As Russian forces advanced in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, volunteers raced against time under deadly fire to convince the last remaining local residents to evacuate westward to safety. Viktoria Ivleva rode along to witness their daily acts of daring and kindness.
This city is ulcerated by war. The war has passed through the body of Lysychansk, furrowed the souls of its inhabitants.
Driving through the center, your eyes constantly rest on the war: the gaping failures of burnt buildings, scabs of wires hanging from poles, pieces of rockets and shells stuck into the ground and into houses, crumpled cars, and basements and bomb shelters where there are people clinging to the war, unable to part with it. In the city there is silence and only the crunching of broken window glass underfoot.
This is how I will see Lysychansk in a few days.
A trip there begins with a lesson in combat medicine. It is given to me in Kyiv by two volunteer paramedics from England: Sarah and Steve. They support Ukraine. Sarah even has a tattoo on her shoulder of the British and Ukrainian flags. They teach me the basics of first aid in war. A large rectangular patch, which can be used to close up a bullet hole in the chest, will stay with me for a long time.
But the main science is how to apply a tourniquet, a special hemostatic tourniquet.
"Put it on your arm as high as possible, tighten the sling as tight as possible, twist the fixing rod, turn clockwise with your other hand," Sarah tells me.
I put it on not especially high, tighten it, and a terribly unpleasant sensation begins. My hand goes numb so that it seems that it will never come to life again. I turn it with difficulty.
"Excellent!" It's Steve now. "Most people die from blood loss, and you have three minutes to save them. And the tourniquet can be applied in 20 seconds. Just in case, attach it to the top of the bulletproof vest, so as not to waste time later. And don't forget your helmet."
During these months, I've gotten used to the war, but it still doesn't feel right when in the center of a huge European city you are reminding yourself -- just like, "Grab an umbrella in case it rains" -- to take a bulletproof vest and helmet.
I am going to the Donbas with the Base UA team, a small volunteer organization that delivers humanitarian aid, performs first-aid training, and helps with evacuations. The guys from Base are typically middle-class. They all left their jobs and businesses at the start of the war, took people to Lviv and Poland, then gradually moved to the Donbas, realizing that they were needed there most.
Their enthusiasm is beautiful and mesmerizing.
In general, Ukrainian enthusiasm and volunteering cannot but fascinate anyone who encounters it. The horizontal ties of Ukrainian society are striking, and where the state fails or copes poorly, volunteers always come to the rescue. As one friend said, the volunteers "do what is necessary -- and a little bit more."
We spend the night in Slovyansk, and in the morning we jump into two bright-red, armored Mercedes Sprinter vans, while the third car is an impressive ambulance, a gift from England.
The distance from Slovyansk to Lysychansk is a little less than 100 kilometers. First, asphalt, several roadblocks, the checking of documents. (I have to say, in all my time in the Donbas they didn't check my documents even once -- a one-dimensional male world that does not notice women!) The road then becomes narrower. There are few ordinary cars, more military equipment. People are almost invisible, and there are no signs of economic life in the fields -- everything is hidden, frozen, trying to become invisible, to merge with the ground.
Forty kilometers before Lysychansk we get out of the cars to put on body armor and helmets. It will be really dangerous up ahead. A helmet that always slides over my eyes and touches my goggles is the most unpleasant thing to wear of my equipment. My head begins to itch instantly from the sweat, dust, and heat. I'm trying to fit the clasp under my chin, but this damn green pot doesn't fit me, and I wear it to one side.
We stand in a circle, and one person says a self-made and very sincere prayer:
"God bless our way, our road. Save these young people from military action. Give us the strength to bring maximum benefit to people today, to serve even those who do not want to leave, awaken their hearts to common sense so that we can pick them up, take them to a safe place. May your angels go ahead of us, protecting us from bullets and shelling. We trust our lives in your hands. Amen."
We're moving on. Small white clouds stand motionless. The sky is clear and blue, a calm space.
Then suddenly, after another turn, a forest of the thin pipes of Lysychansk appears on the horizon, and between them, from several sides at once, vertical snakes -- black clouds of smoke creeping into the sky as if from the underworld. The danger becomes almost tangible, as if invisible molecules and atoms of war are spilling into the very composition of the air, making this air hard, inanimate, unsuitable for ordinary human life.
The black puffs of smoke -- satellites of shelling -- I will see every time I drive up to the city.
