A look at one volunteer's efforts to rescue civilians from Bakhmut, Ukraine
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
No city in Ukraine has seen worse fighting in recent months than Bakhmut. As Russian soldiers have advanced, volunteers have braved artillery barrages to rescue some of the remaining civilians from the city in the country's east. NPR's Frank Langfitt has this profile of one volunteer named Kuba.
(SOUNDBITE OF RUNNING FOOTSTEPS)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Kuba Stasiak is running through the rubble-strewn streets of Bakhmut. A shell has just hit a local university.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING AND POPPING)
LANGFITT: Bright orange flames pour from the first floor. Kuba records it all on his cellphone, which sits snugly in the front pocket of his flak jacket. He later uploads the video to Instagram.
KUBA STASIAK: Hello? Hello?
LANGFITT: Kuba's worried someone may be trapped inside the university. Ukrainian soldiers - they're hiding in nearby buildings - yell to him that it's empty. Kuba continues through the city, searching for a woman who has asked to be evacuated.
STASIAK: Lilia (ph)? Lilia?
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
LANGFITT: There's no cell service in Bakhmut. All Kuba can do is call her name.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHELL EXPLODING)
LANGFITT: Shells fall every few seconds. Finally, Lilia appears at her gate in a bright red coat. She's joined by a neighbor.
STASIAK: (Non-English language spoken).
LILIA: (Non-English language spoken).
LANGFITT: Kuba calls fellow volunteers, who arrive in a van, and they whisk Lilia out of the city, to safety.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHELL EXPLODING)
LANGFITT: Kuba is among dozens of volunteers who have spent months evacuating people from Bakhmut, in the country's Donbas region. About half the volunteers are Ukrainian. The rest come from abroad, including the United States, Britain, Sweden, even Russia. Kuba's from Poland. This morning, I'm riding in the back of his beat-up Lada - a rattletrap Russian sedan that dates to the 1990s - as Kuba heads back to Bakhmut for another evacuation. We pass through the first of a series of military checkpoints.
Basically a concrete bunker in the middle of the road and with tires on top, and there's a crane in the back that's building another pillbox.
Kuba acknowledges that evacuating people is dangerous.
STASIAK: In the last couple weeks, we heard about couple different volunteers that got killed. Some of them we knew. There are so many casualties - so many dead people all around every single day in Bakhmut.
LANGFITT: But he says the work's rewards outweigh its risks. Kuba recalls rescuing an elderly woman from her frigid apartment.
STASIAK: She was sleeping. And after, like, five seconds, she spotted my face. She started to cry.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).
STASIAK: (Non-English language spoken).
LANGFITT: "Everything is all right. Everything is all right," Kuba tells her.
STASIAK: She took my hands. I got very emotional about it. She couldn't walk, so me and my friend took her to the car. And I had this impression that she really spent, like, months in her bed till this point.
LANGFITT: Like many volunteers here, Kuba is motivated by altruism as well as personal reasons.
STASIAK: As for a young boy, I was, like, always wondering - what will be my reaction for the circumstances of the war? I wasn't so sure about it, and I just wanted to prove it to myself.
LANGFITT: And Kuba, who is 29 - he's also ambitious. He used to work as a journalist in Poland, but editors were reluctant to send him to war. In the early days of this conflict, he watched other reporters begin to make a name for themselves.
STASIAK: I witnessed many careers that were growing just because somebody decided to go to Ukraine and to risk his life on a daily basis. My big heroes, like - I don't know - Hemingway, Orwell - they decided to make the decision for their own, and they were just making very big careers.
LANGFITT: Both men served as volunteers in war. The experience shaped both their writing and their reputations. Kuba plans to use his evacuation videos as raw material for a book. Kuba and other volunteers say they were also drawn to Ukraine because they were dissatisfied with their lives back home.
ANDRE WEST: In my teenage years, I spent six years with depression. I was basically just a vegetable on a computer.
LANGFITT: Andre West is a 22-year-old from Germany. He used to work putting armor on luxury cars. Andre has spent the last year evacuating people in the Donbas.
WEST: I just want to do more with my life and just use it in a good way instead of being a vegetable. I can help people. That makes me happy.
LANGFITT: Andre says evacuations can be surprising and frustrating. He describes one rescue of an elderly woman.
WEST: Everything was blowing up around us, and shrapnel was flying into the apartment, so we had to lay flat on the ground in the apartment.
LANGFITT: Andre had parked his car far away because the shrapnel on the road would have shredded his tires.
WEST: So I had to run with this babushka all the way to the car. It was just 200 meters, but these 200 meters were just crazy, and - yeah, at the place where I brought her, I got told that she has been evacuated eight times.
LANGFITT: Andre thinks the woman's family pressed for evacuation, but the lady never really wanted to leave.
WEST: I was really, really mad that I risked my life and spent so much time on this woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR SLAMMING SHUT)
STASIAK: All right.
LANGFITT: Back in Bakhmut, Kuba has found his next evacuees - an elderly Russian couple, doctors. He records their meeting on his phone. They've been living in a basement for three months. But as they prepare to leave their home - probably forever - they're dressed in fur hats and elegant winter coats with fur-lined collars. They look as if they're heading to the opera. They moved here decades ago, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. The woman insists she doesn't blame Russia, their former homeland, for the war.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) You must understand, we don't have anything against Russia. Russia has nothing to do with it. We don't want our names disclosed.
LANGFITT: Who do you hold responsible for the destruction of Bakhmut?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) I believe both sides.
LANGFITT: Some who remain in besieged cities here in the Donbas are partial to Russia. Some are just waiting for the Russian troops to arrive. After a night in a refugee center, the couple board a bus that will take them away to a new life.
As we wait to see them off, Kuba says he hopes the couple learns something along the journey.
STASIAK: Whether they go to Poland or Luxembourg - whatever they choose - there will be no war whatsoever. They will see that, like, 99% of the population of Europe is just trying to help Ukraine. And maybe - just maybe - it will change - it will help to change with their perspective. If it won't, I can do nothing about it. I'm just happy that they are, you know - made it alive.
LANGFITT: And with that, the bus heads out, taking the couple away from the war and towards Europe.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Kramatorsk.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.