Ukrainian rescue teams on the frontline of the war 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 town and the fights just beyond, the less traffic there is. The potholes get deeper, the accelerating vehicle bounces higher, and mile after mile time flies.

Evacuation missions like this are a race against time. As Russian forces advance, the towns and villages they are fighting for in eastern Ukraine are emptying out, leaving mostly the elderly behind. Volunteers launch dozens of rescue operations daily, often in the thick of the fighting, to save them.

Unlike younger residents, people with reduced mobility are unable to rush into basements when artillery shells or missiles land nearby. In the high-rise buildings, the most fragile sometimes remained in the same chairs, unable to move, watching through bombed-out windows as explosions rocked the earth. In remote villages like Volodymyrivka, elderly people sometimes spent weeks begging for help, 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 to a remote area, only to find the place inaccessible. “We have to tell ourselves that these are not failed missions,” said Sasha, who asked that her last name not be used for security reasons. “Even driving through an area, people are hoping that we can still reach them.”

Arriving in Volodymyrivka last week, Sasha slowed his ambulance crawling as he tried to match the dirt road to the GPS pin on his mobile phone. Then he saw her: standing at the gate, her arms crossed and her face worried. Oksana Sudavtsova, 41, gestured towards the house in which her 72-year-old mother, Liubov, sat slumped on the sofa, unable to walk since a stroke weeks earlier had left her paralyzed from the waist to feet. As Sasha grabbed the portable stretcher, a missile sped past and Oksana, terrified, rushed home.

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

Oksana covered her face as Sasha took Liubov away.

More than 12 million people are believed to have fled their homes in Ukraine since February 24, with at least 5.7 million spilling into neighboring countries. But people like Liubov, and others evacuated with her in recent days, have no idea where they might go. Voluntary organizations like Save Ukraine, where Sasha works, transport them from their homes and help them reach the relative safety of western Ukraine.

In the eastern city of Pokrovsk, a church has become a relay. The nuns handed out hot tea and borscht. At a table, three elderly women wearing brightly colored scarves were whispering conspiratorially. “Hey, are you eating? asked a nun. The women giggled and returned to their soup.

When an evacuation vehicle arrives for them, residents are sometimes reluctant to quickly leave their homes. “They don’t understand what’s going on, or they’re afraid of the trip,” Sasha said. “We have to explain very carefully.”

Valentina Lushenko, 80, who had been snatched from her home after weeks of waiting, joined Liubov in the back of the ambulance on Thursday. Wrapped in winter coats, she was very small. She said she had no relatives to help her; her husband was dead and her only surviving son was in prison. The only person who had watched her since the start of the war was a local bus driver who brought her groceries.

The ambulance bounced violently as it raced down the road to Pokrovsk. Save Ukraine had reserved 40 places on the daily evacuation train, and time was running out. Liubov winced in pain. Valentina was scared and agitated. She also looked deeply sad. She kept talking about her parents, at one point opening her purse to look at black-and-white photos of them. “They’re dead,” she said, and she started crying.

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There were dozens of other evacuees at the Pokrovsk station, and they had arrived by any means possible. A bus was coming from Ogledar, where Russian forces had advanced in recent days amid heavy fighting. Others came from Kramatorsk, a city 80 km south where the station was bombed on April 8 by a Russian missile that killed more than 50 people. A blue train stopped and the families boarded. “The 4:30 train is ready to leave,” said the voice over the loudspeaker. “Car 4 for Dnipro, Car 23 for Lviv.”

On the platform outside Car 20, Sasha opened the doors of her ambulance, and the staff carefully took Liubov and Valentina away.

The two women seemed worried and the dock staff tried to comfort them. The men carefully rolled Liubov from stretcher to stretcher and then onto a metal platform they would use to carry her aboard. Svitlana Glotova, a red-haired and warm-mannered doctor, said she would watch over the two women throughout the trip. “All we can do on the train is be nice to them and show them love,” she said.

As Liubov was slowly lifted onto the metal platform, a railroad worker grabbed his hand. Another smiled broadly, reassuring her. “Don’t worry, darling, don’t worry,” he kept telling her. “When this war is over, we will bring you home. Don’t worry, my dear. This is not a goodbye.

Dmytro Plotnikov at Volodymyrivka contributed to this report.

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