Pale and grimy from living in a dank, dark basement for nearly a year, the teenager and his weeping mother emerged to the sound of pounding artillery and headed to a waiting armored police van that would whisk them to safety.
Russian forces were not far from their battered front-line town of Avdiivka in eastern Ukraine, where shells fall daily, ripping through buildings, smashing cars and leaving craters.
Dark, curly hair peeping out from beneath his hoodie, 15-year-old Oleksii Mazurin was one of the last youths still living there. After his evacuation Friday, another 13 remained, said police chief Roman Protsyk.
Before the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, about 25,000 people lived in Avdiivka. Despite the shelling, about 2,000 civilians remain, Protsyk said.
For months, authorities have been urging civilians in areas near the fighting to evacuate to safer parts of the country. But while many have heeded the call, others — including families with children — have steadfastly refused.
So it has fallen to police to try to persuade people to leave. A special unit known as the White Angels risk their lives to head into front-line villages and towns, knocking on doors and pleading with the few remaining residents to evacuate.
In early March, the government issued an order for the compulsory evacuation of families with children from combat areas. Under the order, children must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. But it currently applies only to Bakhmut, the hard-hit eastern city where fighting has raged for months.
“The compulsory evacuation order is unfortunately only in force in Bakhmut. In Avdiivka, this law is not adopted,” said White Angels policeman Gennadiy Yudin. “We’re driving around to all the families. We are warning them, we are informing them about the evacuation.”
In Bakhmut itself, the situation is so dangerous that civilian evacuations are exceptionally risky.
“I already think that for Bakhmut, it’s too late,” Protsyk said. “Here in our region, ... if such a decision would be made now, it would be safe.”
But without a compulsory evacuation order, the hands of the police are tied. All they can do is use their powers of persuasion.
For Oleksii’s mother, 37-year-old, Svitlana Mazurina, the decision to finally leave was tough.
“It’s hard when you’ve lived in this town from birth,” she said. “Now I’m leaving I don’t know to where, where no one needs me. I don’t know where or what to start with.”
Mazurina had been living in the building’s basement with her partner and Oleksii for nearly a year, fearing the bombs less than leaving for an unknown destination and an uncertain future. Her partner still won’t leave, saying he fears being drafted into the army.
“I agreed only because I feel sorry for the child,” Mazurina said. “I want him to live well.”
And living well is no longer possible in Avdiivka. Living at all is a game of chance.
Moments before the evacuation of the mother and son and just a few streets away, another apartment building was hit by an airstrike. The entire corner of the apartment block was gone, reduced to smoldering rubble as flames and black smoke billowed from the gaping hole the bomb left in the 15-story structure.
As Yudin and a fellow White Angels policeman surveilled the damage, the wail of incoming artillery pierced the air. They dived to the ground as the detonation reverberated through the shattered landscape of bombed-out buildings and splintered trees. As the sound died down, they picked themselves up and headed to Mazurina’s apartment building.
But not all attempts to evacuate civilians are successful. Protsyk, the police chief, described families hiding their children from authorities, or accusing police of trying to kidnap them.
In the nearby village of Netailove, so close to the front line that the sound of shooting sounded across the fields on the village outskirts, the police tried — and failed — to persuade a teenager’s family that it was time to go.
“Drop everything, I cannot imagine it,” said Natalya, wiping tears from her eyes. “I just want to die. I can’t live without a home.”
Her son, 14-year-old Maksim, said he wanted to stay, as did his father, Andreii. Natalya was in favor of evacuation but wouldn’t leave them. The family did not give their surname.
Again and again, the police tried to convince them: “What if a shell destroys your house? What if you are injured?”
Natalya replied: “It is better to die fast.”
A policeman countered, “But the child will live and live. A child’s life is important.”
The argument was to no avail. Maksim stood outside his home, his hoodie pulled over his head to ward off the morning cold.
He didn’t flinch at the sound of exploding artillery. No one did — the shelling has become the regular backdrop of their lives.
Vasilisa Stepanenko in Avdiivka contributed.