Risking capture to evacuate vulnerable in Donbas

About 2,000 civilians are reportedly trapped by fighting in the front line town of Popasna in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, the main focus of Russia’s attempt to gain territory.

Local officials say food supplies in Popasna are expected to run out within a week – but all rescue efforts have been halted after three evacuation buses entered the region – but only one returned.

Five volunteer drivers and staff were either missing or captured by Russian troops, authorities said.

“Every day the Russians advance a little further. The situation is very difficult,” said Nikolai Khanatov, the head of Popasna’s military-civilian administration.

Across the Donbas region, small groups of civilian volunteers in cars and buses were playing a key role in helping to evacuate those – particularly the elderly and infirm – who have struggled to leave towns and villages in the path of the Kremlin’s new offensive.

“We’ve been going quite close to the front and evacuating blind people, people with walking frames. I’m quite scared most of the time,” said Guy Osborn, a visiting British maths teacher volunteering for a small charity in the area.

Last Friday, a local history teacher, Mykhail Pankov, set off in a school bus for Popasna, hoping to bring out a few dozen civilians who had been sheltering for weeks in cellars. The town is located between the cities of Luhansk and Donetsk, which have been held by Russia-backed separatists since 2014.

His wife, Yulia Pinzelik, had begged him to stop making the trips as Russian troops had slowly gained control over almost the whole town.

“He’s a stubborn man. He said he wasn’t afraid and that people needed help,” she said.

A few hours later, another school bus returned safely to the nearby town of Bakhmut with a several elderly civilians onboard. They sat in near silence, visibly traumatised.

“It was so scary. We spent two months in our cellars,” said one elderly woman, before collapsing into sobs.

But Mykhail and his bus did not return. Nor did the driver of a third bus. Reports began trickling in suggesting that at least one of the buses had come under fire. -BBC

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