‘If you’re not afraid of the snipers, go’ In the Russian town of Azov, Meduza meets refugees who escaped besieged Mariupol
More than 4.6 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Most of these refugees have gone to Europe. But according to the Russian Defense Ministry, more than 500,000 Ukrainians were evacuated to Russia. This includes residents of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics,” as well as inhabitants of Mariupol — a port city that Russian troops have kept under siege since early March — and other settlements controlled by Kyiv. The Ukrainian authorities have accused Russia of carrying out forced evacuations and coercing Ukrainian refugees into applying for Russian passports. In a dispatch from Azov, a town in Russia’s Rostov region, Meduza talks to refugees from Mariupol about escaping the besieged city and their plans for the future.
Please note. This article was first published in Russian on April 5, 2022, and has been abridged for length and clarity.
‘The bus was half empty’
“The cozy Solnechnaya Hotel is located in the very heart of Azov, not far from the city’s main square and the administration building,” reads the description of the hotel where authorities in Russia’s Rostov region have housed refugees from Ukraine. In reality, the hotel is a grey, four-story box made out of bricks, with a sign on the front that looks like it’s been there since Soviet times.
“The spirit of the USSR is in [the hotel’s] corridors,” reviews on the booking website confirm.
A volunteer helping arrange accommodations for the refugees told me over the phone that I’d have no problem getting inside the hotel. I go up the tiled steps and pull the door — it opens into a spacious hall (its beige walls have traces of dirt near the floor). There’s a uniformed policeman on duty, but he pays me no mind. I go up to him and, without waiting for his questions, explain why I came and ask him to let me through. “Do I look like a security guard?” he replies.
The policeman points me towards two women who appear to be guarding the staircase to the second floor. One of them turns out to be the hotel’s director. “It’s all through the [city] administration, there was an order. Journalists have already been here,” one of the women explains to me. In an attempt to find out more details, I ask to see a copy of the order — the woman goes silent.
I ask them what the city authorities are so afraid of. “[Journalists] were here already, then they wrote that we were practically drinking out of puddles,” they reply.
I call the volunteer and ask him to come down and help. After he arrives, the women soften a little. They’re worried I’ll film the conditions in the hotel — I assure them I won’t, explaining that it’s important for me to talk to people.
“Do you want to talk to her?” the hotel director asks the woman sitting next to her. She says no, so I ask for permission to talk to the other refugees and promise not to bother anyone who doesn’t want to talk. I finally get the go-ahead and set off down a long corridor.
There’s a bunch of things piled on chairs and on the floor near the landing: children’s t-shirts, clothes for teenagers and adults. Every once in a while women come out and sift through the mountain of clothes in search of what they need.
Some of them, I found out later, left Ukraine with nothing but their passports and cell phones. Others managed to bring cash, but it’s difficult to exchange Ukrainian currency in Azov, refugees at the hotel tell me.
I start knocking on doors, looking for people who are willing to talk to me. Behind one door there’s a startled hotel employee; I tell her I’m here to speak with the refugees and she immediately phones the director, who calms her down. I head back down the corridor and she calls out after me: “The weather is nice, everyone has gone out for a walk.”
Despite the sunny weather, there’s a lot of people in their rooms — but not everyone wants to talk. “What do you want to hear? How did we escape under shelling?” one woman asks me, refusing to answer my questions. She stands in the doorway for a few more seconds, looking me directly in the eyes; there are children playing in the room behind her. I walk away and continue to knock softly on one door after the other.
Suddenly, another hotel employee points me towards a room where “they’ll definitely talk to you.” I go over to the room, which looks as though it was specifically set up for an interview. There’s a small Russian flag by the mirror. The room’s occupant, a middle-aged woman, is wearing a t-shirt with a picture of a Ka-52 helicopter encircled by the words “Russian New Generation” (it turns out she got the t-shirt from the pile of clothes brought in by volunteers). The wallpaper on her phone is a golden, two-headed eagle — the Russian coat of arms.
Valentina Naumovich launches into her story willingly: “I can talk and talk, it’s very hard, [but] I want to say my piece.” She’s from Mariupol, but had been living in the nearby village of Orlivske. Valentina says they “lived under shelling all eight years.”
“I’ve wanted to say my piece for a very long time, because my heart hurts and it’s very hard…We were told [Russia is] the ‘aggressor country’ all the time. If you listen to our [Ukrainian] journalist Dmitry Gordon, then some camps have been set up here [and] they’ll do something with us in these camps. If I hadn’t ended up here, I would still have this in the back of my mind,” she says.
