Featured Article

Uncertain steps to freedom: How volunteers still evacuate people from seized Mariupol

Published on May 16, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 29th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on May 16th, 2024. The article was written by Oksana Rasulova for Liga and was translated for n-ost by Tetiana Evloeva. 

Read the original article here. Images: Anastasiia Ivanova. Page makeup: Yuliia Tepliuk

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter

Domanove border checkpoint on the Ukraine-Belarus border is the Pripyat of all checkpoints. The sight of abandoned booths meant for border guards is complemented by several lorries and Czech hedgehog-shaped anti-tank obstacles. This checkpoint stopped operating two years ago, since the outbreak of the full-scale war. However, this remains the only entry point for those fleeing Russia’s military occupation who take a very long route through the annexed territories, Russia and Belarus. Denys Minin, a former TV presenter turned volunteer responsible for arranging evacuation from Mariupol through Domanove, is the founder of the NGO Vyvezemo [Ukr. “We’ll get (you) out”].

LIGA.net reporters joined Denys in receiving a woman who recently evacuated from Mariupol and learned what it was like to be doing things that nobody else cared to do.

Meeting halfway

On the morning of 14 April, two special ambulances are on their way to meet. One departs from Brest in Belarus, carrying two women passengers. One of them, 86-year-old Halyna, has travelled 2,600 km over the past four days, after leaving Nikolske, a town on the outskirts of Mariupol.

Halyna’s entire luggage consists of two plastic bags of her personal items and her cat, Manana, who hasn’t eaten for over 24 hours. The animal refused to eat, seeing that her human companion wasn’t eating either. Halyna balks at food, as she is uncomfortable going to the toilet while in transit. The woman is unwell, hardly able to move on her own, and occasionally delirious.

Coming from the opposite direction is another ambulance, from Lutsk in Ukraine, that has to pick up the women at the border. That ambulance is accompanied by a red van carrying Olena, Halyna’s daughter, and Denys, the man who arranged for this evacuation. Denys gets a text message from a Belarus volunteer from Brest, a woman who facilitates evacuating people from the military occupation. There’s no sugar-coating of the bitter reality: the volunteer blatantly informs him that Halyna has little or no reflexes and that she is afraid that the elderly woman won’t make it to the border.

Denys has to be encouraging and optimistic, and keep up a pretence. He rolls down the window and lights a cigarette. He has been smoking a lot over the past two years, never more than during the evacuation from Mariupol.

Image credit: Anastasiia Ivanova


Denys, his fellow driver Sashko, and Olena depart from the Lutsk railway station at 6:30 am, heading for Domanove. This is their first trip to this checkpoint due to the complex nature of this specific evacuation, which includes not only Halyna, but also another female passenger in a pre-stroke condition. There was supposed to be a third female evacuee, but her relatives backpedalled at the last moment, refusing to pick her up.

Denys takes a drag on his cigarette:

“The relative who was supposed to meet her contacted us, asking if we could take her to ‘some hospital’ and leave her there, so that ‘some volunteers’ would take care of her,” he says.

Denys and his “colleagues” spent the night negotiating with the man’s daughter, who’s in Germany, to take the woman in, and she finally agreed. So the third evacuee, along with a niece of her fellow in misery, stayed in Brest at a volunteer’s place to wait for a transfer to Germany.

“Can you take her to some hospital and leave her there, so that some volunteers can take care of her?”

Denys finishes his smoke, hops into the van and turns towards Olena, feigning the cheerful tone of a flight attendant:

“And we’re taking off!” he says. “Can I offer you something? On today’s menu, we have bananas, apples and chocolate bars.”

Olena politely declines. She can’t stomach any food. Four hours later, the woman hopes to see her mother, whom she hasn’t seen in a year and a half, at the Domanove checkpoint. The women have been separated by the frontline for so long that the possibility of seeing one another seems unbelievable.

Olena is 55, she is wearing trident-shaped earrings. She feels tense, she says, like a concerto by Vivaldi. Olena is a teacher, and her Ukrainian sounds as schooled as a textbook. Born and raised in Nikolske, a town on the outskirts of Mariupol, she went on to attend University in Lutsk, got married, and had two sons. Later, she divorced her husband and returned to live with her mother near Mariupol, where she remarried and had her third son. However, in 2014 her husband came out as pro-Russian, so she divorced him.

