Two Scottish gardeners have rescued three students – one Irish and two Nigerian – who were trapped in the wartorn city of Sumy in the north-east of Ukraine.
Along the way, the men were held at gunpoint by Russian soldiers – but were then rescued themselves by locals.
Joe McCarthy, 55, and Gary Taylor, 45, who run Ready2Rock landscaping in Falkirk, made their evacuation dash on Monday morning when they picked up seven people including four Ukrainians.
The seven included 19-year-old medical student Racheal Diyaolu from County Carlow, two Nigerian students, an elderly Ukrainian couple and a young mother and her son.
Speaking from the back of the car safely 150 miles west of Sumy, Diyaolu said she was “relieved” but had mixed emotions about leaving friends behind.
“My mother is very pleased but she is on edge and won’t be happy until I get home,” said Diyaolu.
“It’s a bittersweet feeling because it is just so disheartening that so many students are still trapped.”
The two Scottish men have become heroes at home after putting their own lives at risk by going to Sumy, which is just 25 miles from the Russian border and has been out of reach of any international rescue mission.
“We had guns pointed to our heads, a tank’s sniper pointed at us, our front tyres shot at and our van ransacked, but locals helped us and took us to a garage, got us new tyres and showed us a back road to Sumy,” McCarthy said on Monday.
“After a good night’s rest, we got everyone and left. To be honest, we had a miserable day yesterday getting to Sumy, but we are out now and 240km [150 miles] away.
“Our objective today was to get as far away as possible, stay overnight in a hotel and get to the border tomorrow.”
Their dangerous run came more than a week after all public transport out of Sumy was cancelled, leaving an estimated 1,500 to 1,700 foreign students stranded. More than 700 are Indian pupils, with an estimated 400 from Nigeria.
One student interviewed by Indian TV on Friday begged for immediate help, and confirmed they were running out of food and water. “Please take some immediate action or else we will die for sure,” she said.
The two Scottish men have become heroes at home because of the evident risks they have taken after they decided they could not sit idly by and watch the humanitarian crisis unfold on TV.
They had already completed two missions in Ukraine, including the rescue of a mother and her sick baby, when they got a request from a woman in Sumy.
McCarthy said the journey to Sumy, close to Russian-controlled territory, was “mission impossible” but “worth it”.
Diyaolu and her Nigerian friends, Roycee Iloielunachi and Anolajuwon Solarin, were planning to spend Monday night with the rest of the group overnight in a hotel in Kremenchuk, which is under Ukrainian control, before an early start for the border with Poland, Romania or Moldova.
The Scottish gardeners have been charting their journey on TikTok and Facebook live.
“I’m not going to lie, we could have just turned back yesterday when we met the Russians. But it was worth it – we have everyone with us now and bar any catastrophe we should be at the border in the morning,” said McCarthy.
Diyaolu’s sister Christiana in Carlow said she was “beyond grateful” that her sister was on the way to safety.
Despite their terrifying brush with the Russians, McCarthy and Taylor say they intend to go back to Ukraine – with more than a dozen requests outstanding.