MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — With a sharp exclamation, the driver of the blue Mercedes minibus slams on the brakes, slowing the 21-passenger vehicle hurtling through the late-afternoon sun toward a military checkpoint sprawled across the road.
Salam Aldeen, 39, swings open the front door, yelling hello to the soldiers guarding the barricades, ignoring the machine gun poking out from beneath camouflage netting. The soldiers' fatigues look new, but their AK-47s are battered, and many are wearing sneakers, not combat boots.
"Dobryi den,’" he shouts, pointing at the 21 mothers and kids inside. "Ditey."
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That word, "children" in Ukrainian, is stickered on the van's hood, and Aldeen's practiced interactions with the guards puts them at ease. A young soldier boards, rifle slung across his back, his eyes roaming over the wide-eyed children and nervous mothers crammed inside. He quickly checks the passports of the handful of men aboard, ensuring they're not Ukrainians fleeing the war amid a mandate that men of fighting age remain.
"Do svidaniya," the soldier says to the women and children escaping Russia's deadly invasion, stepping off.
The convoy slews in an S-shape around the barricades on the main road from Mykolaiv to Odesa, children looking out at the concrete blocks sealed with expanding foam to keep the cold spring wind out. Straightening out, the blue van's driver pushes his foot to the floor, the speedometer creeping toward 60 mph along the mostly deserted two-lane road as it arrows between the fields Ukrainians farm to help feed Europe and large portions of Africa.
As the evening darkens, the van's interior lights cast a blue pallor over those inside: A grandmother cradling her grandson, a bandage on his face. A college student trying to maintain her composure after kissing her boyfriend goodbye, making phone call after phone call to those left behind. A mother struggling to keep two toddlers from crying, their father left behind.
Refugee from a different conflict turns attention to Ukraine
These refugees have chosen to leave their war-ravaged homeland and cross the border to Moldova. Some will stay there, hoping for a quick end to the war and a safe return home. Others are headed further west into the European Union, which is offering assistance and work permits to some Ukrainian refugees. More than 1,000 civilians have been killed by Russian attacks, the United Nations said.
Liliana, 24, a college student studying engineering, decided staying in Mykolaiv was no longer worth the risk. Her new passport is stiff and straight, her world limited to Ukraine and one trip to Russia as a child. Like many refugees, Liliana didn't want to give her full name, fearing Russians would target her family.
“I wanted to stay but it just wasn’t safe," she says. "I was sad yesterday when I decided to leave. But I got all my crying done then."
The tear streaks in her mascara tell a different story.
Like the 75 other refugees being extracted, Liliana's decision means she may never return home. All across Europe, refugees of past conflicts, including in Syria, have been forced to make new lives for themselves, learn new languages, find new jobs.
It's a world all too familiar for Aldeen, the founder of the international rescue nonprofit Team Humanity, which organized Sunday's extrication.
A veteran of refugee crises in Syria and Afghanistan, Aldeen himself is a refugee: Born in Moldova to an Iraqi father and Moldovan mother, his family fled to Denmark during the Moldovan civil war and the country's independence from the collapsing Soviet Union in the early 1990s. He was 9 then, and he remembers what it was like to lose everything.
That feeling still drives him, from the waters off Greece to the Kabul airport in Afghanistan. He had come home to Moldova shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine, hoping for a short break. Instead, he bought the blue van, rented others, hired drivers and began rounding up donations.
Though many nonprofits limit themselves to providing aid on the Ukrainian border, Aldeen and his team have made multiple risky dashes to Mykolaiv and Odesa, delivering Pampers and formula, antibiotics and drinking water. Each time, the convoys extract more and more women and children.
“The ones with cars have left on their own," Aldeen says in the dark. "That leaves the poor people.”
Checkpoints, baby wipes, canned goods
Sunday's convoy left Chisinau in the pre-dawn darkness after volunteers loaded four vans and set off into the night. A Ukrainian border guard permitted the convoy across just after dawn, handing back passports to the volunteers and two USA TODAY journalists before gratefully accepting a package of baby wipes. The guards are living at the checkpoint while their usual replacement shifts are off fighting.