Before the full-scale invasion, Olena and her youngest son lived with her mother in Nikolske. Year on year Halyna’s health slowly deteriorated, and she had difficulty walking and using her hands. Just before 2022, her younger relatives refurbished the apartment to cater for the elderly lady’s needs. At the same time Olena’s middle son, Nazarii, joined the Ukrainian military and left for deployment in Volnovakha, 65 km north of Mariupol, but promised he would look after his mother if anything happened. However, his uniform was delivered to his mother’s home.

During the first weeks of March, there was still hope that the Russians wouldn’t seize Mariupol. When the Russians advanced further, Olena’s son broke out of the Russian encirclement near Volnovakha and managed to contact her. She clung to his promise of rescue, and hoped the Ukrainian military would break the blockade. Olena was busy trying to figure out whether the hostilities were approaching, and she hid her son’s uniform in the basement of their apartment building.

“Nazar, my sweet boy, warned me and told me to burn it, but how could I do that to a brand new set of uniforms?” she says. “It was when the Russians started searching the basements of our buildings that I finally burned it.”

“But how could I do that to a brand new set of uniforms? It was when the Russians started searching basements that I finally burned it.”

The neighbours, who knew her son was in the Ukrainian army, asked Olena whether her place had been searched by the Russians. The apartment, a few floors below, was seized by the Russian military, and Elena's mother, who was already hard of hearing, turned on the Ukrainian news at maximum volume.

Olena’s eldest son, along with his wife and daughter, left the city in March 2022, without telling her. She sent her youngest, a teenager, off with some acquaintances, to be evacuated through a city in the south, Vasylivka. She was unable to accompany her child: “I couldn’t leave, as I had to take care of my mother.”

As Olena was hesitating, the evacuation route through Vasylivka was cut off, and they ran out of money, so paying several thousand euros to a Russian transport operator to evacuate Olena and her mother through Russia was unaffordable. A Russian occupational education board offered to pay her RUB 100,000 (1,000 Euro a month) for a job, but she declined, staying true to her principles. In the meanwhile, her mother’s health kept deteriorating, and soon Halyna lost control of one of her arms.

However, after Olena proudly told her neighbours that she was against the “referendum on becoming part of Russia,” they hinted they would inform the occupational authorities about her son serving in the Ukrainian military. It was clear that she couldn’t stay in Nikolske any longer.

In November 2022, having left Halyna in the care of her pro-Russian brother, Olena packed a few of her belongings, documents, a crochet and some yarn, vyshyvankas, her granddaughter’s awards from gymnastics competitions, some dolls she played with in the bomb shelter, and a mug that Nazarii had gifted her, and fled town. She sold her gold jewellery and booked a ticket with one of the numerous travel agencies, and travelled through Russia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. At the Russian border, when the guards asked about her destination, she lied that she was heading to Europe, where a job was lined up for her.

“The neighbours started hinting they would inform the Russians about my son serving in the Ukrainian military”

Olena settled in Lutsk, at the place of a distant relative, who left the country. At first, she felt lost and could not sleep, until she found a job to her liking, as a crocheting instructor at a youth centre. With her job as a distraction, she finally had a good night’s rest.

Today, Olena participates in an NGO for female IDPs. She took up English classes and decided to get another degree, so enrolled at the relocated Mariupol University. Olena’s youngest son, now a University freshman, came to live with his mother. However, their life together was never the same without Halyna.

Olena kept searching for a way to evacuate her mother from under military occupation. Halyna couldn’t take a minibus run by the numerous Russian operators, as they only offered a seat and no support on the way, and the elderly lady was too weak to travel on her own. Besides, the family couldn’t afford to pay the asking price of EUR 1,000. Halyna’s son flat out refused to accompany his mother to the occupied territory, and tried to discourage her from leaving.

So Olena began writing to numerous volunteers, but none replied — until she came across Denys. While she was hesitant to put her mother’s fate in a stranger’s hands, there was no option. The planning took them a month: they had to negotiate with multiple drivers and volunteers who offered support and accommodation on the route, depending on their availability.

