The daring front-line mission to evacuate reluctant Ukrainians

Volunteers Ignatius Ivlev-Yorke, 27, left, and Yaroslav Susik, 28, search for the home of a person awaiting evacuation from Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, on March 13. (Wojciech Grzedzinski for The Washington Post)
9 min

CHASIV YAR, Ukraine — Some of the most stubborn people left in Ukraine stood in the middle of Tovstoho Street, fuming over critical service outages. No gas. No water. No cell service. Electricity was spotty, and Russian artillery targeting Ukrainian positions in the town near the battle for Bakhmut produced a constant backdrop of whistles and thuds.

Many residents of Chasiv Yar had fled. This group had refused.

Ignatius Ivlev-Yorke and Yaroslav Susik, two volunteer evacuation coordinators, approached the roughly dozen townspeople on Monday afternoon to make an offer. The Russians were advancing, they said, adding that they could help the group safely escape. In fact, they were there to retrieve neighbors leaving within the hour, they said.

Andriy Dekhtyerov, 61, spoke up for the group. Their answer: No.

Dekhtyerov’s family is buried in town, and he had his bees to tend. He should be home, and besides, he said, city leaders should just do a better job at delivering water to the battered, mud-swallowed town of Chasiv Yar.

Susik, 28, grew irritated. “You’re a grown-up man, you don’t want to leave and go anywhere,” he said. “You can’t go and bring some water home on your bike? If you’re such a hero? Tell me.”

The firm hand didn’t work, so Ivlev-Yorke, 27, tried a softer approach.

Thirteen months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, Ukrainians who are too sick or too prideful to have evacuated from the combat zone remain in grave danger, creating an urgent need for someone to come in, listen to their problems and persuade them to go. Ivlev-Yorke and Susik are part of a corps of helpers that estimate they have extracted 4,000 people since May, pulling them from some of the most dangerous places and helping them on their first steps to relocation in Ukraine or abroad.

Those who remain now are the true die-hards, and convincing them requires time and care, which are hard to come by in a war zone. The pitch is sometimes delivered under fire.

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Ivlev-Yorke, a British national who grew up in Russia, told Dekhtyerov there was something better waiting for him. “We’re offering normal living conditions,” he said.

“They tell me the living conditions there are bad!” Dekhtyerov shot back, repeating a common rumor.

“Well, look, how many of them have come back?” Ivlev-Yorke said. “If it’s so bad, some of them must have returned?” He shifted in his body armor and speculated that Dekhtyerov’s bees should be dormant now anyway.

No, Dekhtyerov insisted, it’s getting warmer and they are already flying.

They reached a cooling impasse, and the volunteers had to make their runs to pick up four people. The old women in the group wished them well. A dog named Bim, left behind by a fleeing family, lay undisturbed in the street as a machine gun bellowed in the distance.

“Thank you boys!” Dekhtyerov said, shaking their hands. “Don’t be mad … I understand you guys have your job to do.”

Ivlev-Yorke walked away without any converts. For now, anyway. Making initial inroads with fence-sitters is a side bonus of carrying out successful extracts. The team hands out cards with contact information just in case. Merely being present in a community can develop trust, sometimes enough to flip a no to a yes.

“You can always do less, and you can always do more. But we try to do more,” Ivlev-Yorke said. “There is always a next one, and a next one.”

Ivlev-Yorke, who put aside journalism and photography pursuits to work evacuations, leads a team of five volunteers in a group with no name, zipping up and down front-line towns in a lightly armored SUV to fulfill requests by people who — for one reason or another — have changed their minds and want to leave.

The group pulls them out of harm’s way and gets them to shelters, where they can coordinate further travel. The public argument in Chasiv Yar was atypical, Ivlev-Yorke said. Most people politely refuse help.

There is no one reason people choose to stay for so long. Some say they have no relatives, or that they are too old or sick, or they hold a fatalistic view that whatever happens will happen. Others have heard that displaced Ukrainians face a new set of hardships, such as a lack of jobs. Some are sullen, saying no one wants them.

“I try to find the counterargument, depending on their answer,” Ivlev-Yorke said. “It will be better; there is someone who cares.” When someone says they don’t want to leave the graves of close relatives, he points out to the faithful that you don’t need to be buried next to someone to join them after death.

Ivlev-Yorke’s brother moved to Ukraine a few years ago, and he pleaded for him to leave as the invasion seemed imminent. His brother refused, Ivlev-Yorke said, becoming his first failed evacuation. He arrived in Ukraine soon after, and both men started volunteering for humanitarian work.

He said he met a woman who was raped and her husband killed by Russians in a forest village outside Kyiv. His successful lobbying, which persuaded her to leave with her child, filled him immense relief that people who had endured so much could reach safety.

