The first time Oleksandr Chausov drove evacuees across the front lines that surrounded his home in Russian-controlled Ukraine, he found himself on a road at the top of a dam, his car full of passengers and the world exploding around him. An artillery shell slammed into the water barely 50 metres away, blasting a geyser that seemed to be suspended in the air before crashing down. A blast wave compressed the car windows inwards.
“It felt like the car was going to explode because of the pressure,” Mr. Chausov said. Two of his six passengers fell unconscious.
But they survived, and Mr. Chausov has gone on to make nearly 100 crossings of the shell-pocked front lines where Ukrainian and Russian forces battle daily for control of the country.
Hundreds of thousands now live in territory seized by Russia since its invasion more than three months ago. Many want out. With little more than unflinching nerves and a willingness to help, Mr. Chausov – and others who have joined him – have found ways to evacuate thousands, a volunteer high-risk extraction service that is one of countless civilians efforts still stitching together war-torn Ukraine even as front lines rise and fall.
It began with the dam at Oleksandrivka, which Mr. Chausov crossed again days after delivering his first six passengers to safety in Odesa. His Kia Ceed filled with medicine, he then returned home to occupied Kherson, crossing the same dam. This time, he came upon the blackened remains of a dozen vehicles, one a transport truck that had spilled charred oranges onto the road.
Mr. Chausov looked up to see a tank and an armoured personnel carrier looking down from a ridge, their barrels aimed at the road. Deciding that a change in course might provoke an attack from the Russian-backed forces who had him in their sights, he continued onward. Two turrets swivelled to track him.
It might have taken 40 seconds for him to pass. “But that time, for me, was like an eternity,” he said. He was stopped at gunpoint, stripped to his underwear and interrogated. When a military medic confirmed that he was transporting insulin, thyroid hormones and other drugs, the soldiers released him. He delivered the medications to a hospital in occupied Kherson.
A short time later, his phone rang. It was the hospital. A child was in urgent need of surgery. Would he be willing to once again drive across the front lines?
He said yes, and in the months since has raced down rural roads through territory laced with landmines. He has crossed innumerable checkpoints and pushed through shelling.
Along the way, others have joined him, a group that has now swelled to five regular drivers and a half-dozen administrative staff. Together, they have spirited at least 4,500 people out of occupied areas.
Russia now controls a large swath of southern and eastern Ukraine, including much of Kherson oblast, where the Kremlin has offered Russian passports to local residents and said it is moving phone numbers to Russia’s +7 country code. As the region is subsumed into Russia, profit-making transportation services have arisen to help people leave, with prices ranging from US$300 a person to as high as US$1,500 a head.
Mr. Chausov refuses payment, offering help through a group on the Telegram chat app. So many want to leave that the queue of those seeking his services has now expanded to 20,000 people.
Some are in medical distress. Others want to rejoin family. Others see diminishing prospects for employment or joy in occupied cities where the price of many goods has at least doubled, while the quality of food now sourced from Russia has plummeted. Still others say life has grown difficult under an occupation where soldiers demand people strip to expose tattoos and maintain their power through force.
“When people just come to your home and point guns at you – would you like that or no?” asked one man who recently fled occupied territory. The man is preparing to fight back by joining the Ukrainian military. The Globe and Mail is not identifying him because he has family in Russian-occupied areas who risk reprisal for his departure.
Before Russia’s invasion, Mr. Chausov, 38, worked in procurement at an auto-parts trading company. A downhill skier in his spare time, he discovered that others interested in helping shared an appetite for adrenalin. Ivan Zhukov, 32, has completed 13 skydives – and now 60 front-line crossings.
Ksenia, 26, is a woman with a background in Ukraine’s armed services who has become the group’s negotiator, chatting with Russian soldiers at checkpoints. On three occasions, they have fired shots beside her head, as a warning to other drivers trying to jump the queue.
“I just say, ‘Why are you doing this? That hurts my ear,’ ” Ksenia said. Her new colleagues call her fearless. The Globe is not publishing her surname because her service experience could make her a target in Russian-occupied areas.
So far, the group has always found ways through the checkpoints. They say they avoid bribes. Checkpoint soldiers “know we are driving cancer patients, people who need surgery, children,” Mr. Chausov said. “Some tell us we are doing a good thing, since we aren’t in it for profit.”
Ksenia’s war-time efforts go beyond driving. In the early days of the Russian invasion, she became an expert in importing vehicles, travelling to Poland to shepherd 150 cars, 10 minivans and 16 heavy trucks into Ukraine, most of them full of humanitarian aid and other necessary goods.
She met Mr. Chausov when she was looking for someone to evacuate her mother and son. She never left, finding her place with the team, which is in such constant motion they sometimes buy new clothes rather than wait to wash dirty laundry.
At first, Mr. Chausov funded his front-line drives with his own money. But others have responded with charity to his willingness to court risk. Some military and police officers repaid him in fuel for evacuating their families. A transportation company donated a Volkswagen LT, with seats for 20 – although on one trip they loaded 48 people, many of them children. A bank gave him a minivan. More recently, international aid groups have offered to cover fuel and maintenance expenses.
The group typically travels in a convoy, usually with five vehicles but once with eight buses. On that trip alone, they evacuated 400 people. Convoys provide safety in numbers as they cross front lines, but the dangers remain. Mr. Chausov estimates he has come under life-threatening shelling seven times. In mid-May, a Russian sniper shot and killed one of the group’s drivers.
The driver had four children, and Ksenia recalled going to his home to deliver the news to his wife. She and others stood at the door as they struggled with words. “We had no idea what to say,” Ksenia said.
It wasn’t long before they were back on the road.
“Once you start doing this, you can’t stop,” Mr. Chausov said. “You see the eyes of these people, how happy they are met by others after they get out. At that point, you are driving only for that.”
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