demolished buildings

Ukraine is now urging people to evacuate the Donbas. This Ukrainain American pastor is risking his life to help.

Alex Zaytsev has been driving dozens of his parishioners out of Avdiivka, a city that’s been on the front line with Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. 

Ukrainian authorities say that nearly 5,000 people were evacuated from combat areas in the country on Wednesday.

Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 1,171 people were evacuated from the besieged Sea of Azov port of Mariupol, and 2,515 more left the cities of Berdyansk and Melitopol and other areas in the south. She said an additional 1,206 people were evacuated from the eastern region of Luhansk.

Related: Body armor factories in the Americas are sending gear to war-torn Ukraine

Vereshchuk and other officials have been urging residents of eastern regions to evacuate in the face of an impending Russian offensive, saying that people in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions should leave for safer regions. Donetsk region Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said at least five civilians were killed and eight others wounded by Russian shelling Wednesday.

Over 10 million people, about a quarter of Ukraine’s population, have been displaced by the war, and more than 4 million of them have fled the country. Now, the Russian military is increasingly focusing its efforts on the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. The mayor of Avdiivka in Donbas recently encouraged civilians to evacuate.

Alex Zaytsev is a Ukrainian American pastor based in Avdiivka and works with Church Without Walls in Ukraine’s Donetsk area. Zaytsev was born in Ukraine and went to the US when he was 5. He  returned to the country in 2016.

He spent the day evacuating dozens of people from the city of Avdiivka, which has been caught up in war since 2014, when Russian backed separatists occupied the region. And during much of that time, the pastor lived about 3 miles from a separatist-controlled area.

Related: Refugees find a welcome in Catalan Guissona’s ‘Little Ukraine’

Up until a month ago, he said, it was relatively quiet in the city itself. But now, the situation is dangerous.

Alex Zaytsev has been driving dozens of his parishioners out of Avdiivka, a city that’s been on the front line with Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine.
Alex Zaytsev has been driving dozens of his parishioners out of Avdiivka, a city that’s been on the front line with Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine. Courtesy of Alex Zaytsev
In a three-day period, “about one-third of the buildings where people live suffered some kind of harm, up to the point where they were hit by shrapnel or by missiles, by shells,” he said.

That’s why it’s so urgent to get people out now, he said. But for the most vulnerable, the trip is difficult. One elderly woman who lives alone in a small apartment refuses to go, he said.

“And I said [to her], ‘You understand that your heart could give out if it gets worse, and I won’t be able to come; you might not be able to call me,’” he said. “She says, ‘No, I won’t leave because me leaving is just too much, too much difficulty for me. It’s easier for me to stay.’ So, it’s painful to see this, but I can’t force them.”

Some others who’ve lingered in the area are pro-Russian and “have been waiting for life to get better,” he said.

Related: Reliable death tolls from the Ukraine war are hard to come by — the result of undercounts and manipulation

The messaging from Russian radio and TV is that “The city of Mariupol is surrounded. There is no way for you to escape. You can only seek safety through corridors created towards Russia,” he said.

He said broadcasters also tell listeners that they need to seek out Russian soldiers and help them give up their cities to the Russian military as quickly as possible to avoid destruction by Ukrainian soldiers.

Zaytsev said that he knows that his efforts as an American in a disputed area of Ukraine puts him at risk — he could even be tortured, he said.

But nonetheless, he is pressing on.

His group left early in the morning, he said, and picked up 36 people in multiple cars, passing through military checkpoints to get to safety — where people can live and food is provided.

As they drove, the Russian military attacked areas near them.

Related: ‘They were shooting and shooting and shooting’: Ukrainian survivor shares harrowing account of atrocities in Bucha

“There was shelling that destroyed a railroad line that was planned to be used to evacuate people, so they had to take people by bus to a different train station so they could evacuate from there,” said Zaytsev, who wore a bulletproof vest and military-grade hard hat for the journey.

They’ve also faced mines on the road.

On Wednesday night, the pastor headed back to Avdiivka to get more people out of the city.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Anna Pratt edited this digital story.   

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