Meet the volunteers bringing relief to the residents of embattled Bakhmut, Ukraine
Editor's note: Photographer Natalie Keyssar reported from Bakhmut, Ukraine, in December 2022. This is what she saw:
It's 8 a.m. and bitterly cold at the gas station in Kramatorsk. Ukrainian gas stations are oases of normalcy when they're open and have power. There's something comforting about the humming coffee machines and assortments of cookies and slowly rotating breakfast hot dogs shining in their glass cases. Especially after seeing so many stations that have been reduced to charred rubble or had their roofs blown off or windows blown out — the norm on the route from Kharkiv to Kramatorsk and so many other roads.
Men wait in line with circles under their eyes making dark jokes with flat facial expressions. The women behind the counter are patient with my useless language skills as I load up on snacks for the team, like packing the car full of candy will make it safer. The puddles in the parking lot are frozen to a sea glass texture but the sun is emerging from the clouds that have suffocated it for weeks. As we wait, it brightens and the bare trees start to look like cracks in the yellow horizon. It's a welcome sight, but in eastern Ukraine, clear days are perfect for flying drones and targeting rockets. Light days are louder. It's been relatively quiet in Kramatorsk lately — except for the attack on a school and the missile that grazed the side of our hotel, leaving only cosmetic damage, a day before we arrived. Still, the clear skies are a relief.
Roman and Vlad show up right on time. They both have the brisk, purposeful walk I've come to expect from Ukrainian volunteers. Nobody wastes time or words. Roman offers a quick, friendly smile and a handshake before taking his van off on a different evacuation route. The network of volunteers he helps coordinate, The Angels of Salvation, is dedicated to helping evacuate civilians from embattled areas of the Donetsk region and supporting residents in areas where they're often without power, water or food, by delivering humanitarian aid to those in need.
Vlad gases up his ambulance and hits the road. Daylight hours are precious and limited in the winter months here, and he'll need all of them. He takes off for Druzhkivka, his first stop of the day, at top speed. Minutes after we pull out, he calls our driver, Maks, a dancer from Kyiv and, thankfully, an extremely skilled driver, and tells him to keep up. We fly down one-lane highways, weaving past military and civilian vehicles, skidding up to checkpoints that line these roads as the sun starts to warm the frost on the ground. At every checkpoint, we are waived through. The soldiers know Vlad. We laugh at the hair-raising speed. Our adrenaline is edging up and we're still in territory firmly held by Ukrainian soldiers — it's thinly populated, frequently without power and under the threat of missile strikes, but peaceful and sleepy compared to Bakhmut, where we'll be heading soon to follow Vlad on his mission to help civilians escape.
Our stops are short. Vlad wears a military green jacket and camo pants. His round face is framed by a trimmed brown beard, and pinched worry lines between his brows. He is clearly accustomed to moving surgically and not giving anyone extra time to target his dust-covered ambulance. We pull up to a bus stop on a deserted roundabout in Druzhkivka and he loads up a group of about six bundled civilians carrying shopping bags filled to the brim with whatever they chose to bring with them while leaving their lives behind. Some are traveling from places further east that are on the verge of falling to Russia while others are getting out before the next wave of fighting could make it too late to run. There are quick, tearful goodbyes and nervous laughs and we're back on the road. Maks is smiling and cursing about how hard it is to keep up with Vlad as he speeds toward the bus station where he will leave his passengers.
It's 10 a.m. and the civilians from Druzhkivka join a larger busload of evacuees heading west. The area around the station in Kramatorsk is largely boarded up and desolate. It's safeish here for now, but the shrapnel marks and scorched buildings are constant reminders that the war is close, and in the Donetsk region, it has been since 2014. There are distant rumbles of outgoing fire. I board the bus briefly to make a photograph as people hug bags with gloved hands, and there's a sense that everyone on board is holding their breath. A collective waiting to exhale until everyone has gotten to wherever they are going. To safety. To family. For some, just west.
