A Ukrainian rescue worker's memories are on pause as he evacuates people
TORETSK, Ukraine — In this town at the gates of the war's eastern front line, a rescue team was helping an elderly couple leave the home where they had lived for 50 years.
Lyudmilla Nesterova and Viktor Nesterov, both in their late 70s, can barely walk. Viktor is on a stretcher, and Lyudmilla needs a walker. The local town council convinced them to ask for an evacuation after a Russian bomb hit a church near their home.
"He's been sick for so long," Lyudmilla says, stroking her husband's forehead. "I tried to take care of him. But I couldn't manage. I am not strong anymore."
And, she adds, if she fell and broke something, who would help her with all this bombing going on?
"Take my hand," Eduard Skoryk, one of the rescue workers, tells Lyudmilla as he helps her into the ambulance. "I understand what you're going through."
Skoryk is from the city of Bakhmut, 22 miles north of Toretsk. The city fell to Russian forces in May, after the longest and bloodiest battle of Russia's war on Ukraine. Now Ukrainian troops are trying to get back.
"Our troops are gradually but confidently moving forward," Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar told reporters on Tuesday, Aug. 15, "despite great obstacles from our enemy, like mines, air strikes, mortar attacks."
Skoryk left Bakhmut about a year ago, just as the fighting there was intensifying. Shortly afterward, he began working with an emergency response team. His team has evacuated some 30,0000 Bakhmut residents as well as thousands from surrounding communities. The fighting has reduced his city to charred, smoldering rubble.
"I've had to put my memories on pause," Skoryk says. "I cannot yet feel grief or worry, no matter how cold this may sound ... because my life was in that city."
Skoryk is 31 and cautious, especially when he's talking about feelings. He's thin but athletic, like a long-distance runner. He gets up early, puts on a helmet and flak jacket and jumps into a van with a sign that reads "EVACUATIONS" in Ukrainian. Then he drives toward the front line.
"I've adapted to live only in the moment," Skoryk says. "I don't think very far ahead. I see the situation here and now. I see that help is needed now."
NPR first met Skoryk a few weeks ago, as he was about to set off for Toretsk. The town is shelled by Russian forces nearly every day. It has no running water, and residents don't even bother replacing their shattered windows; they just put up plastic. Markets are closed, so locals rely on humanitarian aid.
We follow Skoryk's van along a half-paved road to the town, stopping first at the local cultural center, which has now been turned into a hub for donations of food, bottled water and other supplies. He unloads crates of bottled water and hugs the volunteers, some of whom are local council members trying to keep the town running.
Then he heads out to his main task — evacuating Lyudmilla and Viktor, the elderly couple. He says most people who live close to the front don't want to accept what's happening around them.
"I see that there are people who are not able to help themselves," he says. "And they're defensive when we arrive. They think about their garden, the chickens they're leaving behind. It distracts them from the fact that they're saying goodbye to their lives in those very seconds."
He saw this in Bakhmut, as he helped drive his fellow residents out of the city. He struggled to reconcile what he saw in front of him — the scorched earth, the blasted buildings — with the beloved city he grew up in.
"My most vivid memories were my teenage years," he says. "I got a motorcycle when I was 13, and I remember riding around the streets of Bakhmut and all the villages around it."
He recalls his rides around the city, which started early in the morning. One of his favorite routes involved heading to the abandoned alabaster mines in the countryside, then back to town, to Bakhmut's famous sparkling wine factory, then stopping at his favorite hangout spot, the river embankment.
"What a magnificent place," he says. "There was this whole alley of roses. There were also cafes, beautiful trails and beautiful trees."
He still yearns for his blue-collar neighborhood of high-rise apartments, where the local toughs taught him to kick box. And a place every single local knew: a nightclub called the Khutorok.
"Outside, it looked like a big log cabin," he says. "Inside, it was decorated like an old-fashioned Ukrainian restaurant, with embroidery and everything."
Skoryk and his family left Bakhmut last May, four months after Russia's full-scale invasion began. A few weeks later, he heard that a Russian missile killed a classmate there. That prompted Skoryk to volunteer with the evacuations team.
He helped evacuate his extended family, his teachers, his neighborhood's tough guys. The alley of roses burned. Khutorok was ruined.
In November, Skoryk drove past his old house, which, remarkably, was still standing.
"It was like a farewell moment," he says. "It was the last time I stood on my street, in my home neighborhood, while it was still intact."
The last thing he did in his neighborhood was evacuate a childhood friend's parents.
"They represented the last piece of warmth left in Bakhmut for me," he says, "the last piece of my neighborhood, my street, that I took with me."
He tells the elderly couple in Toretsk to take the memories of their city with them — that it will live in their hearts.
Lyudmilla has realized that she will likely never see Toretsk again. She wears lipstick and her best jacket. She cries as Skoryk takes her hand.
"Don't worry, my dear," he says. "Everything will be OK."
He's been telling himself the same thing for more than a year. He knows it's not true. But at least she will survive.
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