Maria Shtern, 21, stands in front of her car which she uses to deliver supplies to frontline towns in Ukraine, on Monday, April 25.
Day after day, Maria Shtern gets into her rusty Lada car and drives the rutted roads of eastern Ukraine.
Shtern, 21, has been volunteering for more than five years on the frontlines of Ukraine’s conflict with Russia – first with its proxies in the Donbas region, now with its military.
On this sunny spring Monday, in a uniform of camouflage cargo pants and hemp leaf bucket hat, she’s delivering food and medicine to homes to the village of Mykolaivka.
“Many people just do not understand that what was in 2014 in Slovyansk and what can happen now are two very different scenarios,” she told CNN.
Every day, Shtern tries to put herself out of a job, telling her patrons to evacuate.
“I am asking people a specific question: Are you ready to hear your children crying and saying, ‘Mom, I’m scared to die?’” she said.
As the Russian military closes in, and commercial supply lines stop, Shtern’s deliveries of food and medicine are the only lifeline for many people. The Russians have captured Izium, a nearby urban center, and their artillery is bombarding the town of Lyman, just a few miles down the road.
She weaves though the chicanes of checkpoints, past the husks of buildings destroyed in 2015, and alongside gardens blooming with tulips planted long before people even in this war-torn region could have imagined a full-scale war with Russia.
“There is the expression, ‘Who else but us?’ It all comes from the heart. When you realize that your own home could be taken away from you and you could be killed, or your friends and your family could be killed — you simply have no choice but to do it, she told CNN.”
In Mykolaivka, each resident is faced with the same decision every day: stay or go.
The torment is visible in a woman who approaches us and yells that she has no idea what will happen, but she cannot leave.
“My elderly grandmother, who is 80 and can hardly walk, I can’t leave her. Do you understand? It’s my family. Don’t you have families at home that you can’t leave behind? Not under any circumstances,” she tells CNN.
Natalia Maligon is among the residents who have had enough and have chosen to leave.
“My sister woke up this morning and said we had to leave,” she explains as her twin nieces run between the elder branches. “We didn’t want to leave until the last minute, but then something made her want to. So we had to.”
Olha Konovalova contributed reporting to this post.