Valentina recalls how the steelworker monument at the entrance to the city was dressed in a vyshyvanka (a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt) and talks at length about the “oppression of the Russian-speaking population in Mariupol.” “The biggest hassle for me, it seems like such nonsense, is the language. The Ukrainian language, which we were practically forced [to speak]. I took Ukrainian courses, but I still didn’t get it. I wrote in Russian and the girls who knew [the language] translated into Ukrainian. For me it’s like English, I couldn’t understand it. But we still continued to work [together] these eight years.”
Valentina was the head of a local community organization called The Village Will Live. She says that its members were trying to “revitalize” their village, which was located along the line of contact in the Donbas. “Before the war there were 500 people in our village, now there’s 145 people. Before the war there were 300 households, now there’s 74 households. Ukrainian authorities, Russian authorities — at the time we didn’t even think about these things. We thought about how to help our people survive.”
At a certain point, Valentina’s tone changes suddenly, her voice gets quieter. “We lived in the village, we didn’t delve into politics, our goal was to survive. The shelling started on the twenty-fourth [of February]. War had started, in the fullest sense of the word, I can say that much. I don’t know, perhaps it’s called something different…But it was war. There was shelling and shooting, it was war,” she repeats.
“And you know, we were looking forward to this war,” Valentina continues, more confidently. “I told my relatives and fellow villagers: ‘Please, hide in safe places. Russia is coming here.’ This is a kind of war of liberation.”
Valentina says that when Orlivske was captured, she was taken away for questioning by combatants from the DNR (the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”): locals said that she had allegedly given the Ukrainian military a tip for a strike.
“They yanked me out of my house and took me away. They said ‘It’s for your safety. A shell just hit, and one of the local residents said that it was you who pointed them there.’ Well, in general, people were very angry. Very angry at each other. And they just hid me — the soldiers. I spent a whole day with them there. I’m very thankful: they gave me tea and fed me all sorts of canned food,” she recalls.
Nevertheless, Valentina says, she was thoroughly vetted (“all but a lie detector test”).“In general, I had to go through all these checks voluntarily or not, since there were such false accusations against me,” she explains. After that, she was put on an evacuation bus bound for Russia: “I was very surprised, there were even empty seats. People didn’t go. Now there are long lines; at every registration point there’s a very long line with several rows. But when we left the bus was half empty.”
According to Valentina, she came to Russia with her passport and a pair of mittens. Now, she’s been provided with everything she needs and “they even bought [her] a new phone.”
‘We need to start a new life here’
I knock on the door of the neighboring room and a man opens it. After I introduce myself, he opens the door wide to let me in. It looks as though a family with children has already settled in here. There’s a family photo on the wall, and children’s toys and clothes strewn across the bed.
Denis has three children — the youngest is four months old and the oldest is 12 years old. They came to Russia from the village of Borivske in the Luhansk region. The shelling of the Luhansk region — or rather, the shelling of areas controlled by Kyiv — began back in February. But on April 2, forces from the self-proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR) encircled Borivske. During the shelling, Denis’s oldest son was injured when a piece of shrapnel hit him in the back — but by all appearances he’s doing well now (he’s with his parents at the hotel). Denis doesn’t share any further details about his son’s injury.
Denis shows me a photo on his phone of a house damaged by shelling and a destroyed garage. “Kamaz trucks with mortars drove up [to the house] and started shelling right outside our windows. The fact that there were children there didn’t bother anyone,” he remembers. Denis doesn’t specify who opened fire.
At first, the family stayed in their home and had no desire to leave. But staying in Borivske with three children was too dangerous. Denis and his family walked to the nearest evacuation point (not a single passing car agreed to give his family a lift, he says) and boarded a bus to Russia.
Denis briefly mentions the “maternity capital” benefits his family is going to apply for in Russia. They’ve already decided not to return to Ukraine. The family is trying to obtain Russian citizenship. But Denis worries that once they’re Russian citizens, they will have to move out of the hotel, which will entail a lot of expenses. Denis’s wife comes into the room with the baby in her arms. She shares her worries about her family’s future as she rocks the baby: “I can’t go to work, where am I supposed to go?”
I knock on the next door and a man opens it, smiling: “I’m resting. My wife will be right with you.” Alina (name changed) and I go out into the hallway; one of her children is asleep in the hotel room. She says her family came from Mariupol. They have two children: one is under two years old, and the other is seven. She asks me not to photograph their faces.
