NC veteran escapes Ukraine with help from group extracting people from global hotspots – The Virginian-Pilot

WASHINGTON — Creed Burleson hit up the Radisson Blu in Kyiv on Feb. 22 with big plans.

He would set up a new web design company in Ukraine over the next few days, stopping at the bank and submitting documents to establish the new company with local authorities.

Instead, Burleson, 62, an Army veteran from Marion, North Carolina, found himself in the hotel’s garage-turned-bunker two days later when Russian shelling began.

“There was no way out because the trains were so packed,” he told McClatchy.

The sounds of air raid sirens were constant as Burleson searched for an escape. At that time, in the early days of the war, the extent of Russia’s capabilities and its penetration of the capital was unclear. But Burleson didn’t believe time was on his side.

So he contacted Project Dynamo, an organization founded months earlier by three Florida men to help extract Americans from war zones where the US government would not enter.

Project Dynamo put him through a secret verification process to confirm his identity.

They told her to wait for a text message with a pick up location and prepare a single bag. He received the text with the contact details around March 2 with four hours’ notice, and was soon on a bus to an undisclosed location and told to turn off all of his electronics.

“All the safe zones we had to go through – some authorities came and looked at you. Some of them took our passports. Some of them searched our luggage. And you were just hoping it was Ukrainians, not Russians, because what if they got in? Burleson was called back by phone, now safely outside Ukraine. “I was really, really happy to get out of there,” he added.

Private Rescues Project Dynamo began in the living room of Bryan Stern, a Tampa, Florida resident and American veteran who was part of a small group of military first responders in New York City on September 11, 2001.

When the United States began to withdraw from Afghanistan 20 years later, in August last year, and images emerged of Afghans falling from an airborne American C-17 in their desperate effort to escape, Stern recalled the day in New York when men and women jumped to their deaths from towers.

“I called a few friends of mine and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do,'” Stern said in an interview over an encrypted video call from a location in southern Ukraine.

Two other Tampa residents help Stern with the business and legal side of the project.

“We didn’t have a very detailed plan – we had ideas, we had thoughts,” he said. “But we know enough to know that you have to get there first to understand the environment.”

Project Dynamo was successful in conducting private rescues of Americans in Afghanistan at the end of the war there.

After the US military left in September, under the full control of Taliban forces, Dynamo chartered a plane that transported more than 120 American citizens and green card holders to the United States. But some in the US government have expressed concern that the group is taking risks that other nonprofits would not.

One of their flights from Afghanistan in September had to be grounded in the United Arab Emirates en route to the United States, after Project Dynamo failed to share the manifesto with US authorities in advance.

One individual on the flight was ultimately denied entry into the United States.

A State Department official would not comment on Project Dynamo’s work, instead directing US citizens to the department’s website for help leaving Ukraine.

“We continue to focus on communicating with US citizens residing in Ukraine to urge them to leave immediately,” an official said. “U.S. citizens should not travel to Ukraine, and those in Ukraine should depart immediately using available commercial or private ground transportation if it is safe to do so.”

In January, as the group wrapped up its operations in Afghanistan, another crisis was brewing.

Stern arrived in kyiv over Valentine’s Day weekend at the encouragement of a donor to begin planning for the possibility of a Russian invasion, building infrastructure for rescues.

In an unfamiliar country, he had to find airfields, planes, buses and drivers, find escape routes and identify potential waypoints and refuges.

“Everyone we work with, I’ve personally met,” Stern said. “We take the time to drink the tea, eat the food, meet the family, smoke the hookah, smoke the cigars, drink the vodka – whatever it is – to make sure the people we talk to are the ones we’re supposed to talk about.

It became clear from the start of the war on February 24 that Dynamo’s mission in Ukraine would be very different from its operations in Afghanistan.

“In Afghanistan, all land borders have been closed. So all of our operations were done by air,” Stern said. “In Ukraine, it’s the negative photo. The first thing they did was shut down airspace, but all land borders are open.

A Project Dynamo spokesperson said the organization had evacuated more than 400 people from Ukraine so far, “with several rescue missions currently underway.”

Press for Project Dynamo is handled by Judge Public Relations, whose owner, James Judge, is running for Congress from Tampa as a Republican.

Unlike its mission in Afghanistan, Dynamo’s work in Ukraine is not limited to US citizens and residents.

Nationals of Ukraine, NATO countries and other asylum seekers are also eligible.

Deb, a Canadian volunteer with Project Dynamo who helps secure their database of case information and train caseworkers, said her work for the organization has been one of the most rewarding of all. his career.

“For me, it’s the direct connection to people in crisis – we have the messages of people asking for help, and some of those messages are very specific to the issues they’re in,” said Deb, who asked for his last name. not be published for security reasons.

“All the stories are heartbreaking,” she said. “The ones that hurt me the most are people in places like Mariupol where we literally have no way to get there safely to help people.”

The group has organized its rescue missions into several categories.

The Gemini and Aquarius missions aim to smuggle newly born surrogate babies out of Ukraine and send surrogate mothers to safer parts of the country where they can still give birth without compromising the child’s parental rights.

Ukraine is one of the only countries in Europe where surrogacy is allowed, tangling future families around the world in war.

Voyager missions focus on extracting Holocaust survivors – mostly Jewish Ukrainians – in hopes of reaching Israel.

Many of those people find themselves stuck in southern or eastern Ukraine, where the war has shifted since Russia was forced to withdraw from its assault on Kyiv in the north.

“Most of the people who wanted to leave in droves have left,” Stern said, “but there’s a whole bunch of people who are stuck east and south who are cut off. So instead of doing buses complete, we now do complete wagonloads.”

While Mariupol has been surrounded and decimated by the Russians, other southern and eastern territories remain contested and may suddenly become accessible to rescue attempts. The fluidity of the war could continue for some time, Stern said.

“When we were in Afghanistan, we were in the last 10 pages of a 400-page book,” he said. “Here we are in the fifth week of World War III. Who knows where this war is going.

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McClatchy investigative reporter Ben Wieder contributed to this report.

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