АвторAuthor: Olha Verkalets | Translation: Hanna Dzhyhaliuk
11 August 2022
Oleksii Maslo is the founder of the “Kharkiv Help” volunteer foundation. Before the full-scale invasion, he had lived in Kyiv for more than 13 years and had his own clothing brand. But the war caught him in Kharkiv, where he was visiting his relatives for the weekend. From the first days of the full-scale invasion, Oleksii helped the people of Kharkiv, and later he founded his own volunteer organization. Now “Kharkiv Help” is the only one in the region engaged in large-scale evacuation of people from the occupied zones. As of July 13th, they took out more than 9,000 people. “Monologues of the War” learned about disrupted corridors, people who refuse to leave hot spots, and funding, which volunteers are lacking so much.
I came to visit my relatives in Kharkiv for the weekend, and the war began. On February 24, it was unclear what to do. I had a car with a full tank. I was going to return to Kyiv. But when the explosions started, all the news channels reported the beginning of the war, the first thing I did was fill out the volunteer form. Within an hour I left for the first assignment. We were delivering a pot of soup and packaged food for the military cadets.
I decided not to return to Kyiv, because the situation in Kharkiv was very difficult for more than four months. There are not enough people to help. I started helping from the first days. At first, it was a delivery of food and medicine to all areas of the city, even those which were constantly shelled. We also fed the military, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and the police. Over time, we formed a large team, and I founded the “Kharkiv Help” foundation. About 30 people work on site, and around 20-25 remotely.
When the delivery of humanitarian aid started working properly in the city, transport was launched, shops, pharmacies and banks opened, the majority of Kharkiv residents were able to meet their needs on their own. Therefore, we decided to engage in the evacuation of people.
At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Kharkiv was a humanitarian disaster. People lived in basements, cooked food on fires in the yard. There was no electricity, gas, or heating. The front line then was three or four kilometers away from the city. Districts in the northern part of the city were under constant shelling, there was not even a telephone connection.
It’s not like that anymore. We started evacuating people around day 74 of a full-scale invasion. All this time people were under occupation. They had no connection with the outside world. The first thing we did was go to the de-occupied zone, bring humanitarian aid and evacuate the first group – about twenty people. There were both children and elderly there.
For me personally, the evacuation from the de-occupied zones started with my father. He spent all 73 days under occupation in the village of Ruski Tyshki (editor’s note: 13 km from Kharkiv). On the day when the Russian troops began to retreat, he got caught in the shelling. He was badly injured, so we tried to take him out as soon as possible. We spent about twenty hours worrying, deciding how best to go there. Even our military could not get there. On the 73rd day, those territories were considered a gray zone, everything was mined.
A local resident took my father to a safer area. But there was no passage, because there was a column of burnt Russian equipment. He had to walk about 100 meters with his injuries. Doctors picked up my father and brought him to the city. He underwent three operations, he feels better now, although there are complications.
We went to Ruski Tyshki again and were able to evacuate about 80 people, and also dogs and cats. Russian positions are located near this village. There are two more settlements along the way: Tsirkuny and Cherkassy Tyshki. According to official information of local authorities, about two thousand people live there. They are constantly under fire, but they do not want to leave.
One day we arrived at the address left by relatives. They had no contact with their loved one. When we arrived, there was an old lady, so we told her about her relatives who asked to take her out. She refused because she had four goats.
People often refuse for various reasons: “I built a house here, so I will die here”, “Nobody needs us”. Apparently, they are afraid to step out of their comfort zone, even if they have to die for it. There is also no informational support. People leave without mobile phones, they have no connection with the Ukrainian side. They think they have been forgotten.
Where should they go? Where will they live? There are cases when evacuees don’t get a shelter. They go homeless and then return to a de-occupied zone or a war zone. That is why people are afraid to leave.
I remember traveling outside of Bakhmut. On the way to Lysychansk, there was a whole village abandoned. And only one woman lives there. She has five pigs, thirty chickens, geese, and neighbors’ dogs and cats. A Russian helicopter flies over the house and shoots on Ukrainian positions. Missiles fall every two minutes. But she doesn’t want to go, because her whole life is there. A woman routinely rides a bicycle on a road that is constantly under fire. She buys groceries at the market and comes back.
We managed to evacuate about 9000 people (editor’s note: as of July 13). And there are still hundreds of thousands left. We can evacuate only from one Kharkiv route. This is the direction of Kupyansk — Shevchenkove — Izyum — Svatove — Luhansk region. It is not official, not green. We meet in the gray zone, between the Russian and Ukrainian positions. People get to Russian checkpoints on their own and walk. Men are almost never released.
Many people are in the war zone. We bring them humanitarian aid, but they refuse to take it. They say they have everything: livestock, canned food, vegetables. They insist that we take it to those who need it more. And there are zones where there are no hostilities and a large number of displaced persons. There the situation is the opposite. They lack food, although they also have livestock and gardens. But people are asking for more. This is a big contrast for me. When we come to places where all houses are destroyed, people do not ask for anything and do not want to leave.
I looked over a family in Northern Saltivka. I went there every day, even came under fire. Northern Saltivka is already considered a mini Mariupil. There are no buildings left intact. I happened to find a family that didn’t want to leave. These are a 70-year-old retired couple with a paralyzed 47-year-old daughter.