“All that’s left of Mariupol is ruins, in any case, we need to start a new life here. Because when will it be rebuilt? There are no schools, no kindergartens,” she says.
“The fighting went on for 20 days. We left on the fifteenth [of March], all of this happened before the fifteenth,” Alina explains. “Our apartment overlooks the sea, and there are three, 12-story buildings right in front of us. A shell went straight through [them] right before my eyes. It hit one wall and flew out the other side, piercing right through the apartments. Our building was only saved by the fact that these houses were blocking it.”
“We crossed the border [in our neighbor’s car] on the sixteenth. We didn’t manage to pick up our car, because there was shelling. It was packed with all of our things, our money, just in case — so we could just hop in and leave. But we weren’t able to get to it. We left with one bag. We drove out [of the city] under shelling — and they fired after us,” Alina says.
Asked if she’s afraid to talk about everything that happened, Alina pauses and then replies:
“I’ll say this: many people are upset with Russia. Yes, for eight years, we were infringed upon, our language [was infringed upon]. But all of us were alive, we had houses, we had apartments, we had everything. We had a business, we had an apartment, a cottage by the sea. It was being renovated, it was already done, we had bought the curtains, the bathtub, the wallpaper, and the tiles. And then the neighbors, who got out, called and said: ‘You have nothing left there’.”
Alina elaborates on what she meant when she mentioned the suppression of the Russian language. “We stopped taking our kid to the theater and the movies, because he didn’t understand [Ukrainian]. Schooling is in Ukrainian. The teachers are all Russian speakers, but they were all required to speak Ukrainian. Any public services, anything in the service sector, stores, institutions — everyone is Russian-speaking, but they were all required to speak Ukrainian. You come in and say: ‘Don’t break your tongue, speak with me in Russia.’ And she says: ‘But I can’t, there’s a camera over there. They’ll snitch [on me] and then it’s goodbye.”
“That is, we weren’t happy with this, of course, we were resentful,” Alina says, in sum. “We wanted Russia to come, so that everything [would] get better, but not at the same price.”
Alina’s voice gets louder. She says she’s upset that Mariupol became a “battlefield,” while in western Ukraine “everything is fine” and people “live peacefully there.”
Alina doesn’t have any complaints about the living conditions at the hotel: in Mariupol, her family spent 20 days without water and heating.
“It was four degrees [Celsius, 39 degrees Fahrenheit] in the apartment, the children slept in their clothes. We couldn’t bathe them. Fortunately, we thought to fill the bathtub with water, we had to boil this water and drink it. But the people who didn’t think of this ahead of time…Other children got intestinal infections, because they got water from boiling snow. And there were no medicines or hospitals. Some survived and some didn’t. That’s why people are resentful.”
Not refugees, ‘millionaires’
The entire time I was going door to door, I was being watched. Some of the refugees were simply curious about what I was looking for, others urged the rest not to tell me their names or places of residence in Ukraine.
I accidentally find out that the hotel director was looking for “three or four strong guys” to do some volunteer work. “They’re getting ready, there’s a party tomorrow,” an elderly man who came down to smoke a cigarette tells me. He has a mug of coffee in his hand. I go with him to the smoking room, where I meet a few more men who also left Ukraine. I ask to interview them.
“Why should we talk, you won’t write anything anyway. I’ve talked so much, nobody writes about it. What is there to say? Both Russia and Ukraine were shelling, end of story. I don’t even want to remember,” one of the men tells me.
“When we were being evacuated, a Russian television channel [filmed it],” the man explains. “They were already talking about my wife over the phone: ‘Some refugee she is, with her lashes, manicure, pedicure, and cars.’ They’ve already badmouthed us, [saying] that we’re not refugees but ‘millionaires’.”
The man points to his car, which he managed to drive out of Mariupol, and lets me take photos of the marks left by shrapnel. He says that it came under sniper and Grad fire. He lets me take a video.
“I won’t tell you anything else. I sat it out in a basement and that’s it,” he says hurriedly. Their family received a warning before leaving the city: “If you’re not afraid of the snipers, go.”
The man hurries off, he says he has work to do. I hang back with the elderly man as he finishes his coffee.
“We have no communication with the locals [in Mariupol]. One message came through, [it said] that the building we lived in was damaged the most…I need to find work, how do you get settled without money? Back in the day, armies got together somewhere in the field. If you win, great, if you lose that’s that. It’s clear that there are victims among the [civilian] population. But this isn’t done on purpose — and how do you smoke them out?” the man trails off and stands there a little while longer with the cigarette butt still in his hand.