Common Help UA: stories of evacuation of more than 1000 people - Irpin, Bucha, Kyiv. About people, snails, danger and mutual aid

Teachers at the local university in Irpin know how to feed snails to people in a shelter, lower a hundred-gallon barrel from the 16th floor, and unload a bus full of books under fire. At the beginning of the invasion, Yevhen Kotukh and Vasyl Chmeliuk refused to leave the city. They took care of their students and people hiding in university bomb shelters to the last. And when the enemy was close, they managed to evacuate more than 300 people from the half-occupied Irpin. The teachers did not stop and continued to save people as part of the Common Help UA project together with volunteer Vadym Skrypnyk. We are telling their story.

From small charity to big volunteering

Vadym Skrypnyk, Director of Agricultural Production at Astarta-Kyiv, and now a member of the steering committee of the Common Help UA project, was involved in volunteering even before the full-scale invasion.

Vadym Skrypnyk

Member of the steering committee of Common Help UA, Head of Community Relations, Director of Agricultural Production at Astarta

«We had certain social initiatives related to work. But at some point, the boundaries between work and non-work disappeared. I helped certain children or people because I had the financial means and felt that I could be useful. So before the war, it was a small charity that my personal budget allowed. I was also involved in the implementation of large-scale social, educational, and medical projects implemented by my company Astarta as part of its corporate social responsibility and sustainable development».
The war gave his volunteerism a new dimension. Vadym became the head of an initiative group of volunteers in Khmilnyk, and in March he joined the large Common Help UA project. The first people the activist helped at the beginning of the invasion were the military.

His friends, military officers, worked in the security sector, so at the time of the invasion they were far from home, without military documents and civilian clothes, wearing only camouflage. It would be difficult to move around in this way, so Vadym found them some regular clothes. "I called them to Khmilnyk. We went to look for shops - nothing was open, the market was closed. I started calling my friends, and they found the owners of the pavilions, who opened them for us. So I dressed and shod these ten people, and they went to Kyiv to get their belongings, documents and weapons. Now they have been fighting in the Armed Forces for a year," Vadym recalls.

Then everything happened very quickly - on February 27, Vadym was already transporting equipment to Vasylkiv, where a military airfield was being defended. On his way back, he couldn't help but take people with him, so the volunteer began evacuating people from Bucha, Irpin, and Kyiv. Together with other activists, he transported humanitarian aid in minibusses and then picked up people. "It's hard for me to count how many people we evacuated because at some point we stopped counting. Probably five hundred or more," Vadym says.

One day, Vadym received a call from Vasyl Chmeliuk, a professor at Irpin University, whom he had known since peacetime - Vasyl's father was his colleague at Astarta. The teacher said that there were about 700 people in the basement of the university who needed food and medicine. "We packed a whole busload of food for them. I remember how on the way to Bila Tserkva, I just packed everything I had in a bag at the pharmacy. We brought the food and took some of the people with us," the volunteer recalls. That's how Vadym learned about the story of two Irpin teachers.

How the war began in Irpin

When the full-scale war began, Yevhen and Vasyl were both teachers at the State Tax University in Irpin: Yevhen at the Department of Computer and Information Technology, and Vasyl at the Department of Law Enforcement. Neither of them believed in the invasion. "I was convincing my students that everything would be fine, and that Russia did not have the capabilities it imagined," Yevhen admits. His confidence was shaken when embassies started burning documents. There were other disturbing hints.

On February 16, Yevhen received a text message from a good diplomatic colleague from the European Delegation to Ukraine. She asked him to take all his family and friends and leave for abroad as soon as possible. Yevhen thanked her and said that "we are staying, we will stand and do everything in our power to prevent anything bad from happening."

At the time, the university was preparing to host a major international forum on the economic security of the state and business. The event was scheduled for February 24-25, and practitioners from eight countries were invited to attend. But in mid-February, international participants began to refuse to come to Ukraine, even though they had purchased tickets earlier.