The number of rescues is in decline, Ivlev-Yorke said, from about 300 in December to 90 in the past month.

Requests for evacuations can tick up if the front shifts toward towns once believed safe, he said. The effort is donation driven, with a robust presence on Instagram that has produced viral sensations, including a dramatic video of an elderly woman evacuating under rocket fire. The driver crashes into a tree, and they escape on foot. The woman lived, she said, in defiance.

Other stories do not end so well. Another man who refused to evacuate despite his wife’s pleas later found her mangled body after she was killed fetching water. He reunited in a shelter with his adult son, who just learned of his mother’s death.

Despite the standoff on the street, there was a happier ending on Monday in Chasiv Yar.

Svetlana Hoboshapova, 62, said the shelling unnerved her. Her husband died a couple of years ago, leaving her in the care of her 45-year-old neighbor, Serhiy Romaniuk. He has happily cut wood for her stove at her small cottage on Dachnaya Street, where a message in chalk on her front gate cautioned Russian and Ukrainian soldiers alike: “People live here.”

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Hoboshapova and Romaniuk had gathered as many clothes as they could, packed a radio and climbed into the waiting vehicle. The plan was to stay with her nephew in Cherkasy in central Ukraine. The neighbors would stick together, she said.

The next evacuee on the list, Anastasiya Mezina, braved the Nazis in her youth. But at age 94, she has more fight in her heart than her shattered hip.

Mezina, born in Soviet Russia, defied German threats of execution in World War II and hauled water to partisan fighters hidden in the forest outside her village. She moved to Chasiv Yar when she was 19, she said, and has lived there ever since.

Susik took a liking to the chipper woman, who hobbles on a crutch and cane, when they combed the area for evacuation candidates. He admired her warmth when the team stopped by to give bread and eyedrops. She lived alone and declined to leave, but on the team’s second visit, she agreed to give it some thought. She passed along her sister’s phone number.

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A soldier stopped by on March 8, International Women’s Day, and told her she would meet her grandson. She was confused; how did the strange soldier know him?

He took off his helmet, and her gray-blue eyes flashed in recognition. It was one of her grandsons serving in the military, who spoke to Susik about getting her out. She still refused to go. Days later came the turning point. Her caretaker’s house was damaged in recent shelling, and she told Mezina she couldn’t look in on her anymore.

Mezina decided that was it. On the team’s fourth visit, she had already packed the essentials: onions and apples, a magnifying glass to help her read, old photos and worn-edged Mother’s Day cards. The plan was to get her to a shelter, where volunteers would then take her a few hours west to Poltava to live with her sister — a sprightly 90-year-old, she said.

But first she needed to get to the vehicle. A chorus of neighbors marshaled behind her, along with her “golden boys,” as she calls Ivlev-Yorke and Susik.

Her hip ached with every step, and she wondered if she would ever see her home again. “To have lived here all my life,” she said, “and now not knowing where I’m going next …” Her voice trailed off.

Her neighbor Serhiy bid her goodbye. “All will be well,” he said. “You’re going your own way now.”

Lyudmila, another neighbor, sighed with relief. “She doesn’t have anyone here,” Lyudmila said. “It’s good she’s leaving now.”

Ivlev-Yorke’s vehicle sprayed a torrent of mud on its path out of Chasiv Yar toward territory safely in Ukraine’s hands. The sound of howitzer fire faded away.

Wojciech Grzedzinski contributed to this report.

One year of Russia’s war in Ukraine

Portraits of Ukraine: Every Ukrainian’s life has changed since Russia launched its full-scale invasion one year ago — in ways both big and small. They have learned to survive and support each other under extreme circumstances, in bomb shelters and hospitals, destroyed apartment complexes and ruined marketplaces. Scroll through portraits of Ukrainians reflecting on a year of loss, resilience and fear.

Battle of attrition: Over the past year, the war has morphed from a multi-front invasion that included Kyiv in the north to a conflict of attrition largely concentrated along an expanse of territory in the east and south. Follow the 600-mile front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces and take a look at where the fighting has been concentrated.

A year of living apart: Russia’s invasion, coupled with Ukraine’s martial law preventing fighting-age men from leaving the country, has forced agonizing decisions for millions of Ukrainian families about how to balance safety, duty and love, with once-intertwined lives having become unrecognizable. Here’s what a train station full of goodbyes looked like last year.

Deepening global divides: President Biden has trumpeted the reinvigorated Western alliance forged during the war as a “global coalition,” but a closer look suggests the world is far from united on issues raised by the Ukraine war. Evidence abounds that the effort to isolate Putin has failed and that sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, thanks to its oil and gas exports.