Cuba Stasiak, a young volunteer from Poland, has braved an artillery barrage to evacuate residents from Bakhmut, the epicenter of the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
JUANA SUMMER, HOST:
No Ukrainian city has seen worse fighting in recent months than Bakhmut. As the Russian army advanced, the volunteers had braved an artillery barrage to rescue the few remaining civilians from the city in the east of the country. NPR’s Frank Langfitt has a profile of a volunteer named Cuba.
(RUN RUN SOUND)
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Cuba Stasiak running through the debris-strewn streets of Bakhmut. A shell just hit the local university.
(SOUNDBITE OF FIRE CRACKLING AND POPPING)
LANGFITT: Bright orange flames gush from the first floor. Cuba recorded the whole thing on his cell phone, which sits snugly in the front pocket of his flak jacket. He then uploaded the video to Instagram.
CUBA STASIAK: Hello? Hello?
LANGFITT: Cuba is worried that someone is trapped inside the university. Ukrainian soldiers – they were hiding in a nearby building – shouted at him that it was empty. Cuba continues to search the city, looking for a woman who asks to be evacuated.
STASIAK: Lilia (ph)? Lily?
(SOUNDBITE OF DOGS BARKING)
LANGFITT: There is no cell service in Bakhmut. All Cuba can do is call his name.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHELL EXPLODING)
LANGFITT: Shells fall every few seconds. Finally, Lilia appeared at his gate in a bright red coat. He was joined by a neighbor.
STASIAK: (Non-English spoken).
LILIA: (Non-English spoken).
LANGFITT: Cuba called a fellow volunteer, who came in a van, and they took Lilia out of town, to safety.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHELL EXPLODING)
LANGFITT: Cuba is among dozens of volunteers who have spent months evacuating people from Bakhmut, in the country’s Donbas region. About half of the volunteers are Ukrainian. The rest came from abroad, including the United States, Britain, Sweden, and even Russia. Cuba from Poland. This morning, I was climbing in the back of his battered Lada – a creaking Russian sedan dating from the 1990s – as Cubans returned to Bakhmut for another evacuation. We passed the first of a series of military checkpoints.
It’s basically a concrete bunker in the middle of the road and with tires on it, and there’s a crane in the back that’s building another pillbox.
Cuba recognizes that evacuating people is dangerous.
STASIAK: In the last few weeks, we’ve heard about several different volunteers who have been killed. Some of them we know. There were so many victims – so many people died every day in Bakhmut.
LANGFITT: But he said the rewards of work outweigh the risks. Cuba remembers saving an old woman from her cold apartment.
STASIAK: He’s sleeping. And after, like, five seconds, he saw my face. He started crying.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English spoken).
UNIDDENTIFYED PERSON #2: (Not in English).
STASIAK: (Non-English spoken).
LANGFITT: “Everything’s fine. Everything’s fine,” Cuba told him.
STASIAK: He took my hand. I got very emotional about it. He couldn’t walk, so my friends and I took him to the car. And I get the impression that he’s literally spent, like, months in his bed up until this point.
LANGFITT: Like many volunteers here, Cuba is motivated by altruism as well as personal reasons.
STASIAK: As for one boy, I was, like, always wondering — what would my reaction be to a state of war? I’m not really sure about that, and I just wanted to prove it to myself.
LANGFITT: And Cuba, who’s 29 years old – 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 the conflict, he watched as other journalists rose to prominence.
STASIAK: I’ve watched many careers flourish just because someone decided to go to Ukraine and risked their life every day. My big heroes, like – I don’t know – Hemingway, Orwell – they decided to make their own decisions, and they made really big careers.
LANGFITT: Both served as volunteers in the war. That experience shaped their writing and reputation. Cuba plans to use the video of its evacuation as raw material for a book. Cuba and other volunteers said they were also attracted to Ukraine because they were dissatisfied with their life back home.
ANDRE WEST: In my teenage years, I spent six years with depression. I’m basically just a vegetable on a computer.
LANGFITT: Andre West is 22 years old from Germany. He used to work installing shields on luxury cars. Andre spent the last year evacuating people in the Donbass.
WEST: I just want to do more with my life and use it in good ways instead of being a vegetable. I can help people. It makes me happy.
LANGFITT: Andre says evacuations can be shocking and frustrating. He describes one rescue of an old woman.
WEST: Everything exploded around us, and shrapnel flew into the apartment, so we had to lie on the ground in the apartment.
LANGFITT: Andre parked his car far away because shrapnel in the road would have torn his tires.
WEST: So I have to run with this babushka all the way to the car. It’s only 200 meters, but these 200 meters are insane, and – yes, where I took him, I was told that he had been evacuated eight times.
LANGFITT: Andre thought the woman’s family was pressing for evacuation, but the woman never really wanted to leave.
WEST: I am absolutely furious for risking my life and spending so much time on this woman.
(SOUNDBITE DOOR SLAMMING SHUT)
STASIAK: All right.
LANGFITT: Back in Bakhmut, Cuba has found its next refugee – an elderly Russian couple, doctors. He records their meeting on his cell phone. They had been living in the dungeon for three months. But as they prepare to leave the house – perhaps forever – they don fur hats and elegant winter coats with fur-lined collars. They looked like they were headed for the opera. They moved here decades ago, when Ukraine was still part of the Soviet Union. The woman insisted she did not blame Russia, their former homeland, for the war.
UNIDDENTIFYED PERSON #3: (Through translator) You have to understand, we have nothing against Russia. Russia has nothing to do with it. We don’t want our names to be revealed.
LANGFITT: Who do you hold responsible for the destruction of Bakhmut?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through translator) I trust both parties.
LANGFITT: Some who remain in the besieged towns here in the Donbass side with the Russians. Some were just waiting for the Russian troops to arrive. After spending the night at the refugee center, the pair board a bus that will take them to a new life.
As we wait to see them go, Cuba says he hopes the pair learn something along the way.
STASIAK: Whether they go to Poland or Luxembourg – whatever they choose – there will be no war at all. They’d see that, like, 99% of the European population is just trying to help Ukraine. And maybe — just maybe — it will change — it will help change their perspective. If not, I can’t do anything. I’m glad they did, you know – made it live.
LANGFITT: And with that, the bus departed, taking the couple away from the war and towards Europe.
Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Kramatorsk.
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