In cases like this, there are two ways of escaping. One of them is through Russia. Drivers who work with Denys take the person in question from Mariupol to Rostov, where they buy a train ticket and a Russian SIM card, and send the person to either Belgorod or Voronezh. From there, the person has to cross the Russia–Ukraine border to the Sumy region in Ukraine. It’s a three km walk, and is the shortest way.

However, Halyna was too weak to undertake such a trip, so she had to take a longer route: a special vehicle would pick her up in Rostov and transport her to the Belarus border, then to the city of Brest, and from there, a special ambulance would take her to the Belarus–Ukrainian border, so she could enter Ukraine’s Volyn region.


“Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether I would ever see her again,” says Olena, her voice shaking. "Mum was crying over the phone, lamenting ‘I will never see you again’, and I had no way of helping her, despite all the heartbreak… I told her that she was a hero, that she could do it, that she shouldn’t even doubt herself… I kept telling her that, but on the inside, I was terrified.”

The closer we get to the border, the more tongue-tied Olena becomes. Every now and then Olena breaks the silence, sharing bits of information about her and her mother, or lovingly speaking of the Volyn region. From Lutsk to Kovel, from Kovel to Ratne, every village we passed offered us a view of cherry orchards in early blossom. In between villages, there were forests on both sides of the road that Olena was always very fond of, due to their fresh air.

At 10:40 am, as we were waiting at our destination, Denys received a text that the Belarus border guards waved the ambulance through, and now it was in no man’s land.

The border is at a standstill. To the side of the road we see a sign with the name of the nearby village, several cafes and shops closed for business, an abandoned gas station and a bus stop, embellished with a Soviet-era mosaic in shades of blue. Four well-fed stray dogs loiter near the only working store. At the volunteer outstation Pluriton, a bored female administrator is idling near the shelves layered in packs of instant noodles.

Olena exits the minivan, approaches the border, and leans on a concrete block. Her hands are clenched on her chest, her eyes are searching the path from the Belarussian side. Mere minutes ago, she got a text from Nazar that he was given military leave for two weeks and that they could all spend some time together.

“Mum was crying over the phone, lamenting ‘I will never see you again’ — and I had no way of helping her.”

“Just a little bit longer,” Denys approaches Olena, doing his best to cheer her up. He’s constantly checking his phone for more updates regarding Halyna’s well-being.

To Olena, the five days that Halyna was travelling seemed like years. Now, these 13 minutes waiting in no man’s land, seem like forever.

Finally, Denys says, “We got them,” meaning that the two women were successfully transferred into the Ukrainian ambulance.

The white vehicle comes into view.

However, the border guards have yet to check the evacuee's documents, so Olena can’t yet feel joy. Distraught, she can’t take her eyes off the vehicle, while the guards look inside. She recalls:

“They asked me some really weird questions, like, ‘Why are you bringing your mother here? She can’t see well, can’t hear well, and won’t live long.’ Can you imagine that? So what am I supposed to do? Kick her out of my life or something?!”

While Olena answers the phone, confirming her mother’s details to the guards, Denys is approached by an agitated ambulance driver:

“Halyna needs to have a snack. She spent five days on the road, not eating, not drinking. Just now, she told the border guard, ‘I want to die, just shoot me.’ Take that as you will,” the man throws up his hands and returns to the guards.

Finally, at 11:45 am the ambulance is on Ukrainian land. Olena rushes to the vehicle.

Inside the ambulance, Halyna — old, frail and weak — is almost invisible, bundled up in her duvets. For the first time in a year and a half, Olena gets to hug her mother, and both women burst into tears.

“It’s over, mummy. It’s all over now,” weeps Olena, stroking her mother’s head.

“Welcome!” Denys takes a peek inside. “It’s all right now, don’t you dare think of dying! We went through all the trouble of bringing you here, and you’re so willing to leave us?”

“I was so scared…” Halyna’s whisper is barely audible.

The ambulance will take the woman home. Denys walks to his minivan, jokingly bantering with his driver Sashko and hiding his teary eyes behind his sunglasses. He gets inside, rolls down his window, and lights a cigarette.