At that time, they had no water, gas, or electricity. In such conditions, they were taking care of their disabled daughter. I brought them a generator, fuel, and medicine. In addition, they are immigrants from the Donetsk region. In 2014, they fled from the war to Kharkiv. However, the war found them here. Their situation is haird. I tried to provide them with a corridor to Europe, and a team was ready to evacuate them. They refused. Now at least they have electricity, gas, and water.
Driving to hot spots is a constant risk to life. We already have more than one car that was under fire. There is also a problem when we arrive at a specific address in the village, and the streets are scattered chaotically. We spend 40-50 minutes trying to find the right house. And the longer you stay there, the greater the risk of being hurt in the shelling.
If the military allows us to go to a hot spot where there is artillery shelling every couple of minutes, we go there. There are many settlements where there is still a humanitarian crisis. It is necessary to go there urgently. But the military won’t let us.
Evacuations often fail for two reasons: either the shrelling starts, or someone leaks information. We work with the SBU, Armed Forces of Ukraine, and local authorities. It happens that evacuation is canceled or postponed due to information leaks. We may wait for three to four hours to be allowed into the settlement, because the shelling continues. And it happens that we wait for half a day and don’t get a green light. Little depends on us, but we are ready to go whenever it’s possible. We have an experienced team.
Yesterday I saw a post about Balakleya (editor’s note: the interview was recorded on July 7). It is under occupation. There is a humanitarian crisis, the local hospital was shelled. Balakleya is now asking for a humanitarian corridor. Nearby villages are constantly under fire, forests and roads are mined. Sometimes, pregnant women are released to give birth in a hospital on our territory.
The Izyum direction is the most difficult. Everything located in the northern part and close to the occupation is difficult to reach. Now the occupied zone is ten kilometers from Kharkiv.
We have already conducted six or seven large-scale evacuations, when we took out from 500 to 2,000 people at the same time. I remember the first one. I will not name the city, because every time we openly talk about evacuation, incidents happen. There are people who leak positions. There are many saboteurs working on our side.
According to the information provided, we were supposed to pick up two hundred people. But we transported 1,500 that day. It was chaos. The local authorities did not understand what to do with the flow of people. The SBU had no idea of the scope of it and only assigned two people on filter duty, that is, to check documents, ask questions, etc.
The military helped us a lot, they carried children and things. At the end of the day, when the number of people reached 1000, the local authorities came and provided buses for transportation. Although when we agreed on the evacuation, we warned that there would be a lot of people, they did not take us seriously. Now there are no such cases, everything works well.
For the largest evacuation, we spent 160,000 UAH on fuel. There were twenty cars. We calculated that rescuing one person in the framework of a large-scale evacuation (about 1,500 people) costs 106 UAH. In two weeks, we raised funds for another one. Our funding is people. Most of them are Ukrainians, but there are also donors from abroad.
We were invited to evacuate people in the Donetsk direction. But I believe that there should be their own volunteer organizations. We don’t have that kind of funding. We created an official fund two months ago. There has been no receipt of funds yet. Officially, no one wants to allocate money for our support. Although we write requests every day.
There are people who left at the beginning of the war and did not witness large-scale hostilities. They returned to their hometowns. They continue to live a normal life. They also return to Kharkiv. But four to five missiles fall on our city every night. You can’t go to sleep because you’re waiting for the shelling to start or end. Even residents of Kharkiv, who were not in the areas with intense shelling, do not understand what is happening there.
If a large number of people start returning to Kharkiv, the same amount will leave later. The situation in the east is critically hard. The front line is being pushed closer to Kharkiv. And this information is from open sources. It is likely that the intensity of shelling in the city will increase. We are waiting for winter.
My upstairs neighbors have returned to the city. Every night I hear them running around panicking and packing. I don’t understand why people came back, especially with kids. One school is destroyed every night.
Our organization needs media support so that more people know about us. We are the only ones engaged in large-scale evacuations from the occupied zones of the Kharkiv region. Big foundations ignore us. We are not so big, we don’t raise funds for Bayraktars. But we have other expenses. Our drivers’ own cars break down and they need to be constantly repaired.
In addition to evacuation, we continue to provide humanitarian assistance. We don’t go to specific addresses anymore, but we visit villages and humanitarian aid distribution centers. Expenses are enough. The greatest need now is food and hygiene products. We have long since run out of adult diapers, which medical institutions and civilians need.
We will continue doing what we do. Every saved person is a motivation for us. Funding decreases, there is not enough humanitarian aid. We are directly dependent on help from outside. Nobody works for money here.
If you want to evacuate yourself or your loved ones, contact the hotline at +380 67 579 1313 or write to us on social networks. We will get you in touch with the coordinator who will help with the search for transport or tell how the evacuation is happening in the desired area.
Look for detailed information on the website “Kharkiv Help” https://www.kharkiv-help.com/
Чому важливо поширити цю історію?
Якщо українці не розповідатимуть свій погляд на війну в Україні, світ поступово забуватиме про нас. Натомість цим обов’язково скористаються росіяни. Тому не даймо їм жодного шансу.
Why is it important to share this story?
If Ukrainians do not share their views on the war in Ukraine, the world will gradually forget about us. Instead, the Russians will definitely take advantage of this. So let's not give them a chance.
АвторAuthor: Olha Verkalets | Translation: Hanna Dzhyhaliuk