We meet a group of three Slovak journalists downtown and everyone puts on their flaks in a muddy median between two empty streets. The other crew looks tired and their little red sedan looks like it's been to hell and back because it has. They're planning to stay in Bakhmut that night. We discuss the route. Through Konstantinivka is fine. After Chasiv Yar, it gets dicey. After a gas station and a mural, it's pretty much all bets are off, but there's a lot of tall buildings to take cover behind. We plan to wait there while Vlad heads to the center to meet a group of civilians who will be waiting for him.
We fly off behind Vlad, toward the rumbling. We won't see the journalists again, but Vlad will tell us the next day that they had a bad night — came under shelling — but survived.
The road into Bakhmut is a silver ribbon through fields that couldn't be farmed this year and what should be bustling mining and industrial towns. The cars on it are caked in mud and the faces inside them are solemn with big eyes. Plenty of military vehicles painted in DIY camouflage patterns. There are trucks towing tactical vehicles and checkpoints every couple of kilometers. The thundery whoosh of outgoing fire gets closer and we get quieter. In Kostyantynivka, there are lines of people waiting for food aid under towering soviet-style apartment buildings, some with blown out windows. In Chasiv Yar, there are very few cars on the road. On the outskirts of Bakhmut, the crack of incoming fire gets louder as Vlad pulls over for the last time before he'll speed into the center to retrieve his shocked and exhausted passengers. He suggests which buildings we should shelter behind and gestures toward a general idea of the Russian positions and takes long, fast strides back to his car door.
As we round a bend and enter the city, it feels like someone is cranking the volume up. There's a booming defiance of the outgoing fire and a harrowing sharpness in the whistles and cracks of the incoming fire. A soundtrack that has been a near-permanent companion for residents of the city, the focal point for the war in recent months. Fierce street-to-street battles for positions and constant shelling has reduced sections of the city to rubble. People whisper that it could become the next Mariupol, a city to the south, on the Sea of Azov, that was leveled to a smoking memory and became a rallying cry of rage and loss for many in Ukraine.
There's a beautiful five-story mural of a Ukrainian mother crowned with woven leaves raising her child into the now-smokey skies on one of the apartment blocks that line the road. A few civilians are gathered on one side street and we see maybe two cars race by. In places like this, the wind is constantly whipping at metal and broken glass that's been scattered by recent explosions. You know you're supposed to watch where you step, but the ground itself is chaos.
We pull over to photograph a smoking crater in an industrial building hit by a rocket as Vlad speeds off into the city's center.
A woman walks by, pulling a wheeled cart toward a residential neighborhood of single-story cottages behind wooden fences. The smoke hangs over her path as she stops and looks over her shoulder and asks, with desperation in her voice, if we have any pain killers on us. Polina, the team's producer and translator, runs to her bag in the car. We see two other living souls in this neighborhood. Everyone else is gone or has the sense to take cover. The sound of outgoing fire is the loudest it's been and, eventually, a soldier approaches and tells us to move — the tank is working nearby, he says, and the Russians will return fire. We pull around deserted side streets, past pockmarked buildings. I see a lone adolescent boy standing at a bus stop with a teenage shrug in his shoulders and his hands thrust in his pockets. He looks almost normal except for the emptiness around him and the hunted eyes.
We drive up to the one area where we had seen people gathered. They're clustered around the entrance to a first-floor shelter where mostly elderly folks are huddled between damp concrete blocks and piles of warm donated clothes. A group of women who seem to be in charge immediately ask us not to take photos — they say when the news crews come, things blow up. We don't argue. We ask how long they've been here and if they have everything they need. People are nervous and tired. A woman says she has nowhere else to go and, besides, the Russians are shelling all over the country. It's a common refrain. I'm about to ask more when another elderly woman approaches and points a gnarled finger upwards. I hear a whirring that's different from the other sky sounds as Polina translates: "The drone is here." We step out from the concrete ceiling we're huddled under and I see a flock of birds moving, and then, above them, something hovers but deathly still. It's like another bird, but all wrong. It's maybe six feet long and a sinister oblong shape. I wonder what a Russian drone could possibly be targeting here, where there are nothing but freezing civilians foraging for heat and safety.