The sense of déjà vu is overwhelming: almost two years ago, he went through almost the same moves when he was preparing to receive his own parents in Zaporizhzhia.

“Vyvezemo!” [“We’ll get (you) out!”]

Born and raised in Mariupol, Denys worked in local TV and performed as a master of ceremonies at music festivals — in short, he was a local celebrity. In 2017, having decided that all his Mariupol-related dreams were fulfilled, he moved to Kyiv and continued working in TV.

When the full-scale invasion began, Denys was invited to join the pool of presenters for the United telemarathon, which he declined: he had to take his wife and three-year-old daughter to the border, and then get his parents out of Mariupol, although he had no means of contacting them.

So in early March 2022, Denys settled in Zaporizhzhia, the city that became one of the hotspots for those fleeing the Russian military occupation from all over the Central Cis-Azov region. He began gathering information on available escape routes and publishing this data on his Instagram profile. Later, he created an evacuation coordination online group. Potential drivers gravitated to Denys, while a lot of people started donating money. Denys paid the drivers a service charge for their minibuses, UAH 20,000 [~EUR 610 March 2022 est.] per month, and another USD 5,000 [~EUR 4,617] as a security deposit should the vehicle not return from the trip.

“Our first minibus did come back, but another four were gone for good,” shares Denys. “Two of our drivers were taken captive and sent to Olenivka in occupied Donbas, another one was almost killed in a tank-versus-tank combat and had to be taken to a hospital in Donetsk, and the fourth managed to come back and tell the tale) I mean, we didn’t have an okay start, and one could easily come to think, ‘Ah, fuck it’.”

Still, people kept joining the initiative. Sashko, his driver, had firsthand experience of fleeing the occupied Mariupol, and is now responsible for evacuating animals. His colleague Serhii, responsible for humanitarian aid, was once thinking of cycling to Mariupol to get his mother. Both men are old acquaintances of Denys, and he spotted them in 2022 at the Epicentre parking lot in Zaporizhzhia, which was a waystation for people fleeing the occupation. Today, the three of them make up the skeleton crew of “Vyvezemo!”.

“I mean, we didn’t have an okay start, and one could easily come to think, ‘Ah, fuck it’.”

Their NGO has warehouses in Zaporizhzhia and Cherkasy, offering assistance to communities from the frontline zone, as well as IDPs. They obtained several grants for working in the government-controlled territories and, after a break, proceeded with evacuating people from the occupied territories. Overall, about 30 people (coordinators, volunteers, and drivers) worked with the NGO over the years, and some of them Denys would rather forget.

For instance, one driver traveled to the seized Berdyansk, got rip-roaring drunk, and left the bus with local drug addicts. Denys had to lure the junkies to Zaporizhzhia, in order to recover the vehicle. Another one had a disability, which he claimed he suffered while defending the Donetsk airport from the Russians. At the same time, he demanded money from his passengers for their evacuation. Denys and his team are adamant that the evacuation has to be free of charge for the evacuees. That man ended up in Russian captivity when recovering a private vehicle from the occupied territories. However, he managed to survive and is now free.

“My life is like a movie,” says Denys jokingly.

In that movie, some people prefer to stay behind the scenes, for their own safety. Denys currently has two regular drivers, a male and a female, in Mariupol, driving people to Rostov-on-Don; another driver who can carry animals, and several backup contacts. Despite Russia’s claims of accession to the Donetsk region, the Russia–Ukraine border is still in place, but people trying to leave the region are thoroughly questioned by guards. People are held at the Novoazovsk checkpoint for hours, while the guards search their telephones for deleted chats and the Telegram cache.

Both people with Ukrainian passports and those with freshly-issued Russian passports are deemed suspicious. First, they are investigated by Russian border guards, and should there be any doubts, they pass the person over to the FSB. One can be denied cross-border passage.

To avoid putting both the driver and the evacuees at risk, Denys personally speaks with people willing to flee, and tells them about hidden hazards. He also thoroughly investigates their social media profiles and figures out their real reasons for leaving — is that person trying to evacuate, or is that someone who just wants a free ride for their shopping trip and plans to return? Denys doesn’t evacuate the latter.

