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In a Ukraine ghost town, drivers and undertakers navigate war

A man looking around as a flame burns in the background
Maxim Chevchenko checks his surroundings after searching a home Saturday in Irpin, Ukraine.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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Maxim Chevchenko pulled his Camry to the side of the road, his eyes anxiously scanning for any sign of Russian soldiers on the edge of Irpin’s central park.

“I have to check on my friend,” he said.

Somewhere close by, the erratic drumbeat of artillery, rockets and bullets rang out. But Chevchenko calmly stepped out of the car and walked to a stretch of weeds.

Maxim Chevchenko talks to local residents in Irpin.
Maxim Chevchenko gets directions from local residents as he volunteers to evacuate people while Russian forces besiege the town of Irpin, Ukraine, Sunday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

There, resting on its back with arms open, was the body of a friend, Pasha Li, a 33-year-old Ukrainian actor turned reservist. Li appeared to have been shot dead days earlier by Russian forces as they advanced into this northwestern suburb of Kyiv. Chevchenko kneeled and looked at the face.

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“His mother thought maybe he was alive,” he said in a low voice, his usually smiling face stuck in a grimace. “I needed to check.”

Russia’s missile attack in western Ukraine on a military training facility near Poland brings the war closer to NATO territory.

Chevchenko sighed and looked back at the car: too small to fit the corpse. He would have to come back with something bigger. For now, Irpin’s dead would have to wait for the living.

A man kneels with a body nearby
Maxim Chevchenko pauses for a moment after finding his friend’s body Saturday in Irpin, Ukraine.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Such has been the sort of grim decisions facing Chevchenko, 32, and fewer than a dozen other volunteers since Russian forces began their advance toward Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv. More than two weeks later, the streets of this northwestern suburb are all but empty, most of the 62,000 residents having fled as its leafy streets turned into bloody battlegrounds.

At this point, only a few thousand remain, and Chevchenko and other volunteers have become caretakers, caregivers, drivers — and undertakers.

That means driving, lots of it: racing around Irpin’s almost deserted streets; looking down intersections and hoping no Russian patrol lurks in firing range; always wondering which road will be hit by the hail of ordnance flying through the sky.

Residents riding in the back of a darkened van
Residents are driven to a broken bridge Sunday as they evacuate the suburb of Irpin, Ukraine.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
People gathered outside a van
Olga Grigorieva and other Irpin residents prepare to evacuate Sunday in Ukraine.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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In the first days, the volunteers’ task was mainly loading up fleeing civilians they saw on the streets and ferrying them to the only available escape path: a severed bridge on Irpin’s southern edge. Others then helped the stricken residents traverse a treacherous jumble of planks and pallets placed across a river so they can be on their way to Kyiv.

Now, they come to houses to pick up holdouts finally ready to leave.

It has seemed an endless task, said Anatoly Papin, a 38-year-old, happy-faced volunteer who joked around with Chevchenko after dropping off a family at the edge of the bridge’s remains.

“I’ve moved 1,500 people in the past week,” he said, smiling, before driving off for another pickup.

By the weekend, Irpin had fully transformed from a community of elegant parks and birch forests into a ghost town by day and a blacked-out stage for vicious warfare at night. The volunteers have continued working, distributing supplies — cooking gas, food, hygiene products — to the last stragglers, who despite cuts in water, power and gas had still not made their way out.

A man leaning with an ear to a door
Maxim Chevchenko calls out for possible evacuees at a bomb shelter Sunday in Irpin, Ukraine.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Early in the day, Chevchenko passed a friend’s house, placing food and water for the trio of cats sitting outside the door and taking the keys for the Camry. He looked at his phone for an address, drove to the northwestern corner of town and knocked at the door of a house.

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“I’m here to evacuate you!” he shouted. He peered above the gate and shouted again. No answer.

“These people didn’t want to leave yesterday,” he said. “But there was too much bombing last night.”

He knocked once more, and an elderly woman in blue slippers and a long coat tottered out the gate, a floral bonnet over her silver hair. Natalia Dema, a pensioner in her 60s wearing a light-blue jacket and work boots, joined her. They weren’t leaving, they told Chevchenko.

