Ukrainian patrol officer shares story of evacuation of 42,000 people from Luhansk Oblast

3 June, 07:19 PM
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Luhansk Region Patrol Police Chief Viktor Levchenko is doing everything possible to evacuate as many children as possible from the combat zone (Photo:Viktor Levchenko/Facebook)

Luhansk Region Patrol Police Chief Viktor Levchenko is doing everything possible to evacuate as many children as possible from the combat zone (Photo:Viktor Levchenko/Facebook)

Viktor Levchenko, the head of the patrol police of Luhansk Oblast, has spoken to NV about what it was like to bring adults, children, and animals out of areas under shelling for three months in a row.

In the last three months, Levchenko says he has experienced more than in all his previous thirty-three years.

Since the beginning of the war, he has faced human grief almost daily as he has devoted all his time to evacuate civilians from the war zone. His team sometimes rescued 3,000-5,000 inhabitants of the region a day.

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By Feb. 24, about 280,000-300,000 people lived in the three largest towns of the unoccupied part of Luhansk Oblast – Lysychansk, Severodonetsk and Rubizhne. Many of them left the war zone on their own. Risking their lives, a specialized team led by Levchenko have evacuated 42,000 civilians from the region who would otherwise have remained there.

For this work, Levchenko received the Defender of the Fatherland Medal and the Order of Bohdan Khmelnytsky III degree – as well as a severe concussion: The group he was in recently came under fire. As a result, a French journalist was killed and police officers were wounded. Levchenko was hospitalized.

Viktor Levchenko near the shelled building, where 150 civilians, including children, are hiding from the shelling (Фото: Viktor Levchenko)
Viktor Levchenko near the shelled building, where 150 civilians, including children, are hiding from the shelling / Фото: Viktor Levchenko

A native of Mykolaiv who has worked in Luhansk Oblast for the past three years, Levchenko described to NV what he has seen with his own eyes.

Outbreak of war

If for the whole of Ukraine the war began on Feb. 24, 2022, the war has been going on in Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts since 2014. There is constant shelling by Russian mercenaries. Ukraine’s soldiers have been killed and wounded there, and the war there has lasted a long time.

About a week before the start of a large-scale invasion, the town of Schastia, namely its residential areas, came under very heavy shelling. An evacuation from the town was planned, but it failed.

Our entire unit was put on high alert. On Feb. 23, my deputy and I were on night duty, sitting in my office. This was in the town of Lysychansk.

At about 4.00 a.m., I opened YouTube while my deputy took a nap. And I saw the online broadcast by this "botox freak" (Russian dictator Vladimir Putin). I heard his rhetoric about the Nazis and something else from his senile delusion, and I immediately woke up my deputy, the commanders, and said: "This is war."

The "botox freak" had not finished speaking yet, but we had already raised the alarm, gathered all the personnel. And at about 5.00 a.m., when he finished his madness, very strong explosions and missile flights began. Everything exploded everywhere! We also heard distant battles, there were explosions in our town, the enemy used aircraft.

Fighting began in Luhansk Oblast, our troops were retreating as the enemy was firing heavily, breaking through and encircling. Our troops retreated to more advantageous positions where it was possible to hold back the enemy, because there were several times more Russians.

Evacuation

All functions of the patrol police became unnecessary at a stroke – traffic rules ceased to exist. We started from what was now most necessary for the residents. After all, to whom did we take the oath? To the Ukrainian people.

On the third or fourth day, the shops were not working properly, the cities were constantly shelled, people faced problems with food, medicine, and drinking water. We organized a humanitarian headquarters, where food, diapers and hygiene products were brought, we made a huge warehouse.

There was still mobile communication (in the region). People could call and share information. A patrol car was arriving, loading and delivering targeted humanitarian aid. Patrol officers got involved in this and delivered medicine and humanitarian aid, working closely with the military and civilian administration.

The broken glass of the car in which the evacuation group was heading to safety. A French journalist was killed in the shelling, and Viktor Levchenko suffered a severe concussion (Фото: Viktor Levchenko)
The broken glass of the car in which the evacuation group was heading to safety. A French journalist was killed in the shelling, and Viktor Levchenko suffered a severe concussion / Фото: Viktor Levchenko

Later people started leaving. Those who could leave in their own cars left. But there were still many who did not have their own cars. We took such people to the train and they left for Western Ukraine.

But then the "Rashists" (sic, Russian fascists) completely destroyed the railway tracks to Lysychansk and Rubizhne. In the second month, maybe a bit earlier, the railway connection was already completely destroyed. The evacuation to the border with Dnipropetrovsk Oblast began, and the train was already leaving from there.

Evacuation routes were constantly changing, and transport was also changing because it was failing quickly after the shelling. The military and civilian administration took buses from other regions. There was a critical shortage of drivers since this was a real war zone and many drivers left. That's why many patrol officers got behind a wheel, some of them didn't have the necessary categories, didn't know how to drive these buses – we studied on the go. We repaired the buses as much as we could, got on them and went to the most hellish sites in Luhansk Oblast and rescued people from there.

A lot of people left in the first month. We evacuated 3,000-5,000 people a day. Later there were fewer and fewer people, we took away 200-300 people a day. We traveled throughout Ukrainian-controlled Luhansk Oblast, which had not yet been captured by the "Rashists": Popasna, Hirska territorial community, Toshkivka, Orikhove, Novodruzhesk, Pryvillia, Rubizhne (where fighting was still underway at that time), and Severodonetsk.