An inscription flickers by: Lysychansk 15 km, Syevyerodonetsk 22 km. And these 15 kilometers are the most dangerous section of the road. It is completely open and a target. It is impossible to predict anything here. It is only possible to drive at maximum speed, becoming an inconvenient object for aimed firing. Dima floors the gas pedal. Six minutes of tense silence to the whistle of tires, and we are in the city -- 150 kilometers an hour! Bravo, red Sprinter van!
The only thing I manage to notice along the way is a checkpoint smashed by shells into debris.
The first thing I see, in spite of all the death, is a small herd of goats and a woman with a knapsack wandering after them. Then there are charred houses with pierced walls and mangled cars turned over on their sides. They are laid out on the road in a zigzag pattern to slow down traffic. A man is tinkering in one of these cars, apparently picking out what others did not like. And past him, as if nothing has happened, with a proudly raised head, leaning on a stick, walks a majestic old woman in a starched white Panama hat.
It seems that they are used to everything here and have completely lost their sense of danger.
We drive to the fire department, where people who have not lost this feeling have gathered, finally deciding to leave. Several people there are waiting for a car from Vostok-SOS, which has been operating in the Donbas region since 2014. Nearby is a line of residents with buckets, large jugs, and carts of water for washing -- there has been no normal water in Lysychansk, a city on the banks of the Siverskiy Donets, since mid-April, or electricity since May 8. And there is absolutely no telephone connection at all. Of all the achievements of civilization, it disappears first, even at the entrance to the city. It feels like you are inside a cotton cocoon.
To the right of the fire station, correspondents from The New York Times roam around their freshly shelled car. They seal the windshield damaged by fragments with adhesive tape. Thank God, no one was injured, but everyone's condition is far from cheerful. Still, death changed its mind only at the last moment and waved to them with a bony hand.
We deliver food and drinking water to the humanitarian headquarters located at the school, where there is also a bomb shelter in the basement, and next to it a line to receive humanitarian aid. Mostly elderly women are waiting. I'm trying to figure out why they don't leave. Their response: Who needs us, and where will we live and work? It's as if they were offered to be taken to the Sahara Desert. The sounds of shots are heard, but they are of little concern to the women.
We go to the addresses provided by relatives. The guys go to the apartment of an elderly couple. The husband has some kind of very sad stage of cancer. Opposite the house is a garage. Instead of a car, there are tables at which, peacefully talking, a large friendly group is having lunch. They cook, like all the other inhabitants of Lysychansk, right there, nearby, on a grill that they built themselves. They pour me soup. They offer me homemade compote, as if there were no deaths, arrivals, wounded in the city.
They categorically do not want to leave -- why, they can't particularly explain. One woman suddenly starts crying and says, "Go away, go away, go away...." I go through the entrance, where I see the word "Sicily" on the bright-blue painted wall. It turns out this is the name of a local taxi, which could be ordered quite recently by scanning the QR code. From the Stone Age into which Lysychansk has plunged, I am fascinated, looking at this artifact of the 21st century.
The second address is a complete failure: a young woman with schizophrenia and elderly parents. There is no medicine. There is no psychiatrist in the city, either. The mother does not go. Everything is on the father.
"We already tried to leave once, but she attacked the people who came to help," he says. "I gave her some pills today. Let's try it." He looks at the guys hopefully.
They go into the room to the patient. She starts to scream something, confused, gets up, waves her arms menacingly.
We are retreating. The madwoman remains in a city not intended even for the healthy. War, grinning viciously, wins this round against us.
All told, about 80,000 people have left the city of almost 100,000, but those who remain are tough nuts who do not want to hear any arguments. Someone even accuses those who left of cowardice, pointing to themselves as an example of how desperately brave people remained to guard apartments and houses.
"You come to the shelling zone, and they laugh in your face and say: 'We don't need any help. We were here. We are and will be with the children, and everything suits us, and four months have passed and we still haven't been killed,'" one of the Base UA volunteers says.
"Applications for leaving with us mainly come from relatives who have already left. They send their video messages, begging their relatives to save themselves," another says. "I show them these appeals. I say, 'People, do you understand that you may never see your relatives again?' In response, almost indifferently: 'Yes, we understand. But we won't go.'"
"Sometimes you don't understand, or you are a fool, or people really are waiting for the Russians, or they simply inadequately assess the situation and the realities around them," another says.
The Russian world is the Russian world, no one discounts that, but the main thing is the same: saving yourself, as if in childhood -- "I'm in the house, which means I'm safe." And it seems to you that if you sit quietly, shrinking into a ball, turning into a feather, then no rocket will notice you, no shell will reach you. The main thing is to be quiet, small. When it turns out that this is not the case, it is usually too late.