"I spoke with representatives of foreign law enforcement agencies that ensure economic security in their countries, as well as with representatives of departmental educational institutions in other countries. They told me that they had received an order to categorically ban me from entering Ukraine," Vasyl says. He tried to reassure his partners, insisting that the rumors of war were media attacks and that the situation could only get worse in the east. This did not help, and the forum had to be canceled.
On the evening of February 23, the university's organizing committee met to summarize the results: it was necessary to postpone the event to another time and send out a cancellation notice to all participants - about three hundred people had registered for the event. Despite the fact that many people's relatives had to leave Kyiv that evening, the committee worked until ten in the evening.

At five in the morning, both friends were woken up by their families. Yevhen woke up to a call from his mother, who lived in Kharkiv and was one of the first to see the war. Later, he heard powerful explosions and saw flames in the window overlooking the Gostomel airport. Vasyl was woken up by his wife. "I woke up and the first thing I thought was that I had to shave and go to work," he recalls. Both professors came to the university that day because they had a responsibility: despite the distance learning, about two hundred students lived in the dormitories, mostly orphans and low-income students, and there were three public bomb shelters on the university grounds.

What they did in the first days of the invasion

Vadym was on a business trip in the Khmelnytskyi region, so he didn't wake up to the explosions like most of the country. But his family remained near Kyiv. His pregnant wife and two daughters quickly packed their belongings, and Vadym organized their evacuation to Khmilnyk remotely. Even there, in the first days of the military aggression, Vadym realized that there would be a lot of work and that he needed to set up the aid process as soon as possible. Astarta mobilized in its seven regions of operation. In the Vinnytsia region, Vadym formed the first volunteer circle of friends and Astarta colleagues.

He recalls that Vasyl Shmatkivsky, a colleague and driver from one of Astarta's regional agricultural companies, was one of the first to volunteer to travel with him to the hot cities and villages of the Kyiv region. "We traveled thousands of dangerous roads with him: always smiling and reliable, I sincerely thank him for his courage and help," Vadym recalls. Vadym spent the first days after the invasion organizing fundraisers - money, food, clothes. He was in constant motion, on the road, with little to no sleep.

In turn, on the first day of the invasion, Yevhen and Vasyl went to the Irpin City Council after an emergency meeting at the university. At that time, other activists had already gathered there, up to a hundred people. It was decided to create a volunteer formation of the Irpin territorial community. Like others, teachers wrote applications and joined the municipal guard. The university had walkie-talkies on certain frequencies in case there was no communication - they were distributed and people were taught how to use them.

The work in the city began in the format of patrolling - at that time, the DRGs were already working. "In fact, all unstable social elements were involved in these groups - alcoholics, drug addicts. They came out either to loot or to pass information to the enemy. This is the level of saboteurs. This probably helped Ukraine in the first stages of this clumsy so-called operation," Vasyl recalls.
The teachers' area of responsibility was the university campus - they patrolled the territory and identified suspicious persons, along with organizing the work of the university commandant's office and providing for those who had taken shelter. On the morning of February 24, there were already about 700 people there, including about 100 children. Among them were eight infants.

Vasyl Chmeliuk, Head of Partnership Projects at Common Help UA, Head of Internal Security at Astarta

«It was such a huge responsibility, so we immediately made a decision at the level of the university management to create a commandant's office. We started organizing meals, creating sanitary zones, and keeping track of medicines. Because there were elderly people and people with chronic diseases. It was done in a rather haphazard manner, no one thought that people would stay in the shelters for a very long time».

In fact, a humanitarian hub was organized on the territory of the university, which received not only students but also all residents of the city.

The university staff agreed not to bring weapons to the territory of the educational institution. "We assumed that the enemy would otherwise think that the university could be shot at. But our diplomatic plan did not work - the building was bombed anyway," says Yevhen.

The teachers faced a shortage of food and medicine for people in the shelters. The supplies were only enough for a few days, so the activists started looking for food at their colleagues' private properties. Yevhen was engaged in snail breeding and had about 300 kg of frozen snail fillets in his freezer at home. The problem was that Yevhen's house was located on the outskirts of Irpin near Vorzel, where fighting was already taking place. The teachers tried to get there for two days - Vasyl recalls that the guys at the checkpoints did not let them in at first and called them crazy. However, people needed to be fed, so his comrades managed to get home.

