Evacuation, Ukraine

It was a sunny winter’s morning in southern Ukraine as we drove through the city streets. There were six of us in the van – my colleague Alexey, two of his friends and another couple of helpers – bumping over potholed roads and lurching around downed powerlines. We were on our way to pick up a senior citizen who needed to be evacuated by train. A blacked-out city under constant bombardment is no place to be for a 80 (or possibly 90) something lady, particularly one bed-ridden with a broken leg.

We stopped on the way to see a block of apartments that had been hit by a rocket the previous night. The area in front of the building was covered in broken glass, twisted metal and pieces of masonry. Holes had been blown clear through the walls, and in other areas, it looked as though the building had been skinned, leaving just the bare steel and timber skeleton behind. A group of men were working by hand and with power tools to secure the structure as best they could.

We moved on towards the river, pulling up in a small sidestreet. Explosions regularly rumbled, boomed and whumped from somewhere in the city district. The two blokes in charge of the evacuation headed down a drive that serviced several properties, and into the last house in the row. Three people were waiting, two of the evacuee’s daughters and her son-in-law, and after establishing that it was the correct address, the van was carefully backed down the drive.

The lady (I don’t know her name, but will call her Inna) was in a small flat built above a single-story residence. The design and construction of her tiny place wouldn’t get council approval in many countries, possibly including Ukraine. Access was via a steep set of narrow timber steps, which, after a tight corner, lead into a very narrow room which held a small kitchen. Another corner and we were in Inna’s ‘bedroom’, which was only just wide enough for the bed. Under her knitted beanie she looked anxious and overwhelmed, which was quite understandable: there were four strangers in body armour in her tiny bedroom and she was about to be carried out and whisked away from her home and family on a train. Inna was dressed for her trip and had a splint on her leg.

We discussed the best way to carry Inna out, and decided on a frameless poly-canvas stretcher; essentially a rectangle of fabric with soft handles attached the the edges. We left a traditional canvas stretcher with frame and timber handles at the bottom of the stairs.

Back upstairs we gently lifted Inna in the sheet she was lying on, and spread the canvas stretcher out beneath her. After lowering her, we took two handles each and raised her up again. It was a tight squeeze to reach the end of her ‘bedroom’, and we were anxious about knocking Inna as we staggered along sideways. She grasped the edges of the stretcher, and one of the blokes reassured her, saying ‘It’s ok grandma, it’s ok.’

After negotiating the corner we moved sideways down the narrow room and squeezed out the door. A pause to gather ourselves, then we began the careful descent of the timber stairs. Going downwards meant tipping Inna from the horizontal, and the poor lady began to moan in fright with each outward breath. More reassuring words and we were at the bottom of the stairs, where we carefully placed Inna onto the framed stretcher. A timber handle each, and we soon had her in the back of the van.

A lack of vehicles of just about every type is a constant problem for both the Armed Forces of Ukraine and those carrying out humanitarian work. Transport that can be sourced is rarely purpose-built, but rather adapted where possible for the job at hand. Our vehicle had no locking mechanisms for a stretcher that you would find in an ambulance, so a spare wheel laid flat helped to keep Inna’s stretcher in place.

One of Inna’s daughters, who was going to acccompany her on the train, climbed into the back of the van. She asked Alexey where we were from. He told her the name of his home town, and that I was from Australia. The daughter said to her mother ‘Did you hear that Mama? One of the men is from Australia!’ She moved through the van from where she was sitting and gave me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek. ‘God bless you! God bless you!’

After about 15 minutes we arrived at the city’s main railway station. We stretchered Inna through the entry doors, then into a secure area in which police were interviewing each traveler and photographing their passports. After leaving our documents with the police, we were permitted to take Inna to the train. We carried her out a door and along a walkway, over a crossing between two carriages, and down a long platform next to which her train was waiting. After finding Inna’s carriage, we switched back to the soft canvas stretcher to lift her up the impossibly narrow and steep steps onto the train. It was another tight squeeze through the carriage’s hallways, but we managed to get Inna safely to a bunk inside her sleeper cabin.

The whole experience had been pretty stressful for Inna and she looked relieved to be finally in a solid bed again. I took her hand and said ‘Do pobachennya‘ (goodbye). Her face softened and she smiled and said ‘Spasiba‘ (thankyou). Her daughter thanked us again and gave us more big hugs.

Leaving the train, we gathered up the framed stretcher and made our way back to the station building to retrieve our passports. One of the blokes explained to me that they did this type of work every day, helping to evacuate those people who need more care than the shattered city can provide.

Satistics counting the number of civilians injured, killed or forced to leave their homes because of the war reduce stories such as Inna’s to lists of facts and figures. But Inna, like everyone affected by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, is a human being. She is an old lady who loves and is loved. She has lead a long life, and instead of living her days in the warmth and care of her tiny home, close to functioning medical services, she is on a 12 hour train trip to somewhere safer, but still not safe. To another city where generators, donated medical aid, committed health professionals and volunteers keep hospitals running.

Why should Inna be forced to leave her home, family, community and city? The answer is, of course, that she shouldn’t. Like the suffering brought upon millions of other Ukrainians, it is a callous, cruel and despicable crime.

If you liked this post, you may also enjoy From Refugees to Volunteers, Heading South

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6 responses to “Evacuation, Ukraine”

  1. Paul Avatar

    God bless you Jim Clayton.

    1. Jim Clayton Avatar
      Jim Clayton

      Thankyou Paul. May peace come and put an end to this pointless suffering.

  2. Steve Dingley Avatar
    Steve Dingley

    Bless you for the important work you’re doing there Jim

    1. Jim Clayton Avatar
      Jim Clayton

      Thankyou Steve, I feel fortunate to witness such human spirit and resilience amongst so much suffering. Let’s all hope for peace in 2023

  3. Ed Avatar

    Your accounts bring tears to my eyes, that could be my mother. So sorry these people have to endure this futile war. Good on you Jimma.

    1. Jim Clayton Avatar
      Jim Clayton

      Yes it’s hard not to think of your own family members when you see someone in such a vulnerable state. Still find it hard to believe that it was just my parents’ generation who were kids during WWII, and now there is a whole new generation of children growing up in wartime. Thanks for your support as always mate

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