One day, I run into a building entrance to help a woman carry drinking water from the pump, and there, right by the elevator on the first floor, a group of neighbors is sitting, celebrating a birthday.
"Let's go," I say. "This will be the best present for all of you."
Everyone is waving their hands: "No, no, we are here." And one woman, pursing her lips, replies: "We tried to leave a day ago. My daughter from Kyiv negotiated with the police. We came to the fire station with things -- and there was shelling. We barely made it back. It turns out that God told us not to leave."
"Lord, your will! He changed his mind. Behold, I stand before you, a messenger of the same God. Your salvation," I almost blasphemed. "Pack up and let's go!"
She, without entering into a discussion about God, simply refuses. Then a man starts to roar, writes a note to his daughter: "We are alive. Don't cry. Hold on. Everything will be good," and asks timidly: "Will you deliver this?"
Near the local Red Cross, I get into a conversation with Olena, a sweet young woman who is waiting for the evacuation transport with her son.
"Cows, cows, the neighbors had cows there. We went to feed them. Well, you can't just quit!" she says.
Yes, you can just quit. Moreover, her son is growing up.
"My husband went to feed them again. About five minutes later, there was an explosion, right there in the field. He was killed. His stomach was torn open," Olena says. "There was no funeral. We were no longer able to go out there to collect what was left of him."
"When did this happen?" I ask.
"Yesterday," Olena replies impassively. "In the morning, we took our things and went to the evacuation. Let's go to our daughter in Estonia."
I don't ask her any more.
The absurdity of life in Lysychansk cannot but strike anyone who comes here for the first time. Amid shelling nearby, I see a couple -- a girl in a short plaid skirt and an athletic young man -- run out of a building. They get on a scooter and set off somewhere, to the rumbling sounds of artillery. I still don't know what it was -- an act of desperate courage, madness, or complete indifference to their own fate.
The most joyful rescue of the day is Natasha and her three children: Liza, Artem, and Bohdan. We pick them up from the basement of the hostel where the family has spent a month. Natasha is seen off by her neighbors, hugging, crying, but they refuse the offer to leave and go back inside, not allowing us to at least see how they are arranged in this basement.
The car is filled with people and things. Mostly everyone is silent and very tense. Liza hugs a huge teddy bear. Sometimes someone starts to feel sick from the shaking -- and then we remember that we never bought motion-sickness pills, and the only thing we can offer is a plastic water bottle cut with a knife.
We're leaving on the highway. We are going to spend the night in a wonderful place of absolute goodness and peace: a small Pentecostal church in Yasnohorka.
In the morning, the bus of the Angels of Salvation arrives at the church. On the floor of the bus, an old woman lies motionless on a mattress. I know about her. She's from the village of Privolye, which is a few kilometers from Lysychansk. She had a stroke. Her name is Lyudochka, and the volunteers were supposed to take her out a few days ago. They arrived then, but they were only able to pick up her daughter and children. Lyudochka, who needed special transportation, had to be left at home with her husband. The war was approaching. Privolye was closed. Only the military and the police could get there. Lyudochka's daughter methodically called everyone, begging them to get her mother out. Volunteers called the military and police.
They carry her into the room. The church sister Sasha and I pull out a dirty mattress that stinks of sewage from under Lyudochka, remove the swollen diaper. I take wet wipes and begin to wipe her old, feeble body.
"Lyudochka, is it better that way?" I ask.
"Blink if it's better."
I continue to wipe her with napkins. Her paralyzed hand with dirty nails won't open. I have to leave it like that.
Sister Sasha skillfully turns Lyudochka on her side. We put a clean shirt on her. Lyudochka groans again.
Sister Sasha says, "Look how her hair is all messed up at the back of her head." We find scissors. Sister Sasha holds her head. I start quietly, strand by strand, to cut off the tangles, like an old dog. It seems to make her rest easier.
She falls asleep and sleeps soundlessly.
The next morning, Lyudochka is taken away to her daughter, in whose arms she will die five days later.
Usually we ended up with them there in the evening. Long, gentle evening shadows were already wandering around the churchyard, roses were blooming everywhere and, most importantly, it was amazingly quiet. The lights were on and water flowed from the tap. Here it was possible to charge your phone, call relatives, and exhale into the phone: "We are alive."
