‘We’re police – it’s simply our job’: Ukraine’s ‘White Angels’ help people flee Russia’s advance

Evacuation teams in Donetsk region come under shelling in frontline towns and villages

Vasyl Pipa has spent all of his working life as a police officer in eastern Ukraine, and he has seen the job and the Donbas region change before his eyes.

He stayed when Moscow sent fighters and arms into Donbas in 2014 to seize territory and start a separatist war, even as several colleagues quit and left due to the danger and, for some in an area with deep ties to nearby Russia, divided loyalties.

For years the frontline remained almost frozen, cutting through a landscape of abandoned fields, ailing coal mines and slag heaps about halfway between Pipa’s hometown of Kurakhove and the main militia stronghold of Donetsk city about 40km to the east.

Pipa recalls performing his first emergency evacuation in 2018, when a Russian shell hit the small town of Krasnohorivka and broke the leg of a man in a fifth-floor apartment. His police team did not even have its own medical kit at the time, and had to use belts to stop the man’s bleeding.


More than two years into Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine, Pipa’s daily routine now involves racing into frontline villages with colleagues in an armoured van to bring out wounded residents, and those who simply refuse to leave their homes until the intensity of air strikes and the approach of the Russian army become unbearable.

“We learned everything on the job, by doing it,” Pipa says.

“Yesterday we evacuated a man from Krasnohorivka with a puncture wound to the chest, an open pneumothorax, his lungs were wheezing. We brought him here to hospital, which is a 45km drive. It was hard for him but he’s alive,” Pipa says in Pokrovsk, a small city in Donetsk region that is now a key staging post for Ukraine’s troops.

“A couple of days ago we went to Krasnohorivka three times: to take out a man who was trapped after a wall fell on him when his house was hit, then an 82-year-old man who was paralysed and the women who look after him, and then we went to collect some children. Two trips in an armoured pickup truck and one in a regular ambulance. And there was shelling and a drone flying above the village, and it wasn’t one of ours.”

The evacuation missions become riskier every day, as Russian troops close in on Krasnohorivka and pound the front line and nearby villages with shells, explosive drones and devastating air-launched “glide bombs” that weigh up to 1.5 tonnes.

Yet some residents are still reluctant to leave, despite the danger and destruction all around: in footage posted online on Saturday, Pipa and his boss, Artem Shus, find two locals injured by shrapnel as they drive into Krasnohorivka, and then are nearly hit by a shell as they load people and belongings into their armoured van.

These evacuation teams have been dubbed “White Angels”, but Pipa has no time for what he calls “branding” dreamt up by someone in a police PR department.

“We’re police, ordinary police, nothing more or less,” he says. “It’s simply our job. You’re a police officer, the state pays you to do this work, so do it. There are doctors, bakers, pharmacists, computer repair guys – all sorts of people – defending me in the army now. They are on the front line, and I also have my job to do as a policeman.”

From their headquarters in Kurakhove, Pipa and colleagues cover badly damaged frontline towns including Vuhledar and Velyka Novosilka, delivering food, water and other supplies and evacuating those who cannot leave under their own steam. They did the same in the devastated town of Marinka before it fell to Russia last December, and provided support to colleagues in nearby Avdiivka until Russia seized it in February.

“If people call and say they’re in trouble then we want to help. If the fire service and ambulance can’t get to them, then they can rely on the military and on us. And if there’s already fighting there, then the military will help,” Pipa says.

“There are some people we can’t reach because the fighting makes it too dangerous. And there are sometimes dead bodies lying there that we can’t remove as well. But we try to take everyone out, sooner or later. We won’t allow mass graves here.”

Pipa’s colleagues have been injured by explosions during evacuation runs, and many police officers in the area will not do such risky work.

“Not everyone in the service wants to do it and some call us mad. There are some officers who resigned in 2014, because of the unstable situation or they had friends on [militia-held] territory who went over to the other side. And then when things calmed down they somehow got a police job here again. So they quit when things got tough and then came back? I personally don’t trust them,” he says.

Some officers have also abandoned their posts, leaving colleagues in danger, since the full-scale invasion: “So there are also those who show cowardice in the police service,” Pipa says.

In a country where the police are often associated with graft and impunity, the commitment of the White Angels has come as a surprise to many.

“Local people and volunteers are really helping us to keep going. They help us fix our cars and raise money for supplies and things like bandages and tourniquets. They’re helping the police and that is telling – in many places people would just think of the police in connection with corruption.”

Footage of Pipa’s team in action shows they don’t mince their words or waste time when evacuating people who often emerge slowly from damaged homes lugging bags of belongings and reluctant pets; the longer they are stationary, the more likely they are to be spotted by a Russian drone and targeted by artillery.

He is critical of parents who keep children in the firing line by refusing to evacuate, but otherwise respects people’s right to stay at home and hope for the best.

“One woman hid herself and her kids from us for a year. The other day we found them and took them to safety after basically giving her an ultimatum: we’re going. There was already fighting 500m from her home and 50 Russians were dug in near her village,” he says.

“But this is our land ... and home is home. There are soldiers to protect people’s lives there, and the police are obliged to help,” he adds. “Everyone should do what they can. Everyone should protect their own place, every house, every life. These are our people.”

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