Bakhmut, Ukraine — Civilians are fleeing towns in eastern Ukraine as Russian troops advance to a menacing soundtrack of air raid sirens and roaring artillery.
Walking through the narrow apartment building stairs, volunteers carried the elderly and the infirm in their arms, carried them on stretchers or wheelchairs into waiting minibuses, and transported them to a central staging area, where they eventually boarded evacuation trains from other cities.
“The Russians are over there, they’re closing in on this place,” Mark Poppert, an American volunteer working with British charity RefugEase, said Friday during an evacuation in the town of Bachmut.
“Bahmut is now a high-risk area,” he said. “We are trying to get as many people out as possible in case the Ukrainians have to retreat.”
Poppert said he and other Ukrainian and foreign volunteers, working with the Ukrainian charity Vostok SOS, which is coordinating the evacuation, hope to get about 100 people out of Bakhmut by Friday.
A few hours earlier, gunfire rang out and black smoke rose from the northern edge of the town, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine’s industrial zone. Donetsk and the adjacent Luhansk region make up the Donbass, where Moscow-backed separatists held some territory for eight years.
The evacuation process was grueling, physical, and emotional.
Many of the evacuees were elderly, ill or had limited mobility, meaning volunteers had to strap them to soft stretchers and slowly walk through narrow corridors and apartment building stairs.
Most have fled Bahmut: from a pre-war population of 85,000, only about 30,000 remain. More people are leaving every day.
Fighting raged north of Bakhmut as Russian troops intensified their efforts to seize the main eastern cities of Sifdonetsk and Lysichansk, 50 kilometers (30 miles) to the northeast. These two cities are the last areas under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk region.
In Donetsk’s northwest Bakhmut, Russian-backed rebels said on Friday they had seized the town of Lehman, a large railway junction near the cities of Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, which Both cities remain under Ukrainian control. On Thursday, smoke rising from the direction of Lehman was clearly visible from Slovyansk.
But even in the face of shelling, missiles and advancing Russian troops, leaving was not easy.
Svetlana Lvova, 66, the manager of two apartment buildings in Bakhmut, rolled her eyes in exasperation when she heard another resident of hers refused to leave.
“I couldn’t convince them to leave,” she said. “I told them many times that if something fell here, I would take them – injured – on the same bus that came to evacuate them.”
She said she tried to do everything she could to convince the diehards, but nearly two dozen just wouldn’t budge. They are more afraid to leave their homes and belongings for an uncertain future than to stay and face bombs.
She said she herself will live in Bachmut with her husband. But not because they were afraid to leave their property. They are waiting for their son, who is still in Sieverodonetsk, to return home.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I have to know he’s alive. That’s why I’m here.”
Lvova played the last video her son sent her, in which he told his mother that he was fine and that there was electricity in the city, but no running water.
“I baked him a big cake,” she said, wiping away tears.
American Volunteer Poppert said it was not uncommon to receive requests to pick up people to evacuate, only that they would change their minds when the van arrived.
“It was a very difficult decision for these people to leave the only world they knew,” he said.
He described the evacuation of a man in his 90s from the only home he knew.
“We’re going to take this guy out of his world,” Poppert said. “He was afraid of bombs and missiles, afraid of leaving.”
In nearby Pokrovsk, ambulances stopped to transfer the elderly woman on stretchers and wheelchairs to an evacuation train heading west to keep away from the fighting. When boarding the train, families gather, lugging suitcases and bringing pets.
The train slowly pulled out of the station, and a woman pulled back the curtains of a carriage. The familiar scenery faded away, her face wrinkled with grief, and tears began to flow.
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