-- "Tanya, we left today! In what we stood, we fled in that, rode in such dust. Right now I'm going to wash myself off; otherwise they lived there like in a village: a basin of water with a scoop bowl."
-- "You are my baby! They took us straight from Vovcheyarovka. We were in the ghetto there. They didn't stick out much. They shot from all sides."
-- "Natasha, hello, my bunny, hello, my daughter, my daughter! We left. The house was destroyed...."
This was the beginning of being back in the world, and I watched from person to person how the tension left their faces, how the fear of war fell away from people a little.
The head of the church, correctly called the Church of Christians of the Evangelical Faith, is brother Yury (here everyone are brothers and sisters), and he is helped by several young men and two wonderful women -- sister Sasha and sister Natasha. It is they who instantly set a long table intended for a large friendly family, put out bowls of bread and obligatory soup, every time evacuees are brought in.
Once we burst in after the curfew with a bunch of people and things. The whole church instantly set in motion: pillows, mattresses were moved around, everything possible was dragged out. People were placed right in the prayer hall, but all the mattresses were, as usual, covered with perfectly ironed, clean linen. And never in my memory was there not enough of something for someone. And no one ever raised their voice to anyone, and no one was ever offended by anyone else.
I think this is what real brothers and sisters are, and real ministry.
I'm going with Ruslan and Maks of Base UA for a while. There's shooting around us, but it doesn't seem to be very close. There is time. Ruslan is taking insulin to an old woman. Her daughter in Poland passed it through several people. The old lady is happy. Then she talks about how hard life is without electricity. Dark, ripe cherries hang over the old woman's fence and the ground around is littered with them.
"Daughter," the old woman says as she turns to me, "take all of these cherries, at least!"
The guys record a video message from the old woman to Poland: "Daughter," the old woman says, "how I've missed you. I have no strength..."
Then she cries and adds, "Come home. It's so good here!"
Suddenly, the shooting intensifies, explosions coming closer and closer. The old woman, wiping her tears, goes to hide in the cellar.
We drive on, and already under the incessant sounds of shooting, the guys run along the houses and trees for a woman whose relatives asked for her to be evacuated. I fall behind and suddenly I hear children's voices behind the fence. I push the gate open. Two girls and a boy are running around the yard, which is littered with all sorts of rubbish. It's already rumbling as if they are shooting right into the yard.
"Children!" I yell. "Children, why are you alone? Where are the adults?"
I yell something else, I don't remember what, and we run into the house, which is staggering and shaking. My God! In the midst of this rumbling nightmare sits a young woman breastfeeding a baby.
"Pack up immediately! You have two minutes!" I say.
At such moments, all the husks built up in your life, all the pink foam, instantly falls off you, and the main thing remains: to challenge the war, to defeat it in the only possible way -- to prevent this creature from killing a person, to save a man, a woman, a child.
"What is your name?" I scream through the roar.
"Dasha. I am Dasha Halych," she replies.
"Are these your children?"
"Yes, they're mine."
Dasha's father appears from somewhere, a strong man, Yura, and an inconspicuous woman, the mother. Yura tells the children to at least throw some things in bags and go with me and Ruslan, who has rushed to the rescue, instantly collecting the documents, putting them in Dasha's bag. He refuses to leave.
The shelling rumbles so hard that chips fly off the door frame.
We run out of the house. Yura carries the baby, covering its head with his hands.
"Daddy, daddy," Dasha begs. "Come with us. Please, daddy!"
"I want to see how it all ends," he says, and stays.
Tough guy. Outwardly, he looks a little like the artist Picasso.
I'm dragging some kind of bag of Dasha's with children's clothes, and it seems that now shrapnel is flying straight at us. The main thing is for everyone to jump into the car as quickly as possible and get away. We jump, Ruslan hits the gas, and we roar away. The children sit quietly as the boy covers his ears with his hands.
We leave Dasha with the children in the bomb shelter, while Ruslan, Maks, and I rush out to look for another old woman at an address. With difficulty, we find the house, and we knock on the door for what seems like forever. Ruslan shows her a video from her granddaughter who, almost sobbing, begs her grandmother to go to her in Dnipro in a separate apartment.
"I'm not going anywhere," the woman says, without batting an eyelid. "This is my land. I want to die here. My forefathers are here."
The shelling continues. The tree in her yard shakes so hard that branches break. Fifteen minutes of persuasion, begging, appealing, all to no avail. She picks up her dog and hides behind a blue iron gate with the inscription: "PEOPLE LIVE."
