Driving to the Rescue: Kharkiv’s Lifesaving Volunteers

No one cares about your academic qualifications or publication history. If you want to help volunteers rescue people from villages under fire in Kharkiv, they want to know if you can drive a stick shift and are prepared to drive into villages during missile attacks. It helps if you have your own flak jacket.

At enormous risk, volunteer drivers are bringing vulnerable people stranded in villages to the relative safety of Kharkiv city. Others take medicine and food to those who decide to stay despite the dangers. “Every time you go on an evacuation trip you know you might not come back,” said volunteer driver Alksander. “But I think about what we have done so far and all the lives we have saved.”

Last month I went with Alksander to Velykyi Burluk, a village close to the Russian border, which has been under heavy fire for many weeks. We brought Lubov, an elderly woman, back to Kharkiv city.

He set up the Rose on Hand organization to help find missing persons and to help with evacuations, and in recent weeks he and his colleagues have rescued hundreds of people from villages.

Driving in and out of communities under missile attack is highly dangerous and requires skill and nerve. Many of the roads around Kharkiv city are awful, rutted, and ripped up from tanks and other heavy military vehicles.

Everyday car problems like a flat tire or a minor breakdown can be very dangerous in an area under fire, where it is vital to get in and out as fast as possible. The drivers must negotiate black ice in the winter and thick mud in the spring.

It’s best to have two drivers in a vehicle in case one gets injured. Former professional violinist Nataliia Halunenko trained as an ambulance driver and has spent the last two years in some of the most dangerous places in Ukraine, providing medical and humanitarian aid to locals under fire.

In November 2023, I went with her and a team of medics in an ambulance under fire to the front-line city of Kupiansk to treat civilians who needed medical help.

“The main problem now is the lack of money,” she said.  “Fuel is becoming more expensive, and this is a very important aspect of the work. And now the density of shelling is very high, so very often things, cars, food, and high-value appliances are simply destroyed by rockets or fire.”

In recent weeks she has been making the long trip by train across the length of Ukraine to Poland or Germany to pick up donated vehicles and then makes the thousand-mile drive back across to Kharkiv. “This volunteering work gives me real satisfaction, it feels like what I should be doing while the war is on,” she said.

Ukraine NGO Helping to Leave reports having helped 45,000 people during the war, including financial, humanitarian, and psychological assistance. They also organize and assist with evacuations from highly dangerous places to safer ones.

Last month I went with Bogdan from Helping to Leave to evacuate a woman from the small town of Kivsharivka, close to the city of Kupiansk. I’ve reported on the intense fighting in the area over the last year.

The drive from Kharkiv to Kivsharivka now takes about four hours, because the main bridges into the city have been destroyed by Russian troops, and it’s necessary to take the long way round.

Bogdan was forced to drive excruciatingly slowly at times, with long stretches at barely 10 miles an hour. Much of the time it’s better to leave the road and drive across dirt tracks, and the threat of being hit by missiles is always there. Bogdan said his car has been damaged by explosions several times.

Like other volunteers driving into these villages, Bogdan works calmly and efficiently, sometimes driving more than 12 hours a day despite the immense risk. “The last few weeks have been very intense because of the Russian advances,” he said. “Sometimes I’ve been making several trips a day to villages being bombarded to evacuate people, into the early hours of the morning under heavy fire. It’s hard and exhausting, but necessary.”

Many people at great risk in the villages where the latest fighting is taking place are reluctant to leave, afraid of what happens after they are evacuated. Some have spent their whole lives in a community and don’t want to leave. Bogdan said a few weeks ago a woman from one village refused to leave without her goat, so he took the animal in his car and brought them both back to the city.

Many of the volunteers use their own vehicles for these rescues, as government help with paying for gas is intermittent, and they mostly rely on local donations to keep going.

Jakob Straus, a former teacher from Slovenia, is one of the international volunteers working in Kharkiv. He drives for various groups who do evacuation runs into villages under fire, and also drives vehicles from Poland into Ukraine for use on the front line.

He has been working out of Kharkiv for a year, often going into areas under fire to bring out vulnerable people. “Sometimes you get a call late at night to go and fetch someone the next day from a dangerous place. It has to be done.”



  • Brian Dooley

Published on July 10, 2024


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