Ten minutes later, the convoy begins encountering Ukrainian army checkpoints, erected to slow the movement of tanks and to help catch any Russian saboteurs targeting the electrical grid or other utilities. Ukraine used to depend heavily on Russia for natural gas and electricity, but the solar panels and slow-spinning wind turbines demonstrate its efforts toward energy independence.
By 9:30 am, the convoy reaches Odesa, where families are walking their dogs and women jog along the waterfront. Aldeen's team collects generators, medical supplies, wheelchairs and canned food from a cache established on a relief mission a few days prior. USA TODAY was permitted to observe and report on the operation after agreeing to withhold the specific location.
Alex Kobzev, 44, says the supplies will help Odesa weather Russian attacks. Although many stores remain open, border delays mean supply trucks can't refill shelves as fast as usual. The city's residents have taken down street signs to make navigation harder for Russian invaders, and welded star-shaped vehicle barriers from railroad tracks and strewn along major roads.
“We are ready. We expect that Russia will come. And we will fight," says Kobzev, who runs a nonprofit allied with Team Humanity. “We are supposed to be all brothers but we did not invite them here.“
Around the city, billboards echo that same message: "Russian soldiers and sailors go home."
Hitting the road again, the convoy winds its way east through more and roadblocks as it nears Mykolaiv, where the street signs have also disappeared and soldiers in bunkers guard approaches to the city.
After the supplies — including hot meals provided by World Central Kitchen, the nonprofit founded by renowned chef Jose Andres, and carried in insulated containers from Chisinau — are unloaded, the vans swing into a parking lot where women and children wait, tears in their eyes as they say goodbye to fathers and husbands and brothers.
Lollipops for kids, medical care for elderly
Aldeen tries to move with urgency — the last time they did this, Mykolaiv's air-raid sirens were sounding — but it's hard to get 75 moms and kids and their suitcases loaded efficiently. Still, after about 45 minutes the convoy finally heads west, passengers sitting in near silence as the buses begin navigating the checkpoints.
Some of the volunteers are wearing body armor, including the team's volunteer doctor. Aboard one bus, an elderly woman begins having an asthma attack, going from normal to audible wheezing in minutes. Her inhalers didn't help, and the woman's daughter produces a vial of medicine and some needles, forcing Dr. Alexandra Munteanu, 35, to decide whether to find her a hospital in Ukraine, or keep the convoy headed west to the safety of Moldova.
They've been driving for almost an hour, and the military curfew around Mykolaiv means the shuttles must be gone before dark. Munteanu, who grew up in Romania and lives in the United Kingdom, has no practice as a combat doctor — she's accustomed to fully stocked supply cabinets, sterile hospital rooms and a team of colleagues.
She tries to understand the woman's increasingly frantic Ukrainian and decide whether to run an IV into her while parked on the side of the road, a stationary target for Russian missiles. For the first time in her life, she's wearing body armor. The team didn't have enough for all the volunteers, so Aldeen gave his to Munteanu.
"Bloody hell," Munteanu texted a friend later. "I didn’t even have an ambulance, let alone monitors and airway equipment if s--- hits the fan. The lady was literally getting worse by the minute. So I gave her the IV. Within 10 minutes from the IV she was OK."
The convoy hits the road again. Aldeen alternates dozing against his girlfriend's shoulder and answering his ringing cellphone in the dark, effortlessly switching languages as he consults with prospective donors, friends who might be able to provide permits or truck rentals, and fellow humanitarians offering to help.
By 7 p.m., the convoy reaches the Ukrainian border, and guards come aboard to collect passports and ID cards. Team Humanity volunteers hand out the last of the food from World Central Kitchen, and then Aldeen passes around lollipops for the children as they wait.
European governments have relaxed travel restrictions for refugees, and the guards return with papers for the kids about 45 minutes later. Applause breaks out as the vans cross the Moldovan border. They still have a two-hour drive back to Chisinau, where some refugees will find shelter. Others, including Liliana,board a bus that will take them to Germany.
Aldeen plans for a return trip to Mykolaiv, which Russian fighter jets bombed Tuesday morning, destroying a building a mile from where the shuttles loaded the women and children.
“It’s a risk we are taking, yes, but it’s worth it," Aldeen says. "Who else will do this?"
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