asks the police to take a German Sheppard dog sitting outside her gate. She does not know whose dog it is. It just came today and stays at her gate because she fed it. The woman says she is going to leave Krasnohorivka in a few days herself. She is waiting for some family members to come with a car to take her out. The van finally leaves for Kurakhove followed by the locals in their car, who feel it is safer to go out of the town in a convoy rather than on their own.

Some minutes after the van leaves the street there is a sound of an explosion nearby. Drumov believes that a drone humming close to Vitaliy’s house was a Russian one and that the explosion is an artillery attack on the spot where the evacuation van had been located last.

The dead and the living

Once again, Vasyl Pipa has to leave the evacuation van midway. An injured civilian had just been reported in Krasnohorivka. Apparently the man was hit by a piece of shrapnel the previous day and just had been found by one of the neighbours. While Drumov is taking the evacuees to Kurakhove, Pipa is picked up by Artem Shchus and they go to Krasnohorivka only to come back to Kurakhove with a dead body in their car. The injured man did not make it. The abdominal injury was too grave.

A few days later, the team is evacuating the bodies of civilians killed by Russian shelling from the village of Yelyzavetivka. A man and a woman had been killed by shrapnel from a single shell less than an hour before the police arrive. Immediately after the evacuation van arrives at the address, another shell hits the same area. Rustam Lukomskyi, a White Angels team member driving that day, believes the Russians are targeting the van. “For them we look the same as the military and they are trying to hit us every time they can,” he explained later.

The woman’s body is lying in the street. The two policemen quickly put it into a bodybag. At this moment a crying woman looks out from a house with a missing front wall and takes the policemen inside. On a floor in one of the rooms there is a body of a man. He was hit in his own living room. His mother stands over him. The two women begin weeping but refuse to leave the village that day. “We were born here and we will die here.” Another shell falls close to the house and the policemen hurry up to leave as the women stay behind.

In a small apartment block nearby locals are sheltering from the shells in a cellar. Here the policemen are waiting for one of the locals, who is coming with the dead woman’s ID. He went to look for it in her house. In the meantime, the locals tell the policemen that there is probably an injured woman somewhere in the village. The policemen decide not to go looking for her under the shelling and inform the army medics stationed in the village about the reports. The medics say they will keep an eye out for the injured civilian.

One hundred metres to the enemy

Later that day, I talk to Vasyl Pipa, who just came back from a mission delivering drinking water to another village under shelling in the area. “There are places in Krasnohorivka still not controlled by the Russians that we do not go to anymore,” Pipa says. The risk of being captured or killed by the Russians is too high there. The other day we evacuated an injured man. He was hit by a piece of shrapnel a few hundred metres away from the Russian-controlled area. The locals initially thought him dead. To evacuate him, we needed the assistance of one local who we know has pro-Russian views. We called him and asked to carry the injured man to the spot where we could pick him up. It worked out that time.

A policeman with twenty years of experience, Pipa tells me that the team will continue the missions in Krasnohorivka and the area for as long as they can. “Technically, we are not supposed to be going there anymore. The enemy is too close. But it is our territory, we know everyone there, and we are not afraid,” he says. “As long as there are people there, the police should still be there.”

Kateryna Pryshchepa is a Ukrainian journalist and a contributing editor with New Eastern Europe.

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