in the Donbass, a frontline volunteer saves lives

Kuba Stasiak signed up as a volunteer two months after the start of the war in Ukraine. Since then, this young Polish man has helped evacuate nearly 200 civilians from Bakhmout and other besieged towns. But he also faces psychological and practical obstacles: how to convince residents to leave everything behind?

In Bakhmut, Soledar and remote villages in eastern Ukraine, most residents have already left. But as the Russian offensive continues and encounters resistance from the Ukrainian army, volunteers are moving into the “grey areas” of the war.

In small teams or alone, they seek out the few civilians still there to convince them to leave. Besides their work in the midst of intense combat, they face a psychological obstacle : how to convince these inhabitants that it is time to leave and assure them that a better life is possible ?

Kuba Stasiak happened to be the right person for the job. 28 years old years, this Polish volunteer estimates to have helped to evacuate approximately 200 civilians from Donbass.

A trained journalist, he was in kyiv with the intention of becoming a correspondent there when the war broke out in February 2022.

Driven by a desire to help people and realizing “there was a lot of work for civilians”, Kuba Stasiak fully committed to the evacuations two months into the conflict. He worked first in Severodonetsk and Lysytchansk, then throughout the region and in cities like Bakhmout.

>> To read also: lhe battle of Bakhmout, a symbolic or strategic issue?

“Let people know our faces and become more confident”

Evacuations begin several months before a city falls. Civilians get used to the bombardments and the sounds of war, others decide to leave after the first missile. There are also “some people you can’t convince”, explains Kuba Stasiak. He cites “the elderly who generally do not believe that a new life is possible”, those who say they are too poor to move or those who remain pro-Russian and cling to “false security”.

In a video shot at Soledar last September, Kuba Stasiak and another volunteer attempt to evacuate an elderly couple by showing them a pre-recorded video of their daughter pleading with them to leave. “After 40 minutes of discussion in the middle of the bombardments, the couple decided to stay”, relates Kuba Stasiak.

In general, the Polish volunteer knows the people he saves before evacuating them. “When the situation was better in Bakhmout, I traveled around the city and I had contacts,” he says. “A Ukrainian volunteer had set up a reception point where residents could get food and water. We could meet them and receive requests (for evacuation).”

Building trust is key to doing this job, says volunteer “What helps is being present, so people know our faces and feel more confident. Even if they’re not ready to leave right away, some people change their minds and, when they do, they know how to find us.”

The fatalism of the inhabitants ready to “die in their city”

The discussions sometimes turn into arguments when it is necessary to convince the obstinate inhabitants. “We tell them : ‘If you stay, you will die. The whole area will be heavily bombarded and you will die inside your house. There is only one solution : leave with us'”, explains Kuba Stasiak. These people often adopt a fatalistic attitude and answer “I don’t care, I’ll die in my town”.

Others are traumatized after months of heavy shelling. The volunteer remembers a conversation between an elderly woman – whom he had just evacuated from Bakhmout – and her daughter to reassure her : “I’m fine, I just have a piece of shrapnel in my buttocks”.

“She didn’t even mention that there had been an attack. People get used to (war) and don’t care about injuries,” says Kuba Stasiak, who compares this state of mind to “a unhappy marriage” “You don’t think there’s a chance of being happy with someone else, and then you feel the need to show that a better life is possible.”

Today, Bakhmout and its surroundings are in ruins. Some 10 000 people still live there, according to estimates, compared to 70 000 before the start of the war in Ukraine.

Obstacle course in the middle of the bombs

In addition to the satisfaction of saving lives, the Polish volunteer has also discovered strengths that exceed all his expectations. “The first time I went to Bakhmout was in June. One of the most important things is to know the plan (of the city), because you can take a wrong turn and end up in the Russian trenches “, he says, adding that he has learned to depend only on himself.

Sometimes the evacuation operations become an obstacle course, as in Soledar, a few months before the fall of the city, in September. Kuba Stasiak went there with five other volunteers. Seeking protection from the drones and incessant shelling, they parked their car under thick foliage. But the vehicle was stuck and it took them an hour to move it.

“We managed to get the car out, but we had to drive into the city, which was literally burning and where fires were breaking out every minute. We had to drive to two addresses as it got dark quickly,” he explains. -he.

The Polish volunteer remembers that the woman at the first address was terrified. He knew she would leave. At the second address, a hesitant couple and their neighbor had to be convinced. The three people finally agreed to leave, carrying documents, photos of their relatives and some religious icons in plastic bags.

“Philip (a Russian-English citizen and volunteer), Lee (a British veteran) and three other people were waiting for us at a safe point. After six hours, they thought we were dead,” says Kuba Stasiak. On the way back to Kramatorsk, their car crashed into barricades, the one the neighbors were driving too. The group left the area by boarding a bus.

“A better life”

Despite the enormous risks, Kuba Stasiak wants to continue to go where he is needed. “I find it fascinating the impact that one person can have. It’s nice to know that you can change people’s lives,” he says.

Once in Kramatorsk, evacuated residents usually spend the night in a refugee center. The next day, they begin what Kuba Stasiak calls their “adventure for a better life”.

The Polish volunteer remembers some of the people he helped. He thinks of this couple of retired doctors – dressed in a coat and a fur hat as if they were going to the opera – rescued from Bakhmout in March. They are now in Denmark. There was also this mother and her disabled daughter, now settled in Poland.

The faces and details of these evacuations are still very much in Kuba Stasiak’s mind. He is writing a book about it, with a publication planned for the end of the year. A way to close the loop for the frontline journalist/volunteer.

This is a French adaptation of the original English article, to read here.

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