Every day for weeks, Pavlo and his two comrades return to Bakhmout. Without worrying about the intensity of the fighting or the Russian bombardments on this portion of the Donbass front, in Ukraine, they are looking for those of the last inhabitants who wish to leave the city. Each time, the incursion is perilous.
Pavlo is part of the White Angels, a police unit in Donetsk province dedicated to extracting civilians from the towns and villages closest to the front. That day, his mission is to find Aryna, 7 years old. The city’s police commander, Oleksandr Kolomiyetz, estimates that there are 5,000 to 6,000 people left in the battered city, including around 200 children, out of a population of 70,000 before the Russian invasion.
Pavlo recounts that, the day before, he conveyed from Bakhmout to the hospital in Sloviansk a woman, Galina Donilehenko, eight months pregnant, who was trapped in the fighting. It is now safe, if that exists in these cities of Donbass regularly targeted by Russian missiles. Galina begged Pavlo to return to Bakhmout to pick up her daughter, Aryna, from whom she has been separated since war engulfed Ukraine a year ago, the little girl living with her paternal grandparents and her ex-husband having fled the city towards the west of Ukraine.
Arrived in the indicated district, Pavlo goes in search of Aryna. He begins by searching a dark and damp cellar where some of the inhabitants of the district take refuge when the bombardments are very intense. That morning, the cellar is empty. The sound of cannon rumbles in the distance, but this suburb seems momentarily spared from the shelling of the artillery. A few old women go about their business between the buildings, dragging their shopping bags to a humanitarian aid distribution point. A man comes in grumbling. He reluctantly admits that he is Aryna’s grandfather.
Pavlo rushes into the apartment, a cramped one-bedroom apartment where Aryna lives with her grandparents and great-grandmother. They are huddled around a wood-burning stove, the outside temperature being around -5°C. “I have to take Aryna to her mother, to a safe place”, he said. He is greeted with a volley of profanity from the grandmother. “Aryna will not leave! We raise it. She is fine here. »
Pavlo patiently recounts why a little girl cannot stay alive under such bombardment and, moreover, why the law requires that she be brought to one of her parents. “Kill me instead!” », shouts the grandmother. “It’s going to end badly, this story!…”, predicts the grandfather, a man with a peaceful appearance, who suddenly wants to be threatening. “You’re drunk! throws Pavlo to the grandmother. You pretend you want to take care of a child, when not only are you keeping her here, on a battlefield, but you reek of vodka. » Aryna cries silently. She hugs three teddy bears and twists her fingers.
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