I think Mick, our security advisor, and I have the thought at the same time: We needed to move the car. We thank the women and move quickly to a safer location on the edge of town where we can hide the car better and wait for Vlad, who comes barreling out, van sitting low with riders, about 20 minutes later.
We fall in on the road out through Chasiv Yar grateful now for Vlad's breakneck pace. The sounds gradually recede and we breathe easier. In Bakhmut, it will only get louder as the rockets keep falling, taking with them homes and businesses and schools and churches and all the dreams that used to live in them.
When we pull up to the hospital in Kramatorsk where Vlad is dropping off the evacuees, I see their eyes for the first time. Svitlana, in her 70s, is wearing a blue-purple coat with an opalescent sheen and fur ruff and her son, Mykhaylo, picks her up and gently lifts her to the ground and immediately lights a cigarette. She clings to him, and her graceful hands remind me of my mother's and all the mothers who should never have to go through this. As I approach, I can see that her clothing has caked mud in the creases and her right eye is purple with a bruise. You never really know what a 1,000-yard stare means until you're looking into one. Eyes fixed on the distance but not reacting to what's in front of them. Alert but deadened. Their home had been destroyed by a rocket two days before and they had run out in the clothes on their backs lucky to be alive, but with nothing. They've been hiding in basements since, waiting for their chance to escape and now they're dazed in the sun in the parking lot. They don't know where they'll go. Haven't had time to think. They unload some bags of rescued belongings from the wreckage of their home and shuffle inside to be seen by weary doctors who have spent weeks perched on the stablest edge of the front line. Today, that edge is rapidly approaching Kramatorsk, and many fear that it will soon be in the center of the storm.
A few more bundled passengers shakily dismount from the van and look around, as though unaccustomed to the relative safety, before heading inside. A woman in her 60s shows me her two duffel bags. She left Bakhmut alone, and they're all that's left of her life.
Vlad closes the doors but never stops moving. He immediately sets out through muddy streets, only slowing to cross giant puddles in craters left by shells, for a warehouse on the outskirts of town where volunteers have prepared pallets of packages of food for the cold and hungry people of Kostyantynivka, which sits just on the edge of Bakhmut. A town that, like so many others, is now in danger of falling as the Russians push hard west. Recent intelligence reports say that the only two remaining supply lines for Ukrainian troops in Bakhmut are now under direct fire from Russian positions. Zelenskyy has announced reinforcements are on the way. More breath-holding.
A team of volunteers loads every free inch of the van with white plastic bags of food labeled with the Angel's praying hands with wings insignia in the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Vlad checks a list with a coordinator at the warehouse and we're off again, back to Kostyantynivka. The sun is already hanging low and the winter trees are casting long shadows in the courtyards between apartment buildings as we pull into the nervous town at the edge of the war.
Vlad backs the van up to the door of a residential complex and a group of women hurriedly come out to help stack the boxes in the entrance way. It's mostly women receiving the aid on these runs. At another building, the women form a human chain, passing boxes inside. I marvel for the 100th time at Ukrainians' efficiency. A little girl bundled up with a hat with a pom pom on top chats with Polina as we observe. "It's winter now, so we are cold," she says matter of factly, "but soon the spring will come and so will my birthday!" Polina translates with a bemused smile. Children are a balm in places with few left, and a source of fierce concern.
A young mother named Katya tells me in halting English that she's been weathering the past months alone, with a young son of 6, but they're ok, she assures me. She's helping collect food for the less fortunate. They have what they need. Goodbyes to strangers you exchange stories with in these times are quick but weighty. The future is defined differently in a place where shifting enemy lines can suddenly erode destiny. We clasp hands and look into each other's eyes and I'm back in the car and she's waving in the doorway and we're off down bramble-lined dirt roads, headed toward Kramatorsk before the blue evening gives way to dark and the curfew. Vlad hugs us goodbye and heads home, still speeding. He'll do it again tomorrow, and every day he can until he's no longer needed.
Natalie Keyssar is a documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, N.Y. See more of her work on her website, NatalieKeyssar.com, or on Instagram, at @nataliekeyssar.
Grace Widyatmadja is an NPR Visuals editor.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.