Keeping low amid the shelling, we run back.
While we were attempting to persuade the stubborn grandmother, Anton and Filipp in the second van brought back a family: a mother, a boy, and a father with a injured leg who went out at the wrong time to fetch water. And he was still very lucky: The neighbor who went out with him was killed. And in the back of the van lies a man who had a stroke, unable to speak and partially paralyzed, who was found thanks to his neighbors and who is being treated by the paramedic John.
Dasha, her children, a family with a wounded dad, several more old women, and old man Fedorych on crutches, who is brought from another trip by Anton and Filipp, go back to the church for the night. Anton and John take the paralyzed man to the emergency room.
What a day!
All day I've been trying to capture something at least on my mobile phone, because it's almost impossible to focus, set the aperture or change the shutter speed on my small camera. How many times have I faced this choice -- to be a journalist or save a person.
And the energy of salvation always chose a person for me. I never regretted it. The energy of salvation gave me the strength to live on.
A day later, the guys evacuate Aleksandra Petrovna, a school mathematics teacher. Out of respect and love, everyone around her calls her professor. Aleksandra Petrovna is 90 years old, and this is her second evacuation in her life. The first was in 1941 from Leningrad.
A shell hit the entrance of the house in the basement of which their whole wonderful company of bomb-proof inmates was located. The shell could have destroyed the basement, but they were saved by a large walnut tree that grew in the yard. The tree is no more, only some of the trunk remains, all chewed up like pulp.
Aleksandra Petrovna sits in a wheelchair in the middle of the bus like a queen mother, all the other passengers on two benches along the sides. Three people are injured and one also has shell shock, so we are taking them to the hospital. The rest spend the night, as usual, in the Pentecostal church, and in the morning the bus of the Angels of Salvation arrives. Everyone travels on it to Pokrovsk, from where a free evacuation train runs to Lviv every day.
Brother Oleksandr carries Petrovna in his arms to the "angels" and sits her on the seat more comfortably. Lysychansk is closed today due to intensified shelling, and I am going to Pokrovsk.
On the way, we chat about mathematics and life -- a rare time when you can just chat like that. Usually we only talk about the case: Are all the documents with us, where is the phone, is the apartment locked? And so on.
"I don't understand," Petrovna suddenly says, "what Putin is doing. He seemed to be doing such a good job, but now...."
"It was [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko who started the war," the teacher replies confidently. "He shot people from an airplane in Luhansk. Stole piles of money. America knows what the devil it's doing. America sent troops here. It sends mercenaries. And why is it strange that I like Putin?
"Well, he started the war," I answer.
"Where did he start it? He is simply for the Russians and the Russian language."
"Were you forbidden to speak Russian?" I ask.
"Yes. Here, in general, a law was passed that it was impossible to speak Russian."
"Were you banned? They said directly: 'Shut your mouth'?"
"Yes. I went to our RTI for bread. 'We will not serve you. Speak Ukrainian in the store.'"
"In Lysychansk, where everyone speaks Russian. They didn't sell you bread, an elderly woman?"
The neighbors on the bus begin to laugh. One, a former trucker, says, "Yes, I went to a cafeteria in Lviv. They spoke Russian to me there...."
Petrovna, paying no attention to him, continues: "There have always been a lot of Russians here. And already all the textbooks are in Ukrainian. And physics, and even chemistry!"
I understand that it is useless to prove something, and I ask: "Did you have television in Lysychansk at the beginning of the war?"
"Yes. They showed Russian TV," she says.
"Did you watch Ukrainian?"
"Oh, Ukrainian was talking such nonsense that it was impossible to listen. One big lie. And Russian spoke the whole truth...."
"Why are you evacuating now?" I ask her.
"Because the war is on."
"So Putin started it! Russian planes flew to Kyiv...."
"No, when troops came to the Donbas, Putin said, 'We will protect the Russians.' That's what he said."
"And what is the result? Here, you are Russian, you are 90 years old, and you are going to who knows where."
"And now it is not known where, because everything is shooting everywhere," she answers.
"So this is what Putin did."
"No, he protects the Russians."
I understand the futility of the dispute. I feel sorry for her. We turn to some neutral topic.
And yet, how can it be that a math teacher understands two plus two mathematically and all sorts of formulas of cosines and tangents, but she cannot calculate two plus two in the world in any way?