“I’m staying because my mother is 98. She can’t travel. She isn’t able to go to Kyiv,” Dema said. She spoke with a crisp British accent, like a character in a period play. She explained that her mother was calm and in any case had experienced this before: She was 16 when World War II began.

“I’m afraid to stay. But I cannot leave my mother,” Dema said.

A man and a woman hugging in a doorway
Maxim Chevchenko gets a hug after delivering cooking gas to Natalia Nikolovna in Irpin, Ukraine, on Saturday.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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A series of ominous bangs sounded in the distance.

“This was a resort town. This is all something awful, I must say,” Dema said. “But what’s to be done? Nothing.”

At the nearby Sinergia-2 housing compound, not even three blocks from a Russian position in a neighboring complex, another volunteer, Dmitri Drozd, was trying to persuade residents to leave. A lithe man in black hipster jeans, a goatee and a tattoo of an owl on his right hand, he stood before a group of 10 people in the compound’s courtyard.

“It’s going to get worse. The Ukrainian army will have to bomb here. You have to leave,” he said, getting more impatient with every question.

Volodymyr Shklyaruk, 31, and wife Ilona, 32, remained unconvinced. For the last week, the fighting had repeatedly forced them to take their 14-month-old daughter Ana from their first-floor apartment down to the basement. Meanwhile, they were dealing with no electricity or heat and were forced to cook — and heat Ana’s bath water — on a small camping furnace in the building’s courtyard.

A woman reacts as she stands in front of a house burning after being shelled in the city of Irpin.

“It’s been like this for seven days. It’s not normal. But this is our home, and we will not leave,” Shklyaruk said, explaining that he was afraid of looters. “Maybe they ask you leave your flat and after that try to live there. Or maybe you come back when it ends and find there’s no more flat.”

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Drozd drove back to the bridge with only one resident in his car.

By the early afternoon, Chevchenko, who has lived in Irpin since he was a young child, was en route to bring a gas canister to the apartment of another elderly couple. Next up was another compound near the front line to deliver hygiene products. Greeting him were about 20 residents sitting on the sidewalk in a sort of impromptu picnic, passing around a bowl of salad, a pot of meat and onions and a bucket with homemade pickled cabbage dumplings.

Chevchenko was about to leave when one of the men thrust a loaded plate into his hands and gave him a hunk of bread.

He ate quickly, smiling between mouthfuls to say, “It’s my first meal of the day,” then mopped up the sauce with a morsel of bread.

People gathered around steaming cookware
Residents gather at the edge of town, near the battle between Ukrainian and Russian forces.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
A body lies beside a crashed car in a field
A man’s body lies at a park Saturday in Irpin, Ukraine, dragged from a car that had crashed into trees.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

Chevchenko then took his leave and took a few more people to the bridge before heading to another friend’s apartment, thinking he would return early in the morning to collect Pasha’s body in a bigger vehicle.

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It didn’t happen.

At 1 a.m. a powerful barrage rang out, with some 150 artillery shells or rockets, Chevchenko wasn’t sure which, illuminating the night. One struck the sidewalk in front of his building, spraying shrapnel across the facade even as another landed on the roof of a neighboring building and started a fire. The Camry was smashed up.

A person running through a residential street
Maxim Chevchenko runs toward a home that caught fire Saturday in Irpin, Ukraine.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

It was late morning when he was able to borrow a large white van from another friend. By that time, evacuations had picked up once more, the first among them his neighbors in the building. He took them to the bridge and drove again before stopping a couple of blocks from an apartment complex called Green Yard that the Russians had commandeered as a foothold in Irpin.

Chevchenko walked down the street towards one of their checkpoints, his arms spread open so the Russian soldiers could see he posed no threat. He shouted that he was a volunteer seeking only to assist evacuees.

The soldiers searched him, took his phone away but gave him safe passage to bring residents out. As he left the neighborhood, his van packed with the living, other lingerers came out into the streets, asking him when he would return so they could finally leave this ghost town behind.

The body of his friend, he said, would have to wait one more day.

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