However, they soon ran out of snails. That's when Vasyl remembered Vadym Skrypnyk, who was involved in charity and volunteering. Vasyl had known Vadym for a long time and had supported a number of humanitarian and educational projects implemented by Astarta. He knew that the activist was capable of reaching places where no one else would want to go. "There was no food - the supplies were gone, and all the shops in Irpin were either closed or looted. Then I called Vadym, and the next day he brought us a bead, fully loaded with potatoes, canned food, herring, and lard," the teacher says.

Vasyl admits that they did not have time to eat all the food because they left early. However, the food helped those who stayed at the university: about 30 people did not want to evacuate and stayed through the occupation eating the food they had.
How they prepared to leave

At first, there was no question of evacuation. For some time, the university's top management believed that this issue should be coordinated and resolved at the official level. Yevhen had the same opinion.

Yevhen Kotukh,

Volunteer, entrepreneur, associate professor at the State Tax University

«I had certain illusions about the war that are inherent in a civilized person who knows about the Geneva Conventions and other international norms. So the first question was not evacuation, but the situation when the Russian military would come to the university. The institution appointed negotiators and hoped that they would be able to negotiate and prove that the university was a civilian facility where there were no weapons, only teachers and students. It turned out to be a nonsense».

Already on February 28, it became known that Bucha, Vorzel, Mykhailivska-Rubezhivka, in fact, the entire suburban area of Irpin and all the surrounding villages had been seized. The events were happening very quickly. We realized that we had to evacuate people. After Yevhen's car was hit, everyone was worried that eventually, it might become impossible to leave simply because the institution would not have transportation.

In early March, the teachers began to actively evacuate their students. "We drove people to the Irpin railroad. Among us was a comrade Oleksiy Mikhailov. He had a cargo bead. We accommodated students, elderly people, and others and brought them to the station. This lasted for two days, and then the railroad was blown up and evacuation trains stopped running. Oleksiy helped us a lot, and we are sincerely grateful. Now he is defending his homeland in the Armed Forces of Ukraine," Vasyl says.

The famous bridge in Romanivka was destroyed in the early days. There were three other exits from Irpin, two of which were no longer in operation. The exit to the Warsaw highway was impossible because that part was controlled by Russian troops. It was there that there was a mass shooting of people trying to leave Hostomel. Another exit from Irpin through Dmytrivka was also occupied. There was one last corridor through Stoyanka, which was controlled by the Ukrainian military.

When the military reported that the situation was quite tense and that the enemy could be in Irpin in a day or two, the staff of the institution began to prepare for a large evacuation. "We had two university buses with 40-50 seats each and realized that we had to try to use them. At the same time, after the railroad was blown up, we continued to take people to the destroyed Romanivskyi Bridge and ferry them to the other side, where volunteers would take them to Kyiv," Vasyl says.

It was about a kilometer and a half from the central bomb shelter to the location of the buses, but this area was on the outskirts of Irpin, where the fighting was going on. When the teachers managed to get to the buses, it turned out that the fuel tanks were empty. In addition, the activists were in for another surprise. "When I ran into the middle of the bus, I saw a very demotivating picture: the entire vehicle was filled with books as if it were a warehouse. Before the war, there was a task to transport a library from a branch, and these buses were used for this purpose," says Yevhen. "We had to unload the buses. At that time, artillery shelling from Vorzel began. "That was the first time in my life I saw fighter jets so close. I had never seen anything like that even at parades," Vasyl recalls.

"We had to get fuel for the buses, but the only diesel left was in the university's generators. It was necessary to drain the fuel into some kind of container and then deliver it to the transport. First of all, the teachers were looking for a suitable container - large enough to carry the drained fuel at least as far as Fastiv.

"Yevhen had a hundred-gallon barrel of water at home, and he filled it up because he was afraid there would be no water supply. Let me remind you that his house is on the outskirts of Irpin, and he lives on the 16th floor. The windows overlook Vorzel, which is already occupied, and the artillery was working almost constantly. So we have a barrel on the 16th floor filled with a hundred liters of water. It was a puzzle that took us a long time to solve, until we got to that barrel, drained the water, lowered the container from the 16th floor, loaded it into the truck, and delivered it to the generators," Vasyl says.