A minute later, a woman from the next seat says to me:
"This teacher and I spent the night next to each other in the church. You don't think she's good. You probably think that she is a separatist, and you will think of me that I am also a separatist, but tell me how I can get to Krasnodar. My older son is there. He is waiting for me in Krasnodar. I need to take the younger one to him. He cannot live alone. Here he is, you see, he has a condition, he is not healthy, he has been like this since birth. His umbilical cord got tangled, he could not breathe for a long time. I'm also sick, I can barely move, I have multiple sclerosis, and once I was a gymnastics coach. He won't survive on his own, and I won't be able to take care of him for much longer, it turns out. He's in a nursing home, but he can't go there, he sometimes gets angry, but I know how to deal with him and how to calm him down, and my brother knows. He will definitely take him and never leave him in a boarding school. How could I go to Krasnodar?"
Lord, I think, here they are, these two unfortunate ones, bound by the umbilical cord for life, what is this all for? What? And how can she get to Krasnodar?
In Pokrovsk, everyone is dropped off at another church, nicer, with air conditioning in the prayer hall, but not so sincere. It hasn't been shelled, and they seem to suspect me of having fake accreditation and do not really answer a single question, but they feed me lunch.
I recognize a handsome man with a huge gray cat. Base UA took him, his wife, and their cat out the day before.
"Why didn't you leave before?" I ask.
"Honestly, I'll tell you: They kept tomatoes. We work with tomatoes, and we are the very first to have them in Lysychansk. Everyone knows us," he says.
"We even have such an American variety of tomato called Mrs. Schlaubaugh's Famous Strawberry," his wife, an agronomist, adds. "I buy seeds only from collectors. We have very good seeds in Ukraine. A couple in Volchansk have two-color ones, bicolor. They are delicious."
Husband: "And the black ones are delicious!"
Wife: "Yes, or with anthocyanin, such a useful substance for metabolism. It gives the tomatoes a purple look."
"So you thought that tomatoes were more precious than life, right?" I say.
"They were," the husband says contritely. "And now we have spit on everything. Our dacha is located right behind the Children's World, across from the Azot. Shells fly all over there, everything on us. Impossible -- some neighbors were killed, another was killed, a third was killed."
Wife: "Yes, but remember, on the third day there was a terrible shelling, our friend died in the garden, where my favorite determinant tomatoes grow. They buried him there, and put up a cross."
Husband: "The day before yesterday we arrived. Our good neighbors were killed, and I tell my Alla: 'That's it. I can't take it anymore. Only lazy people are left.'"
Wife: "I'll tell you why we still held out: I have very good indoor flowers. They are called adeniums, a desert rose, so bottle-shaped, a whole collection. Well, I watered them before leaving, said goodbye.... Also, we had a whole apartment, and we thought: 'Yes, as long as they don't shoot through the windows, it's like you can live...."
Husband: "As a result, we gathered it up in an hour. And everything was cut, both tomatoes and adeniums."
I understand that it's not about tomatoes and adeniums but about the normality of life, which they clung to with their last strength, as best they could. Psychologists, of course, can somehow scientifically explain this.
We return from Pokrovsk with Sebastian Plokharski, my friend, photographer, and cameraman from Poland. We get off the bus onto the highway and go through some nooks and crannies to the church.
Yasnohorka has not yet been shelled. It's not that quiet around there, just the sounds are all ordinary, from normal life. That is, you do not have to be in constant tension. And I remember as the moment of the greatest happiness this freedom just like that, walking down the street, chatting with a friend, laughing, picking red-black mulberries and cherries, licking the juice from my fingers, and not being afraid of arrivals and death.
Every morning the Base UA team starts with a visit to a large warehouse. We load up all the cars with humanitarian aid, and only then do we set off. This time I'm riding in the English ambulance. I sit in the back, as if in such a separate room, where they carry the sick, all littered with packaged products. There is just some international food lying around: Polish sprats, pâté, and soup with salmon, Italian canned vegetables, ham in a jar and pasta, a pack of rice from Burma packed in Germany, Slovak protein bars, Ukrainian condensed milk, and three oranges of unknown origin.
Many lucky people have never eaten like this, I think with some kind of reproach and immediately understand: None of those who are lucky has ever lived so terribly.
It will take longer to drive today -- the railway bridge has been blown up. We are taking a detour along a country road. The dust is incredible. I can't see anything from the back, the small window is covered with a poster with a blue-yellow heart and the inscription "Ukraine."
