Evacuating Children Along A Dangerous Ukraine Route

SLAVYANSK, Ukraine -- It was a trip no mother would wish to take. But faced with few options, a group of women and children piled into a blue minivan on a recent day to take to the dangerous road out of town on the way to a safer place.

The journey would pass through pro-Russian and Ukrainian Army checkpoints, and a no man’s land in between.

The passengers’ only protection was a sheet, painted with the words “children, children, children,” that was taped around the minivan.

Several “children” minivans are now operating in Slavyansk, all driven by volunteers, with the goal of getting the children out of this besieged city and beyond the reach of artillery fire and twitchy gunmen.

On this day, 22 women and children packed into the eight-seat minivan, aware of myriad dangers lurking ahead.

One busload of children was hijacked by militants last week and driven to Russia.

Among the drivers of the children vans, stories of warning shots and close calls abound.

With the passengers inside, the doors of the blue minivan slid shut.

A husband waved from the sidewalk and yelled, “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”

Pro-Russian militias have been fighting the Ukrainian Army since April in eastern Ukraine.

In contested cities like Slavyansk, controlled by separatists but surrounded by the army, people with children are trying to find a way out.

Ukraine’s president, Petro O. Poroshenko, has called for the creation of an escape corridor to allow civilians to leave.

But talks between the government and separatists facilitated by United Nations officials and other mediators are dragging on.

The broader politics of the conflict are interfering.

Separatist leaders say they will not agree to local cease-fires along an evacuation corridor unless the Russian authorities guarantee to protect the route from a Ukrainian attack, a proposal that Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has called “a trick.”

Though the Ukrainian government is clearly interested in evacuating civilians, it fears allowing a role for Russia, saying Russian humanitarian intervention would be tantamount to an invasion.

Volunteer minivan drivers fill the gap, even as living conditions deteriorate.

Recently, bombs hit the waterworks here and downed electrical wires.

In most of the city, residents huddle in darkened apartments, burning candles at night, as if living in the Middle Ages.

The city has become a dystopia in other ways, too.

The streets are devoid of cars because there is no gasoline.

Instead, people ride bicycles, swerving around dangling electrical wires, broken glass and other bomb debris.

Meat from local livestock and homegrown vegetables are prized because are there no shipments from outside the city, though bread, pasta and medical supplies are widely available.

Some residents are afraid to leave, worried about their property.

To raise money, separatists have taken to renting apartments deserted by refugees, called “broshenki,” or abandoned ones.

One online ad offers a “nice two-bedroom broshenki, most of the furniture still intact,” in Slavyansk.

“We would gladly leave, but we have no money and nowhere to go,” said one resident, Veronika Dahayeva, who lives with her 2-year-old daughter, Eva, in an apartment building that had already been hit by shells twice this month.

Ms. Dahayeva, her daughter, an elderly woman who cannot walk and a young man are the only remaining residents in her building.

Recently, a woman from a neighboring building brought boiled potatoes, which they ate cold and salted.

The potatoes were delicious, Ms. Dahayeva said.

Getting out is on many people’s minds, and the minibuses provide one option, but only for mothers and children.

The drivers do not accept fathers or other men because they do not want to allow any opportunity for accusations that they are moving combatants in buses marked for children.

Men can, however, leave and enter the city in private cars.

Natasha N. Povazhnaya, who organized the minivan trip, sold shoes at a market before the fighting started, but like the other volunteers, she cited a personal story to explain her altruism.

“My mother died when I was 8,” Ms. Povazhnaya said.

“I know what it’s like to want a mother. To put your head on somebody’s shoulder. It’s so hard when you are alone. I know this. Even when somebody else’s child cries, I want to do everything so he won’t cry. That’s all.”

Now she makes the round trip from Slavyansk daily. 

Natasha Klimenko, a 34-year-old mother of four, was waiting on the curb for Ms. Povazhnaya’s van, her children clustered about.

News of its stops travels by word of mouth.

She took a careful look inside.

Women and children were packed so tightly that people were sitting on bags of clothes, other people on their laps, all of them sweaty.

Babies cried.

Ms. Klimenko decided to pass.

“I won’t travel in these conditions,” she said.

“I was ready to go, but I cannot go like this.”

She would return to their apartment, or wait for safer-looking transport.

Another woman, Anna Ivashenko, a 21-year-old mother of two, got on.

She was ready to risk it in the minivan.

“I didn’t want to leave before,” she said.

“But I do now. My nerves can’t take it.”

Not a day goes by without bombing or shelling. 

The journey lasts about two nerve-racking hours.

Some head to Donetsk, others to a town in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine where volunteers put up evacuees in their apartments for a day, then send the women and children to summer camps in Russian-controlled Crimea that welcome evacuees from eastern Ukraine.

The destinations are a function of politics.

Pro-Russian groups, who justify their uprising as necessary to protect Russian speakers from what they call a “fascist” government in Kiev, disapprove of civilians leaving for points in Ukraine, rather than Russia.

On Thursday, pro-Russian militants seized a bus carrying children from an orphanage in the Luhansk region that was bound for the Ukrainian city of Dnepropetrovsk, sending it instead to the Rostov region of Russia.

The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry immediately threatened to file a lawsuit in the European Court of Human Rights, demanding the return of the orphans.

The Russian authorities have promised to fly the children to their original destination in Ukraine.

On the other side, edgy Ukrainian soldiers pose a constant risk.

On a recent morning at the Ukrainian-run Bylbasivka checkpoint, on the outskirts of Slavyansk, where many of the rescue minivans packed with children pass daily, a lazy morning erupted into gunfire as a car of reporters was waiting to pass.

The soldiers fired toward a distant tree line, where a tripwire had been set off. 

Nobody shot back, but the danger was not over.

A Ukrainian soldier reloading his gun accidentally fired a shot that struck the pavement an inch from a bystander.

The soldier grinned sheepishly.

A few minutes later, a minivan pulled up with a paper sign taped to the windshield saying, “Children of Slavyansk.”

The volunteer driver, Sergei Pozhidayev, 43, ran a classic-car club before the conflict.

His eyes lit up as he talked about his 1953 Buick.

In May, he traveled from Donetsk to Slavyansk to hand out toys to children on what he thought would be a single trip.

Now he drives the minivan full time.

“I saw their eyes and realized I had to come back for them,” Mr. Pozhidayev said in an interview at the Bylbasivka roadblock.

He has driven 91 people, he said, including a 12-day-old baby.

“I had to help. I couldn’t leave them here. We all have to make a decision at some point, and think why we were put on this blue ball. This is what I do.”

Source: The New York Times