“Our personal principle is that we help people return to Ukraine, and this is what we spend our limited resources on. After all, we, too, are in Ukraine.”

After a break, “Vyvezemo!” re-commenced evacuation operations in the autumn of 2024. Per his observations, each day 50 to 100 people return to the government-controlled territory of Ukraine through the checkpoint in the Sumy region.

Denys doesn’t keep track of how many people they assisted over the past two years. He believes it’s about 7,000. He still keeps his “lifeline letters” containing names and addresses of people from Mariupol, carries warning stickers labelled “PEOPLE INSIDE!” for the vehicles, and forged documents that he presented to the Russians from the early days of evacuating people. During the first several months, he also coordinated the drivers who volunteered to evacuate people in their private vehicles. According to Denys, those vehicles helped save about 10,000 to 12,000 people. However, he doesn’t consider that this is some kind of achievement. As of today, the exact number of evacuees is even harder to figure out, as Denys sometimes joins forces with other groups and brings evacuees curated by those groups — a favour that those groups eagerly return.

There’s a plethora of reasons why people choose to leave — or stay. Not everyone currently living under occupation is a supporter of Russia. Some choose to stick to their homes, especially the elderly, and others are scared by Russian statements that assure them the rest of Ukraine will soon be seized, and some fear being under fire or shelling again.

The NGO sticks to two rules: they evacuate people strictly free of charge, and only to Ukraine, and this is what they spend their limited resources on.

“Our personal principle is that we help people return to Ukraine. After all, we, too, are in Ukraine. So when someone asks us to take them to, say, Germany, I explain that we don’t do that, instead, I offer them contact information of our trusted partners.”

To coordinate all these activities, Denys gave up having a regular job, and spends most of his time on “Vyvezemo!”. Staying just several hours per week in Kyiv, he uses the rest of his time visiting frontline communities, places that took in evacuees, and the border areas. He became more irritable and aggressive while staying at home and he doesn’t like that. At the same time, he considers himself to be a person whose mental health took a blow, yet whose happiness levels thrive. His greatest source of happiness is now to be useful.

Denys: in his own words

I initiated all of this to get my parents out, yet my parents still remain under occupation. I’m not trying to be dramatic, just sharing my worst personal tragedy.

My neighbourhood, Kurchatova, hasn’t changed a bit since it was built in the 1980s. A suburb of Mariupol, it seems like an entirely different city. None of our drivers picking people up managed to access this place, and I had no means of communication with my parents.

I saw images of them in April 2022. One volunteer, an acquaintance of mine and my mother’s former student, visited my parents at their home and filmed a video of them. Both my mum and dad had lost about 15 to 20 kg each. I still have that video on my phone, but I promised myself never to watch it again.

I heard their voices in May of that year, and I cried on the phone, begging them to move in with us and explaining the things that I’ve done to make that a possibility. At first, they said they needed some time to think about it, and then some more, and the next time they were crying and asked me to forgive them, but refused to come. My sister begged them, too; there’s a flat lined up for them in Odesa… However, I came to understand that this is the type of people they are, and they keep telling me that they don’t want to be a burden. They moved to my sister’s country house, which she finished refurbishing right before the occupation, away from the hostilities, the burnt-down houses and the makeshift burial sites.

I’ve seen people evacuated against their will, on the insistence of their children. We have a rule to never bring anyone back to the occupied territories, but some have returned by themselves. They were grieving for their home and their land, and they were miserable. One woman, for instance, said that she gave zero fucks whose flag was flying on the city hall, as long as she got to be buried next to her husband. Luckily, my parents never said they wanted to die there, yet they wanted to live there. And back then, in June 2022, I realised that I could only hurt them by forcing them. I mean, I still give them hints that we would be happy to have them here, where they can see their granddaughter.

“We have a rule to never bring anyone back to the occupied territories, but some have returned.”