Suddenly, we hear the whistling sounds of mortars and some kind of explosions very nearby, so close that they are about to hit us. Ihor grips the steering wheel, hits the gas, and the car veers along the narrow road so that my part, it seems, is about to come off. All this international food is flying around. Out of the corner of my eye I snatch an orange rolling on the floor. The shelling does not stop. In a panic, I fear for my life and I can only yell.
We are racing forward. Everything stops as suddenly as it started. We stop. The rest of the guys come out of the two red Sprinters. Everyone decides not to fool around in Lysychansk anymore today. We drive up to a broken gas station, and it turns out that the ambulance has a problem. Ihor and Ruslan climb under it and make something out of extra pieces of wood. And there, in the midst of the barbarity of war, we eat oranges from torn bags.
We decide to distribute the humanitarian aid in the neighboring small town of Siversk, which has also had arrivals.
We arrive in Siversk. In the courtyard of a two-story house, a man naked to the waist plays with kittens, clothes are drying, a bench stands, touchingly covered with a gray Orenburg scarf. Green grass, flowers, sweet cherries, a kitten crawls under the car, everyone rushes to get it. Then it turns out that the kitten lover lives in the cellar behind the house, that a rocket hit his apartment on the second floor and the whole apartment burned. Thank God, there was no one in the house, but his wife died from a shell on the 14th. He did not leave then, and even more so now.
From a hole pierced by a shell in his apartment, a view of the Luhansk steppe opens.
We're going to the city center. And there, a crowd hungry for humanitarian aid literally pounces on us. They rush from all sides -- men, women, children, old women with sticks. They run, pushing each other out of the way. Every other one reports that there is a bedridden person at home and he also needs free food. A nice-looking woman appears, begging for a package of food for a girl.
"Let's go see the girl right away. We'll take her to the hospital," Misha suggests.
"Well, she's not exactly a girl," the woman replies. "She's 62. Give me a better bag of food."
Finally, two almost identical old women in white knitted hats run up, talking about their terrible life, about their grandchildren in the basement, and other things that came with the war.
"We'll come to you. We'll pick up your grandchildren and everyone else, and today you will spend the night in peace and quiet," Misha suggests to them.
"Noooo!" one of the white hats screams hysterically. "Where were you on February 24? Then, we needed to be taken away.... Now we don't need anything! Give us our humanitarian aid!"
Horrified by what is happening, I turn the corner and see a table set in the courtyard, young women and several soldiers sitting around it. They are talking cheerfully, kids are playing peacefully around them, children's shorts and T-shirts are drying on a rope.
When I ask them about leaving, one of the women says, "We have someone to protect us!" and she looks admiringly at the soldiers.
I realize how ridiculous I look in my helmet and armor in this small territory of nascent feelings, and retreat, taking one picture for memory.
The only reward for this crazy day is that late in the evening we pick up Alla, a woman of about 50, from a village. Alla's neighbors, a family with two small children, refuse to go, ignoring all the arguments of Anton and Dima.
Every day in the Donbas, the guys from Base UA, risking their lives, go into basements and bomb shelters, pull out children and adults confused and crazed from the roar of guns, rescue lonely old people from shelled apartments and houses, bring and distribute humanitarian aid, persuade, beg, preach, and God knows what else they do, just to snatch people out of the clutches of war.
By the end of each day like this, they are covered with a crust of road dust, barely able to stand on their feet from fatigue, and the next day they go again. This is what any rescuer does, that's true, but I was with them, and they have my admiration and gratitude.
I walk through the yard of the high-rise building. At the entrance, men sit nonchalantly on stools and smoke. "We don't want who is waiting for us there. What will we live on there? (And what do you live on here? I ask myself.) There is no work there." (But here, in a constantly shelled city without electricity, water, or telephone, is there a lot of it? I ask myself.) Understanding that there you will definitely be alive, but here it is not so certain -- this simple worldly understanding disappears somewhere from people. Only the feeling of your walls as a small happiness and protection from trouble remains.
I don't even argue anymore. I ask simply: "Are there sick children here?"
"There are no children. But there, go up to the fourth or sixth floor, there was a patient. The neighbors looked after him."
I'm going up to the fourth floor. On the door to the waiting room is the inscription "PEOPLE LIVE." I pound on it with my hands; there is no answer. I go inside, knock and kick the door of the apartment. Silence. I run to the sixth floor. I knock there. A woman comes out with a tired face. She turns out to be nurse Lyudmila, who is caring for the patient.
"You don't want to leave?" I ask, just in case.
"My husband and I don't. We are like that. But you will take Yuriy Nikolayevich away."
