TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa-based Project DYNAMO continues to launch heroic rescue missions in war-torn Ukraine.
In the last few days alone, the nonprofit has evacuated more than 480 people stuck in the midst of the Russian invasion. Among them were pregnant women, children and babies. One of the people was medically evacuated.
A Project DYNAMO spokesperson says the missions were carried out in Russian-occupied territories like Mariupol and Kherson. The group used 52 different vehicles to support 33 precision tactical operations, allowing the evacuees to be transported to safe locations in Poland and Romania.
"The Project DYNAMO fleet had to traverse through a collective total of over 900 Russian military checkpoints – sometimes taking up to three nights to complete for each convoy - and more than 20 Ukrainian checkpoints from Zaporizhzhia to the Romanian border," the nonprofit wrote in an email. "The mass rescue operation spanned 4 days and nights to complete following an approximately 1,200-kilometer journey across the Ukraine war zone."
Those military checkpoints were the most dangerous and stressful part of their travels, according to founder Bryan Stern.
"If you're a military aged male, you're stripped down to your socks and they're looking for tattoos look for military affiliation and some other things," Stern said. "You can't wear a yellow shirt and blue jeans, or use a blue backpack, anything that could signal support for Ukraine."
Stern says once the buses cross over into Ukrainian-controlled territory, there's always an emotional release among the people being rescued.
"Whenever these buses cross from Russian occupied territory to Ukrainian territory, people always cry," Stern said. "On every bus people cry, and every bus people thank God and say this is a miracle."
Stern says these rescues are bittersweet for these Ukrainian civilians.
"Yes, they're leaving the Russians, and yes, they're safer than where they were, but now they're leaving their homes for a time unknown for a destination unknown," he added.
Project DYNAMO paints a dire picture of the situation back in Mariupol. The nonprofit says it has been largely reduced to rubble from continuous attacks by Russian forces.
"With Russian air bombardment, artillery, and indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including the targeting of hospitals, schools, and evacuation routes, Ukrainian officials fear that more than 21,000 civilians across the city may have been killed," Project DYNAMO wrote in an email.
Many survivors remain trapped without food, water, electricity or escape routes, according to the group. A Project DYNAMO spokesperson pointed out that Mariupol's fall gives Russia a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized in 2014.
"According to military experts, this was a key strategic and tactical goal of President Putin from the onset of the war," the spokesperson added.
Project DYNAMO gets its name from "Operation Dynamo," which was the codename used for the Dunkirk civilian evacuation effort during WWII. The modern DYNAMO effort is privately-run and funded by donations. It is operated by volunteers – many of whom have military backgrounds.
Founder Bryan Stern says as demand for rescues has increased, donations have slowed significantly. He urges people to support their important humanitarian work.
"It is very very very dangerous, and we need donations and we need help and we need it now. There are thousands of people that need this help, and make no mistake, they will die, maybe not all of them, but many of them for sure," Stern said.
You can click here to learn more about Project DYNAMO and ways to support the group.