Tue, 05 Dec 2023

AVDIYIVKA, Ukraine -- Over the past 19 months of all-out war, Russian artillery has reduced the Donbas town of Avdiyivka to ruins. With not a single building undamaged, the invasion has changed Oleksiy Savkevych's hometown beyond recognition.

Oleksiy Savkevych drives humanitarian aid to Avdiyivka as a column of smoke rises in the background in August 2023.

I first met Savkevych, his wife, and children in Avdiyivka in April 2021, one year before Russia's full-scale invasion. Fighting in the years-old trench war between Moscow-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military could occasionally be heard rattling in the distance as the professional translator and occasional music festival organizer spoke with his wife, Svitlana, a teacher.

Svitlana and Oleksiy discuss their options in their kitchen in Avdiyivka in April 2021.

The couple discussed options to move if a feared Russian invasion became reality. 'Last weekend we visited Svyatohirsk to see a place where we could possibly go. Perhaps we could flee there?' Savkevych said at the time. 'We call it the 'Switzerland of the Donbas.'' Svitlana countered: 'What are we going to solve with that? We can't keep running from place to place. We'll be without a home, work, or friends.'

The same kitchen as in the previous photo, photographed in March 2023 after nearby explosions blew out the windows.

In February 2022 Savkevych and his family did flee Avdiyivka but as invading Russian forces moved within artillery range of Svyatohirsk, the family knew they needed to leave Ukraine altogether. Savkevych bid farewell to his wife and children as they departed for Germany, then he returned to his embattled hometown to work as a volunteer. 'I needed to be in Avdiyivka, I couldn't be anywhere else,' the 45-year-old said.

Oleksiy Savkevych plays guitar in a cellar in Avdiyivka in April 2022.

The next time I saw Savkevych was in April 2022 as he slept in one of the many communal cellars where remaining residents of Avdiyivka sheltered from nearly constant explosions. The underground shelter was cramped and offered almost no privacy. The air was stale, water dripped from the ceiling, and the walls were covered with mold, but in contrast to the terror on the streets above, the shelter offered a warm and intimate atmosphere.

Savkevych had changed. His ever-present smile was replaced with a look of exhaustion. He was still getting used to his new life. 'Evacuating people is not as easy as organizing music festivals,' he laughed.

Avdiyivka residents Lila and Lyona look up at the sky as a shell whistles past overhead.

Savkevych spent the first few weeks of the invasion helping people leave town. 'Already 90 percent of people left Avdiyivka,' the volunteer said at the time. 'It's difficult to see life disappear from my hometown this quickly,' he said.

Today, approximately 1,600 mostly elderly residents remain in Avdiyivka, living without running water or gas. Before 2022 the town was home to some 30,000 people.

Aid supplies in a schoolroom in Avdiyivka photographed in April 2022.

As well as organizing evacuations from Avdiyivka, Savkevych and several colleagues established a humanitarian center in the same school where his wife had worked and their children had studied. There, the volunteers piled up food, water, clothes and blankets in preparation for a siege of the town.

'We kept all the humanitarian aid in one place. That was a big mistake,' Savkevych said.

In March 2023, Russian artillery crews apparently targeted the school, destroying the entire stock of humanitarian supplies.

The same schoolroom as photographed above, strewn with burned cans of food, seen in March 2023.

Today Savkevych lives in a ramshackle house that a friend loaned him around 14 kilometers from Avdiyivka. But nearly every day the volunteer drives humanitarian aid into his hometown.

The sunflower fields along the road Oleksiy travels to reach the town are marked with craters from explosions and scattered with land mines. Ukrainian artillery crews fire from concealed positions in the bushes along the road, trying to push back the Russian forces that are slowly encircling the town.

Savkevych on the road into Avdiyivka in June 2023

Savkevych and his colleagues now keep their stores of aid in indistinct buildings near his temporary home outside of Avdiyivka in a bid to avoid the attention of Russian artillery. 'We distribute the supplies to a dozen small humanitarian hubs around the city,' Savkevych said. That way, 'when one of the hubs gets hit we can quickly adapt and make sure everyone is fed.'

Volunteers sort through supplies in a village near Avdiyivka.

'When some bigger organizations tried to distribute humanitarian aid in Avdiyivka, usually, it was quite chaotic,' Savkevych said. 'They don't have the infrastructure we have and so now they let us do the deliveries for them.'

The eastern city is now tightly encircled by Russian forces on three sides and some remaining locals live only a few hundred meters away from advanced Russian positions. Delivering humanitarian aid to these people is especially risky and other aid groups have often failed to reach them.

'Big international organizations like the Red Cross have a lot of safety regulations, and we don't,' Savkevych told me. 'Even the smaller organizations, when they come they usually don't want to stay in Avdiyivka more than a few hours. I understand they don't want to risk too much but all people in Avdiyivka need to be fed. Someone needs to do it,' he said.

An ambulance rushes from the front line near Avdiyivka.

Despite nearly unrelenting fighting around Avdiyivka, Moscow has yet to capture the town.

'Most people are old and they would rather die in their cellars than face the uncertainty of getting internally displaced. It's nearly impossible to convince them to leave,' he said. His work is exhausting and living 2,000 kilometers from his family is testing his resolve.

Adding to his doubts about the risky work is what he says is the fact some people remaining in Avdiyivka would welcome Russian troops 'with flowers.' But he said, 'In the end, we can't choose who we help. They are all people and every person who is in need should be offered help.'

'Maybe, if we stopped bringing humanitarian aid into Avdiyivka, the remaining people would finally decide to leave.' But he added: 'I love Avdiyivka. Even though I would like the people that remain there to leave, deep down I am glad someone still lives in my hometown.'

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Washington DC 20036

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