ZAPORIZHZHIA (Ukraine) -- In April, Russian artillery pounded the Ukrainian port of Mariupol. One family fled, and walked miles to a village with their three children. They were able to escape Russian-held territory thanks to a volunteer driver, who crossed the frontline.
Luda Lobanova (58), said that Zhenya the driver was a saint after she stepped off a minibus in Zaporizhzhia, central Ukraine, in May with Ihor, Sofia, and Vlad, 8 years old. "They turned us around so many times," he said. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for Zhenya.
Lobanova, with tears in her eyes thanked him before he slipped back into his minibus. He had more humanitarian aid to distribute, and more people to pick-up.
Volunteer drivers risk everything to transport humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian frontlines and get people out. They are located at the border of the conflict zone in Ukraine. Drivers could be detained, injured or killed if they drive dangerously long routes. Ukrainian activists claim that more than twenty-six drivers were captured by Russian-backed separatists from the eastern Donetsk area and held there for over two months.
Some drivers say that a few people do it to make money. However, many others do it free of charge, whether they are alone or with other people.
Oleksandr Petrenko said, "I decided it because there were women and children there." He had previously evacuated several areas around Mariupol but deemed the risk of being detained too high due to his frequent forays into Russian-held territory.
"I also have my mother and a girlfriend. These people don’t have to remain there in the human grinder. There are many lives lost. He said that if you don't do this, people may die."
Petrenko joined more experienced drivers to learn the routes and operate. Petrenko established a strict set of rules for passengers and drivers alike. He wiped all photos and messages from mobile phones and didn't criticize Russia. Never, ever engage in political discussions.
The most frightening was his first trip. Even the weather was bleak. He said, "It was gray-gloomy." It was raining. It's almost like watching a movie when you walk into a black city that has been burned.
Petrenko estimates that he was able to evacuate around 130 people from Russian-held regions before he ceased driving due to the dangers.
Security reasons meant that none of the drivers crossing the front lines at the time would speak on record.
These are serious risks. Vitaliy Sytnykov (a 34-year old Mariupol rock-climbing taxi driver) is one of the detained drivers. According to Alevtina Shvetsova (a journalist who fled Mariupol with her family earlier this March), he has been detained since late March.
Shvetsova stated that Sytnykov is a person with big hearts. She spoke in June in the city center of Kryvyi Rh. She said that Sytnykov was able to escape Mariupol, but he joined a group volunteer drivers who were evacuating other people. He was then captured on one of his runs. It is not known why.
It is not clear what the status of his detention and that of other drivers. Shvetsova stated that information is limited and gleaned from other detainees who were later released or from the scant footage available on Russian television.
She said that he could have stayed with his family in safety after he left the city. He knew that Mariupol had many children and women.
Further to the east, in Donetsk, and the adjacent Luhansk areas where Russian forces are doubling their offensive, volunteers' minibuses and vans zip through towns, down country roads, and race to evacuate civilians as fighting draws nearer.
Roman Zhylenkov is a man of few words and no nonsense who has been helping people evacuate from conflict zones since March 1, just days after the outbreak of war. He began by evacuating people from Kreminna (now Russian-held), north of Sievierodonetsk. Then he moved on to the Donetsk area.
Vostok SOS is a Ukrainian aid group. Most of the people he evacuates from cities like Bakhmut, Kramatorsk, and Sloviansk are either elderly or in serious health. Many are unable to walk and must be carried in their arms or on stretchers out of apartments and houses.
He said that he would prefer a quieter life, after he had finished ferrying elderly evacuees. "But it's war now."
A sticker with his logo and the hashtag #LeaveNoOneBehind is placed on the back of his van.