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Left home to survive: how people escaped the occupation through Russian territory

The war forced thousands of Ukrainians to leave their hometowns temporarily occupied by Russian troops. Russians repeatedly disrupted humanitarian corridors or shelled evacuation convoys, therefore many people had to flee the occupation through the territory of Russia. It is not a violation of the law nor a crime, the Ministry for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories explains. Most return to Ukraine or go further to Europe. 

Although this route seems safer because people neither have to pass checkpoints in every city nor cross the front line, in reality, any word or gesture can cost them lives.

“I had hatred, but I could not show it because my life depended on my words”

Berdiansk – Russia – Bulgaria

Anton has been living in Bulgaria, where he arrived from Berdiansk, the Zaporizhzhia region, since the end of June. At that point, there was no money or work in the temporarily occupied city in addition to the shortage of food and medicine. Moreover, Anton was afraid to go outside, as a feeling of fear and lack of freedom weighed him down. Whenever he went to the store, he deleted photos on his phone and unsubscribed from Ukrainian Telegram channels. 

There were few options to leave the city, as evacuation convoys were shelled and people were filtered at checkpoints. Therefore, Anton decided to flee Berdiansk through the territory of Russia. Here is a story about his way out of the occupation and difficulties on the Russian border. 

“I lived in Berdiansk and never thought of leaving the city. When the full-scale invasion began, I planned to stay there. My father and I were already preparing for the winter, collecting firewood. In April, my mother and aunt left for Bulgaria because the city ran out of prescription medications. They evacuated in an escort convoy and were lucky to get out of Berdiansk. Since then, my mother would send me different options on how to leave.

At the end of June, there was an opportunity to go through Crimea to Russia, and then across Europe to Bulgaria. I hesitated to leave Berdiansk until the last moment. But every day as I left the house, I saw Russian flags hanging on the building of the prosecutor’s office, military men standing there, and vehicles constantly driving by.

Back in March, people still went to rallies, shouted “Berdiansk is Ukraine”, but then the city became empty, and almost turned into a ghost town.

I found a private transportation service .On July 29, I took a bus and passed the first nine checkpoints without any problems. In Canköy there was a pedestrian border crossing where everyone got a migration letter. There you had to write your personal information and a place where you were going. The driver told me to write “Sevastopol”, although my final destination was Warsaw. After that, I was taken to a crowd of people waiting for interrogation. I stood in line for four hours. During the interrogation, they checked my phone and asked meaningless questions. Then they told me to wait another 40 minutes while they checked my phone and documents.

I had to get on another bus in Sevastopol. Then I saw the Crimea for the first time – beautiful but covered with occupation symbols. The fields were filled with tanks up to the horizon.

From Sevastopol, we went to Russia. Near Moscow, the police entered the bus and checked documents and migration letters. Since my point of arrival was Sevastopol, not Moscow, they summoned me and two other men for interrogation. Everything in their room was in the symbols of “Z” and St. George’s ribbons – they looked like caricatures, but no, that was a reality.

A young guy started to interrogate and pressure me psychologically. He asked whether I had served and why I was not at war. Then asked if I had any foreign currency – I had a thousand hryvnias and 150 dollars. The guy told me to give him the dollars. Then the threats began: they said they would drop me off and send me to Sevastopol on foot. I tried to explain that I was going to Europe. They said: “We will take your head, put it in the doorway and open and close the door as much as we want.” 

I had a steady hatred for everyone, but I could not show any of it, because my life depended on my words.

Afterward, we went to the border with Latvia and waited for nine hours under the sun for passport control. I was worried they would not let me through because my passport was overdue. However, when we entered the territory of the European Union, I finally heaved a sigh of relief.

Queue of people leaving at the Russian border.
Photos from Anton`s personal archive

When I lived in Berdiansk, I could hear the shelling of Azovstal every evening. I saw the explosions near the port on June 2 with my own eyes because I lived near the seaside. And when I came to Bulgaria, it felt a bit awkward to live without explosions – I was so used to them. So at times, I would play audio and video recordings on my phone where I could hear them, just to get back to something familiar.”

“I did not feel fear when I lived there. There was only disgust and hatred”

Mariupol – Russia – Finland

At the beginning of the full-scale invasion, Pavlo and his family were sure that Mariupol was safe because the Azov regiment was stationed in the city. During the first days, he did not hear or see any explosions in his neighborhood. Pavlo decided to leave when the shelling began in the center of the city. But it was dangerous even outside of Mariupol.

Read more about Pavlo and his girlfriend, who left temporarily occupied territories to escape from forced mobilization and underwent several checks at Russia`s borders.

Damaged residential buildings in Mariupol.
Photos from Pavlo`s personal archive.

On March 17, I saw a shell hit a nine-story building next to my mother’s house. We got gasoline, and persuaded my neighbor, engaged in transportation, to leave together. On March 20-21, we fled Mariupol by a cargo bus. We stopped in Berdiansk for the night and found a private driver who took us to Melitopol, the Zaporizhzhia region.

We lived there with friends for a month. The city was already under occupation, and forced mobilisation began. We heard about men being killed after they refused to go and fight for the Russians. I had a Horlivka residence permit (Horlivka, the Donetsk region, has been under occupation since 2014 – ed.).

I understood that they would definitely want to mobilise me, saying I was from the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”.

We decided to go through Crimea to Russia and further to Europe. We were filtered and kept at the Chonhar (Crimea) checkpoint for about four hours. People were standing in line, and if someone took out a phone, it was immediately taken away. Then I was called for interrogation, which lasted 40 minutes. They looked through the phone and demanded to explain every contact in the phone book.

From Crimea, we went to Rostov by train, then to the city of Shakhty. We spent almost a month there: we lived with relatives and tried not to talk to them about the war because we understood that were under the influence of Russian propaganda. We did not go anywhere except to the store.

I did not feel fear when I lived there. There was only disgust and hatred. We did not meet or communicate with anyone because it could be dangerous. One evening we went for a walk and saw a house that looked as if it had been shelled: no roof, damaged windows.

There had been a fire, but no one was engaged in restoration; they only painted on top. It is Russia in my memories and impressions. 

From Shakhty we went to Moscow, then to the city of Chekhov, and then St. Petersburg, where we had a bus to Helsinki. At the Russian border, we were held for a long time while passing the control. My girlfriend was detained because she had posted a selfie in front of the Kremlin with the caption “Glory to Ukraine” on Instagram. Some kind of FSB officer tried to conduct explanatory work with her and asked whether she was engaged in propaganda but did not make her leave the bus. Even on the way out, they asked us to stay in Russia, saying there would be a better life here.

My mother, father, and brother still stayed in Mariupol. Mobile connection and internet there are terrible: I can send a message on Monday, and they will get it on Wednesday. My mother complains that the occupation authorities have no laws, only orders. For example, they want to demolish her house, but there is no law, she can refer to prevent this. Only decrees of the so-called “DPR”. 

Some Ukrainians have to take a perceived risk and escape Russian occupation through Russian territory. But many others were forcefully deported to Russia without any opportunity to leave at all. According to President Zelenskyy, over 1.6 million Ukrainians have been deported and resettled in depressed regions of Russia. “Many of them had their documents taken away, many of them went through terrible filtration camps where they were mocked and intimidated,” the President noted.

Translated by Oleksandra Sobol