When the volunteers were refueling the buses, the shelling started with artillery and mortars. It was very difficult to refuel the bus because the neck of the bus tank was slightly recessed inward, so a regular watering can be not enough. Moreover, the fuel was not in canisters but in a large barrel. "It was quite a challenge when mines were exploding around you and you were getting hit by the dirt," says Yevhen. They managed to refuel only one bus, and the other got very little fuel - only 10 liters.

On March 4, the university made its first attempt at a major evacuation. Before that, the professors identified a group of 70 people and taught them how to act in different circumstances. However, the attempt failed.

"As soon as we started boarding, my friend called me and said: hide quickly, so that no one is on the streets, there will be a massive shelling of Irpin. As soon as we got to the shelter, we felt the first hits on the university. The enemy started to cover the entire neighborhood with carpet mines from Vorzel, it lasted about two hours. We had six or seven hits on the university premises. There was a fire, which we localized on our own - we remembered the standards and rolled out our sleeves," Vasyl recalls. "When it was almost out, firefighters came and helped. Later they were awarded orders for this. "When we read the news about it, we laughed and asked, 'What about us?

After the shelling, the university was heavily damaged, cars were smashed, and some of them totaled. The university staff realized that they had to evacuate quickly under any circumstances, because there was no water or electricity, windows were broken, and a large number of people remained in the buildings. The teachers agreed that they would try to leave the next morning.

How the evacuation went

On the day of departure, the bus with 40-50 seats could accommodate about 80 people. "It was the maximum possible. I even stood at the entrance, took people's things and threw them away. There was a scream, but we allowed them to take only documents and essentials," Vasyl says. Yevhen did take some of his belongings to his minibus: it was a passenger van, but without seats, because it was used as a cargo van. Anyone who did not fit could sit on the things in the car. However, people had an instant instinct to stick together, so they all crammed into the bus, despite their comfort.

The improvised convoy of the bus, Vasyl and Yevhen's cars, and five or six other cars headed toward Fastiv and crossed the Zhytomyr highway. There was a huge traffic jam at the exit to the parking area because at that moment everyone realized that this was the last opportunity to leave. "We just drove over to the oncoming lane, honked our horn and blinked our lights to get through. We had to have priority because we were evacuating a large number of people," Vasyl recalls.

At about twelve o'clock, the bus broke free, and an hour and a half later, we received information that the checkpoint in Stoyanka had been attacked. "Our second bus was following us - the guys found two more canisters and refueled the bus. They just drove around Irpin and collected everyone they could along the way. They gathered about 40 more people on this way and left through Stoyanka at thirteen, and half an hour later the enemy was there with tanks. It was actually the last bus to leave the occupied Irpin," Vasyl says.

The next stage of the evacuation was to refuel the bus with 300 liters of fuel - the teachers' friends found the fuel and brought it to Fastiv. By the evening, the bus managed to reach Khmilnyk for the night, where the evacuees were met by volunteers who later joined the Common Help UA project. "We were very tired. We organized a dinner and rest in a kindergarten. The last thing I remember from that day was three small beds that I moved to fit on," Yevhen recalls.

Thus, ordinary teachers managed to evacuate more than 300 people from Irpin on their own. Among them were people who left on their own, but most of them were taken out in an organized manner by university staff.
What did you do after leaving Irpin?

After the evacuation from Irpin, Yevhen, Vasyl, and Vadym continued to help the war victims together with the Common Help UA humanitarian project team, rescuing and helping hundreds of thousands of military and internally displaced Ukrainians.

"When Vasyl left Irpin, I already had enough human resources to organize a system. For the first few weeks, we worked on our knees, and later we organized a headquarters on the basis of the regional newspaper. We began to work systematically, and one of the first partners of the Common Help UA project, the Omriana Kraina Charitable Foundation, helped us with this. We are sincerely grateful to its founder Oleksiy Tolkachev. "He is a man with a capital letter because he has united dozens of volunteer initiatives in his foundation," says Vadym.

The platform's activists started working with military units and territorial defense units, restoring the infrastructure of de-occupied cities, delivering humanitarian supplies and continuing to evacuate people from dangerous areas. And now they are continuing this work, because, as they say, it is too early to relax - we all have to keep a united defense front to speed up our Victory.

"Our help and faith in the military will soon help them to go on the offensive and drive the occupiers out of our holy and native Ukrainian land," Vadym adds, and hurries to answer another request from our defenders.