My parents are elderly people who don’t want to start anew, and they are more at ease with their old life. They spent almost three months never leaving their flat, so they haven’t witnessed most of the horrors, except for the burnt-down apartment building next to ours, and the deteriorated entrance hall in their building. Mum says that back then, she used to talk to our photos, and cry her eyes out. Even now, every time we say goodbye over the phone, she says that she loves me. Never before has she done that. And I, too, had never been the one to call them every day, and that’s something I’m working on now. I put money on their Viber account and buy additional minutes on Skype.

To me, my parents represent model honesty. By their own example, they showed me how people who don’t have much do their best to help each other. My father used to work in charge of smelting at the Illicha Industrial Complex, and my mother taught Russian language and literature at my school. Since I was 7, I was growing up with that immense feeling of injustice, because back then, a common ideal for a kid’s parent was someone who knew how to steal or how to cheat, in order to provide material things for their kids. My parents, on the other hand, just earned an honest livelihood. My mom even refused to accept chocolates from her pupils on Teachers’ Day.

However, they gave me everything there was to give in the 1990s and even more. I am forever grateful. As a parent myself, I now realise what a great achievement it is when you have nothing for yourself, and are not even able to buy yourself cheap clothes from a market, yet always find a way to provide for your child. To give your all to your child. Who am I to have a grudge against them now?

“As a parent myself, I now understand what a great achievement it is when you have nothing for yourself, are not even able to buy yourself some clothes from a market, yet always find a way to provide for your child.”

I ended up never going to the occupied Mariupol. Every bus carried a handwritten note with my name, and every driver was given a warning that should I set foot in the city, they’d cut my balls off. On the one hand, I did want to help and return 120 people to government-controlled Ukraine in one go, yet on the other hand, that would have been me trying to “go kill myself”.

On the one hand, I would like to see Mariupol as it is now and have it engraved in my memory. I don’t want to lose that emotional state I had in the spring of 2022. My city was defiled, and that’s something I will never forget as long as I live, and that’s something I’m going to teach my daughter. Perhaps, that’s the reason why I want to visit. As for the rest, I would like to keep my memory of the city untainted, as it has been since my childhood. Of the times when everything was large and bright, and when my parents were young. When my dad borrowed my grandpa’s “Moskvich” car and a tent, and we drove to the countryside, towards Novoazovsk, because in Mariupol, the sea was a bit dirty. And nearby, there were man-made coves, where sand was extracted, and which filled with seawater. The sea was shallow and hardly reached up to your knees, but those pits were so deep we could dive in. So my parents and I used to go there to a camping site, and at 5:00 am, my father and I took out a boat and went fishing. There, you can catch mudfish even without any bait. You cast your fishing rod, wait a minute, and there you have it. It made me so happy. My mother and my sister, who had to gut and cook the fish, were even happier.

I still have no idea what has become of Mariupol under the Russians. Even after hearing all the stories of all the people we evacuated, after feeling their grief and pain, I am still yet to figure out the scale of that tragedy.


By the time the ambulance stops at Olena’s new home in Ukraine, Halyna has more or less come to her senses. Her youngest grandson grabs her plastic bags and her cat, while Olena and Denys hold the elderly woman by the elbows, and help her out of the vehicle. She can barely move her legs, but she musters enough strength to say:

“I was so afraid, so very scared… At the border, I thought I was going to be held captive, so I wanted to die… And then the border guard told me, ‘That’s not what I’m doing here. As for dying, you’ll live every single day you’re supposed to live as per God’s will.’”

Olena does her best to calm her mother down, yet the elderly woman is still tense and eyes the apartment building warily: the apartment is on the seventh floor, and she has to climb half a flight of stairs to reach the lift. While she did practise at home, one has to wonder whether she’s up to it now.

“You’re doing so good, mummy. You’re a hero,” says Olena, leading her mother to the entrance.

“You can do it,” she says, helping the elderly lady to climb the first step.

“Just a little bit more,” she adds.

Halyna takes uncertain steps, holding on to Denys, and says in a quiet, barely audible voice:

“We can do it.”

It’s only in the elevator that Olena seems to relax. Tears stream down her cheeks, she hugs Halyna, strokes her thin hair, and covers her in kisses.

Denys returns to Kyiv with the present of a crocheted angel, red-haired and curly. When Olena offered this gift to Denys, she failed to mention that she made it herself.