We go to the apartment. Lyudmila opens the door. I see in the corridor a man with tousled gray hair, a thin face, with burning, simply sparkling eyes. For some reason, there is an empty baby bath in front of him. The man is wearing only shorts, tacked on with a large yellow clothespin. The man is not just thin, he is completely exhausted, and the phrase "skin and bones" ceases to be a phrase for me, turns into a living, still lasting life of this unknown man, almost killed by the circumstances of the war.
"Yuriy Nikolayevich," Lyudmila says as she turns to him, "here is a woman who can take you out."
He agrees surprisingly easily.
We start to get packed. Where what remains in the apartment, he does not really know. But we find his passport quickly, we add a pair of warm socks to the passport ("My feet are cold all the time. I need to be warmer," he says pitifully), sneakers, more house slippers.
Suddenly: "The safe! You have to take the safe."
The safe is found. It is a green metal box with a rusty key sticking out of it.
We take a plush blanket from the bed and a pillow. I run for local volunteers. They come, figure out how to carry Nikolayevich down the stairs. Explosions are heard outside the window, but none of us is hurrying. We understand that it is not close, not ours, in that sense, until it reaches us.
The room is a complete mess. On the table are two French baguettes of unknown provenance.
"Lyudmila," I ask, "why is he so thin?"
"He just almost stopped eating. When she left, his wife tried to convince him to go with her, but he kept saying tomorrow, tomorrow. At some point she couldn't stand it anymore, she went to her daughter, but left him a refrigerator full of food and all sorts of other things. I came but nothing had been touched. Everything had gone bad."
Nikolayevich's wife left on April 1, believing that he would pull himself together, but he did not pull himself together. Then mobile phones stopped working, and any communication with his family was lost.
And so he lay day after day, waiting for the end, no matter what.
"Yuriy Nikolayevich, dear, let's go. We'll get you down, somehow, on a blanket. The guys will take it from four sides, little by little...."
"No," he suddenly says. "By myself. Where is my passport?"
"Yes, here it is, and the safe is here. Let's hurry up, shall we? Evening is coming soon...."
I help him put on slippers, sweatpants, a jacket, he again asks about his passport, and finally we carefully leave the apartment. Nikolayevich slowly, step by step, goes down the stairs. Lyudmila and I are carrying his things.
While I'm dealing with Nikolayevich, the guys from Base UA are doing their daily feats: They take away a man hit by shrapnel, they take away a man with a broken leg. Then someone tells them about a lonely grandmother. They go up to the apartment. The grandmother lies naked in her own excrement, a blanket is on top of her, her arm is broken. There is no water. She asks for food. When did she last eat? She can't remember. John works at it for about three hours, washing her with wet wipes and wiping her with rags. In the end, she is loaded along with the wounded and taken to the hospital in Kramatorsk.
We put Nikolayevich on mattresses, cover him with his blanket.
Everyone, let's go!
Nikolayevich turns out to be the last resident of Lysychansk to be evacuated. The next day, the military will no longer let anyone into the city. It's too dangerous.
We go with him to Pokrovsk, get on the evacuation train. I go to Dnipro, he goes to Lviv. The train is full. Raisa Vasilyevna, who was born in April 1945 in a concentration camp in Essen, is going to the hospital for war veterans in the carriage next to us. Exactly opposite Vasilyevna, 10-month-old Yaroslavchik is going on his first evacuation. I never thought that I would see history looping like this so directly.
I get off in Dnipro, say goodbye to Nikolayevich. He gets up, holding on to the table, and says to me, obviously worried: "Wait, Vika, I wanted to tell you.... This is what I wanted to tell you: You are a very beautiful woman!"
He will live, I think. He will live.
We hug goodbye. I get off the evacuation train, wander along the platform. Then something breaks in me. I sit down on the steps of the Dnipro railway station and cry for a long time, pitying all of us, scorched by the war.
Epilogue: Dasha Galich and her children are in Lviv, at a center for the placement of evacuees. The fate of the stubborn grandmother, whom her granddaughter called to Dnipro, is unknown. Aleksandra Petrovna was sent to a sanatorium. Yuriy Nikolayevich was met by relatives in Lviv; everything is fine with him. Olena and her son got to her daughter in Estonia and live on a ship. The "woman with a birthday" is still in Lysychansk. The tomato specialists live with friends in the Cherkasy region. Base UA continues to evacuate people from the Donbas. Since July 2, Lysychansk has been under the control of Russian forces.