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Project Dynamo helped to extract Americans who were trapped near Kyiv

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The images of bodies strewn through the streets of Bucha have shocked the world. They show the terror people were living under when Russian forces took their neighborhoods in Ukraine. But they also show how difficult, almost impossible, really, it is to get into besieged areas to evacuate people. When we were in Ukraine, we followed the rescue of one couple stuck in a key suburb that fell under siege, like Bucha. This is their story.

It is 2 a.m. It's freezing. We're on the train platform waiting for a train out of Lviv and into Kyiv. And on that train, we'll meet up with the head of Project Dynamo. They're on an evacuation mission. And we're going to follow them.

When the train finally rolls in, at the far end in a sleeper car is where we meet up with Bryan Stern, an Army and Navy combat veteran. This is operation number what for you?

BRYAN STERN: We're setting up for our 19th mission.

FADEL: Stern was moved to start extracting people from conflict as he watched the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan, watched desperate Afghans clinging to the landing gear of C-17s taking off from Kabul. He was a 9/11 first responder.

STERN: And it struck a chord with me because the last time I saw people fall to their deaths was on 9/11 as they were falling on top of me.

FADEL: So Stern started Project Dynamo to evacuate people from Afghanistan. Some six months later, on the day Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Stern was in Kyiv getting people out.

And you're picking them up on the worst day of their lives. What are they telling you?

STERN: They're terrified. They're confused. Their entire livelihood is whittled down to a shopping bag.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE RINGING)

FADEL: On this day, he's planning for three extractions.

STERN: Hey. It's Bryan from Dynamo. How are you?

FADEL: He sits on a red leather banquette, making calls. First, he plans for a bus of people in Kyiv he'll get out across the Romanian border. Stern then turns to his riskiest mission, figuring out how to get Bob Platts (ph), a 62-year-old American veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division, out of the Kyiv suburb where he lives with his Ukrainian wife.

STERN: So there's this major battle going on in his neighborhood.

FADEL: Platts' wife was sick with COVID when the U.S. warned Americans to leave, so they stayed as Russia invaded. And as his wife recovered, the situation around them grew worse.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE BEEPING)

FADEL: From his Kyiv hotel, Stern calls Platts.

STERN: Hey, Bob. It's Bryan. How are you?

BOB PLATT: All right. What's going on?

STERN: OK. We have a little problem.

FADEL: On the outskirts of the city, not far from where Platts is, there are reports of Russian soldiers going door to door.

STERN: It's not sounding good, brother.

PLATT: OK.

FADEL: Stern eventually tells the veteran he needs him to drive out of the neighborhood at a specific time. Platts is scared.

STERN: So keep your [expletive] together. Keep everything charged and ready to go, OK? I'm going to try and make a play for you tomorrow. It's definitely getting worse, not better, all right? So our window to get you out is definitely shrinking.

PLATT: I got to think about that because they're killing people that are traveling alone and not under some kind of escort.

STERN: Yep. That's why I want to get there instead.

PLATT: Well, I mean, if you're not here, then we're not going.

STERN: OK.

PLATT: And that's a decision I'm going to have to make because I don't want to risk my family.

STERN: Yep. I hear you. I hear you.

PLATT: And I don't want you to take any unnecessary risks either.

STERN: Well, let me worry about that part, OK?

PLATT: Yeah. It's not worth any of us dying for, that's for sure.

FADEL: Stern heads upstairs in his Kyiv hotel to sit in a glass box for smokers after curfew. He smokes and thinks, smokes and thinks. His Ukrainian driver won't go. It's too dangerous. There are Russian checkpoints and constant artillery fire.

At what point do you say, this one's too risky? Do you ever see that?

PLATT: I don't know yet. I don't know. But I hear his voice. And he's a vet. And I'm a vet and, like, don't leave a man behind stuff, you know? I mean, you heard his voice.

FADEL: The next morning, Stern goes alone to get Platts. Hours go by, nothing from Stern but a concerning voice text.

STERN: Getting dicey here.

FADEL: And then that evening, a call.

STERN: The window closed, so...

FADEL: The window - so you couldn't get him?

STERN: I did not get him, no.

FADEL: Oh, Brian. I'm so sorry.

STERN: Yeah. I'm pretty sure that he'll be killed tonight.

FADEL: Russian artillery pounded the last Ukrainian checkpoint near Platts' neighborhood. Stern had to turn around - his first failed mission since he started doing extractions. But Platts survives the night. And so Stern tries again and again until we get a call on a recent afternoon.

STERN: OK. So Bob's right here. You guys can do introductions.

PLATT: How are you?

FADEL: Bob Platts is out with his wife. At 4 a.m., he got a text from Stern. Be ready to leave in 20 minutes, it said. This time, Platts and his wife take their chances without an escort, afraid of what might happen if they stay.

PLATT: Well, it was pretty scary. I mean, we had to take logging trails because we were surrounded by Russians.

FADEL: Under the cover of darkness, they drove out of their village to get to Stern.

PLATT: You know, the whole two or three weeks that we were stuck, artillery, mortar fire, that was falling all around us. We were in the middle of a 360-degree Russian, you know, probably battalion-plus.

FADEL: And were you just not leaving your home? Were you able to get out to get food, to get water?

PLATT: We had our own well on our property, so that helped. But the gas got cut off. The electricity got cut off. I mean, we were down to eating six potatoes a day.

FADEL: Did anybody attempt to leave and failed?

PLATT: There was a neighbor of ours that once the Russians had occupied the village Bohdanivka and we were cut off from the water supply, this guy tried to drive into the village to go to the community well. And they killed him.

FADEL: Oh.

PLATT: He was an unarmed civilian. And once they killed him, to this day, he's still sitting in his car.

FADEL: Oh.

PLATT: They won't let anybody recover his body.

FADEL: Was there any point that you thought, we're not going to make it?

PLATT: Every day.

FADEL: Do you think you'll be able to see it again, see your house, see your village?

PLATT: If I have to live to be 100, to spend every dollar of my retirement income to help rebuild the place, that's what we're going to do. I will go back one day.

FADEL: Platts is among the lucky ones. The scenes of the cities and towns that Ukrainian forces recently recaptured showed just how many people did not survive the Russian siege, people like Platts' neighbor. And right now, Ukrainians in cities like Mariupol are stuck with no one coming to rescue them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.