Early on Tuesday morning, Nadezhda Mayboroda hurried through echoing gunfire to Chasiv Yar’s snow-filled main square and accosted a group of foreign volunteers.
She had finally convinced her 92-year-old mother that it was time to leave town, but she was basically immobile. Could they come and pick her up?
“We wanted to go yesterday but we weren’t ready,” she explained as she let them into the apartment. “She doesn’t really know what is going on. She’s just afraid. She thinks maybe someone will come to kill her.”
The battle of Bakhmut is getting louder by the day, and civilians in nearby towns are slowly, reluctantly evacuating.
Because most able-bodied civilians have left under their own steam, the frail and disabled make up a disproportionate number of those who remain.
They and their carers are often both unable and extremely reluctant to leave.
When they do, they rely on a handful of Ukrainian and foreign volunteers running increasingly risky evacuation convoys in unarmoured transit vans.
And even then, it can take a great effort from friends, family, and authorities to get them to agree.
Mrs Mayboroda, herself 71, had to come back from Kyiv personally to take care of her mother a month ago. It took a great degree of persuading to make the old woman come to Kyiv, where there is a home and family waiting for her.
Ivan Setovsky, another local seeking evacuation on Tuesday, was firm that the time has come to go. A paramedic by profession, the 55-year-old knows a bit about risk.
“We had armoured vests and helmets and all that,” he said. “But you have to assess the situation. We’re not gurus who know what’s going to happen, and we don’t want to get ourselves killed either.
“So you go and look and try to judge, and if it seems safe enough you go in,” he said of calls to the sites of the intermittent shelling and missile attacks on the town.
Now, with the battle apparently moving towards Chasiv Yar itself, he has decided enough is enough. He’s not sure where he will end up. The main thing is to get out.
But he is rare in his clarity of mind. For many others uprooting and deciding how much of one’s life to abandon is a big decision. Sometimes too big.
“How many bags can I take?” asked a woman with a purple jewelled brooch in her hat at the pick-up point.
“Keep it as light as possible. We don’t know how many other people we will have to fit in the bus,” came the answer through a translator.
‘Mum, the boys are here to help. They’re good boys’
She nodded glumly. It was the obvious answer, but not a pleasant one. Without any enthusiasm, she confirmed she would be back at the appointed time the next day, provided the volunteers would drive via her house to pick up her own disabled relatives.
Mrs Mayboroda’s mother, Nadezhda Zhytnik, was lying on the couch when the evacuation team arrived.
“Mum, the boys are here to help. They’re good boys, they’re just foreigners, they don’t know our language,” her daughter explained.
The two young men were Sakke and Vassa, from an outfit called the Finnish Rescue Team. They did not want to give surnames for security reasons.
Their vehicle – an elderly van with one not very stable stretcher in the back – is far from ideal for transporting the old and infirm.
But no one else is offering a ride, and staying is not an option.
Mrs Zhytnik’s clean, brightly decorated flat is without power or heating. The stairwell, even if it had light, is too steep and unevenly floored for her to manage alone. The block of flats opposite has taken a direct hit.
Inch by agonising inch, they helped her up from her sofa, across to the front door, and down the pitch-black stairwell of her five-storey block of flats.
The only light was from their head torches. Every so often a loud report echoed off the walls – artillery fire, somewhere close.
Mrs Mayboroda kept up a reassuring commentary, confirming her mother’s favourite icon had been packed, that the “boys” were good lads, that there was not far to go now.
Mr Setovsky, already in the back, helped them up and loaded in the bags. Before the convoy set off, a friend of his came to enquire about the possibility of getting a pick up for his wife.
“Knees are bad, she basically can’t walk. She’s been waiting for an operation for ages, but we couldn’t get it,” he explained.
But he was just making enquiries. “We’re not going. Not just yet,” he said.
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