Later, when the influx of people stopped, we started getting information through the locals and their relatives, because there was no mobile connection anymore, about people who needed to be evacuated. Then we organized an operation, it can't be called otherwise, planned the routes and left. We went to the shelters where people were hiding and sometimes persuaded them, told them about the situation that it was deadly dangerous to stay there. We brought food to those people who had refused to leave. That's all we could do to help them at that time. We took out people who wanted to evacuate, repeatedly coming under fire. And it was non-stop.

Children remain in war zone

My greatest pain is that children remain in the war zone. For me personally, the most important thing is to save our future. The adult can decide for himself what he wants and what he does not. But children haven't seen life yet, they cannot assess the risks. They don't deserve to see death, destruction and to be in constant danger.

We told the parents of minor children: "Get out of the shelter, you will see that everything is destroyed, you have nothing to eat." If we didn't bring them food, people would starve. We explain that the "Rashists" do not care about the population, they only care about capturing the territory in any way and at the same time destroying the maximum number of Ukrainians. This was shown by the example of Mariupol, Bucha and Irpin. That's why we worked very actively with the parents of minor children.

It was a great happiness for me and patrol officers to be able to save at least one child with his parents.

About a week ago we managed to take out 13 minor children at once. This is a sensation! These children will no longer fall victim to artillery shells or the "Rashists." They are now in Western Ukraine and Europe. And most importantly, the Russians will not steal these children as they do in Mariupol.

Unfortunately, some children still remain in Luhansk Oblast. For me, it's a lot even if one child remains there.

Our position is the following: it's worth taking a risk even for the sake of one life. This distinguishes us from the Russians, because people are just statistics for them. For us, every life is valuable.

We've recently gone to Bilohorivka. I think everyone already knows this village, it's called "Bilobaivka" and "Chornohorivka" (drawing analogies with Chornobaivka in Kherson Oblast). The Russians tried to force the Siversky Donets River there, a lot of their equipment was destroyed. They captured this village, and then our military drove them out.

We received information that there were still people who needed to be evacuated. Only two residents wanted to leave. We put them in the car and took them out. It's difficult to describe this village, it's completely destroyed, there is nothing there.

There was a case of evacuation of animals. We received information that there was a shelter, about 40 dogs and three of their owners, on the outskirts of Rubizhne, which had already been almost occupied at that time. Since there was heavy fighting there, no one brought food or dog food, and the fighting lasted more than a month. We don't have specialized transport for animals, but there are ordinary minibuses in which our special forces units travel. And we decided that we would go with them, somehow put dogs there, put people in and take them out.

We went there by two buses and one patrol car, which I was in. Our task was to cover up, because this is the outskirts of Rubizhne and there was a forest behind the house with the shelter, where an enemy sabotage and reconnaissance group was located. Me and my colleagues kept an eye on the exits from the forest, while others loaded these dogs into buses. They (the dogs) were very thin, it was scary to see that.

First, we took them to Lysychansk, and other people took the dogs from there to Zaporizhzhya. Later, their owner sent us a footage that they were fine, the dogs had already gained a little weight and felt great.

French journalist

We got armored vehicles for the evacuation only two weeks ago. The head of the military and civilian administration gave them to us since all roads in Luhansk Oblast are being shelled now, it's extremely dangerous to take people out in unarmored vehicles.

When a French journalist (Frédéric Leclerc-Imhoff, a reporter for French broadcast BFM TV, was killed on May 30), I was in the same car cab with him.

Prior to that, the regional military administration called me and told that French journalists and their translator would cover the evacuation. We met with them, I suggested: let us give you an interview here, and then, when we take people out, you will catch them on video here (in Bakhmut) since it is dangerous to go. They consulted with each other and still decided to go with us.

We all got into an armored car and left. We entered the town of Lysychansk and came under fire. A shell exploded right in front of us. All I remember is the road, then the ringing in my ears, the smoke in the cabin, the dust, the completely cracked and broken armored glass. I don't know what it was, the investigation will establish. The explosion was quite strong, I was disoriented for a while.

When I regained consciousness, I turned to the driver, a patrol officer: "How are you, brother?". In turn, he said his eyes were bleeding. I saw his face – it was completely bloodied. I started talking to him. I told him that we need to leave, because the shelling continues and if we stop at this moment, there will be almost no chance to survive. He did not give up the wheel, we left and were driving for five minutes. Then we found out that the fragment had pierced his helmet and caused very serious head injuries. But fortunately he survived, the helmet saved his life.

We informed via a walkie-talkie that there were serious injuries among us, we were trying to help the French journalist as much as we could, because we were all shell-shocked.

It's difficult to explain what it's like when an artillery shell explodes in front of you. When we arrived, we pulled out Frédéric. Police officers who were already on the scene checked his pulse and said he did not survive.

I have a severe contusion. Another patrol officer has shrapnel wounds to the head and a concussion. Another police officer has a concussion and minor shrapnel wounds to his legs.

Thoughts about war

The Russians aren't our brothers. And they have never been them. They have always tried to destroy us, to absorb our culture.

What they are doing now is just genocide. They're destroying our cities, they don't even think about where they are shooting, they just want to destroy everyone. Therefore, this is a war for the survival of the Ukrainian nation. This is not the liberation of the Donbas, as they say. Now the whole country is united and helping our Armed Forces. All united to resist this onslaught. So we will definitely win. Unfortunately, with very big losses, but we will win.

I'm not a big enough person to decide what will happen next. We will work as the leadership says. I will improve my health a little so that I can fully perform my duties. But I'm sure that the work will not change: I will help our citizens.

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