The Ukrainian fishermen who smuggled babies while watched by Russian snipers

·4-min read
Ukraine fisherman - Paul Grover/The Telegraph
Ukraine fisherman - Paul Grover/The Telegraph

When a heavily pregnant woman on the brink of labour turned up on fisherman Oleksandr Dvorianets’ doorstep begging for help to get across a river to go to hospital, he knew he had to do something.

It was March 12, the Russians had occupied their village of Strakholissia just north of Kyiv and talk was rife of mass graves, rapes and summary executions – atrocities that would later turn out to be true. Everyone in the region was terrified.

For the 39-year-old, there were two options. He either said no to the woman and let her give birth on her own in the village where both she and her baby could die, or he could risk his own life by trying to ferry her to safety across a waterway watched by Russian snipers and drones. He chose the latter.

“Either way death was likely,” he told The Telegraph as he smoked a roll-up cigarette on the river bank by his boat’s mooring point.

“If we said no to them, then who would help? We had to.”

He and his fellow fishermen and women decided it was safest to cross the Dnipro River in broad daylight, so at least they could spot the drones and helicopters overhead. Although going at night would give him cover, they feared the hum of the boat’s motor would be more obvious when it was quiet.

It worked – and word soon spread around the Russian-occupied villages in the area that residents of a little-known fishing village were quietly offering to smuggle people to the Ukrainian-held left coast of the river in Rovzhi.

Ukraine fisherman - Paul Grover/The Telegraph
Ukraine fisherman - Paul Grover/The Telegraph

Before long, Mr Dvorianets and 13 other fishermen and women went from going out on the water to catch pike and catfish to running up to three evacuations a day.

Over the course of a month, they crammed more than 2,000 women, children, elderly and vulnerable, plus their belongings, which ranged from dogs to prams, into their small boats.

They also brought more than 70 tonnes of humanitarian aid back with them and distributed it to the occupied villages.

Each journey was a perilous undertaking almost worthy of a Hollywood film.

When they began making the journeys in mid-March, the river had frozen over and they had to crack the ice with shovels to move forward. Falling in or getting stuck would mean almost certain death.

It meant that only the fishermen, experts on the river, could attempt the routes. “I grew up near the water, I know every corner,” said Mr Dvorianets, who ran most of the evacuations.

Then there was the threat of being discovered by the Russians. “It’s a big open water so there is nowhere to hide,” he said.

They were shot at a few times, but fortunately suffered no casualties. After the first near miss they decided to find another route and zig zag across the water to obscure their tracks.

Ukraine fisherman - Paul Grover/The Telegraph
Ukraine fisherman - Paul Grover/The Telegraph

Each crossing took around 45 nerve-wracking minutes in good weather – longer in the rain.

And the stress didn’t stop once they were back on dry land.

“Everyday we thought the Russians would come for us, but they never did,” said another fisherman, Andrii Bushuiev, 52. “We were living in fear. We had no idea what was next because Russia tried to make this a humanitarian catastrophe.”

“Every crossing could have been our last,” admitted Olena Aliieva, 50. “It was scary. But when people came here with children asking for help, how could we say no?”

Their last crossing took place on April 10, shortly before Ukrainian troops liberated the region and forced the Russians into retreat.

Since then, the fishermen have returned to life as normal. They go out on the river each day to catch pike and catfish, and sell it to make a living. When The Telegraph visited, all their nets were prepared on the pontoon, ready for work the next day. It’s almost like the smuggling never happened.

When asked how it felt to have played a part in saving so many people, Ms Aliieva just shrugged. “It feels normal,” she said. “We saved our own.”