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‘Mom, we want to live’ The Ukrainian refugees forced to travel through Russia on their way to safety
On April 30, Russian state media reported that over a million refugees (many of whom were forcibly removed and brought to “filtration camps”) had entered Russia from Ukraine, including from the territory of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics.” Some have managed to continue on to Europe, but not without difficulty; getting out of Russia requires undergoing numerous invasive searches and interrogations, and some people have even been forced to appear in propaganda videos. Meduza spoke with several people from Mariupol and Rubizhne (a city in the Luhansk region) about the indignities they had to endure to get away from Russia twice.
Please note. This article was first published in Russian on April 22, 2022, and has been abridged for length and clarity.
I lived in an apartment in the city of Rubizhne with my two sons, five and 11 years old. I also have two daughters. One of them was living with her dad, and after the war began, she went to Vilnius. The second one stayed in Kyiv to live and work there.
My sons and I hid with our neighbors in the basement of our building. LNR [Luhansk People's Republic] troops took over a large apartment building nearby.
I used to work as a cashier in a shop. I never quite believed our city would see an all-out war. A week after February 24, you could hear far-away shelling from Rubizhne, and people started buying up all of the groceries. On March 7, I went to work until the food ran out.
We really wanted to evacuate, but starting from the initial days of the war, it was practically impossible — the part of the city where we lived was occupied by LNR troops.
There was one time when I asked the Chechens who had built their base right outside our building whether they could help us evacuate. They said they would get us out, but only if we paid them. “Where would we get money from? We’re poor Ukrainians,” I said. Then they suggested we try evacuating on our own.
When people from the Ukrainian Emergency Service tried to bring us water, [Russian troops] fired at their car. They didn’t even give us a chance to get water.
We had a house in the village of Nevske in the Luhansk region. On February 27, one of my friends from the village called. She said the house had been destroyed — the courtyard had been shelled, the windows were blown out, and they’d taken everything from inside. According to her, Russian soldiers had taken our neighbors’ car and a generator from their house, broken all the dishes, and taken all of the valuables with them. They’d also burned down a nearby farm, taken all of the people to a nearby village, and put them in a kindergarten. After that, they took them to Russia.
Nevske is completely occupied by Russian troops. There used to be a small farm there with cows and pigs; all of that’s been burned down and looted now. There are about twenty people left who can’t leave their land — some of the older people are physically unable.
On April 7, they started started transporting us to Russia. We didn’t know where we were going or whether we’d ever return to Ukraine. All of the people who agreed to be evacuated were used as actors for Russian propaganda. That’s how my sons and I ended up in a video showing LNR fighters taking us out of the city and talking about who they were liberating the locals. It was our payment for the evacuation [Editor’s note: this video is available on the Internet, but in our effort to preserve the anonymity of the people in this story, we’re not linking to it in this article].
My children and I passed the border crossing point into Russia on foot. They sent us to Likhaya railway station in the Rostov region. There were 45 people there with us. They made 10 copies of our documents, interrogated us, and spent a lot of time denigrating our government and our president. They said they were liberating us from Nazism and that they couldn’t stand the brutality with which the Ukrainian people were being treated. They said we were following in the footsteps of the Jews and that our government was made up of Nazis with Jewish roots. They promised to give us jobs and medical help, insulted our education, and said our schools didn’t teach us anything. They said the youngest generation in Ukraine needed to be saved from the Nazis.
We spent two days or so there, and then they told us we’d be going by train to the Leningrad region. They issued us a form that gave us permission to be on Russian or Belarusian territory for 90 days. After that, we waited for about 12 hours as they interrogated the men who they’d brought with us. From there, they put us and about 100 other people who’d come with us on a train headed for Tikhvin in the Leningrad region. According to the conductor, we were lucky because the previous train, which had 300 people, had been sent to Siberia.
They put us in an extra car attached to a train taking 650 Mariupol residents out of the Luhansk region. On the train, they gave us four meals a day. The kids were given cookies and even candy. There was plenty of water, which felt especially strange after being in a basement for four days without water. They had canned meat, canned fish, and meat pies.
When my daughter contacted me with a plan to get out of Russia, I latched onto it and started thinking about ways to get away from the group. I came up with a story about having relatives in St. Petersburg; I said they’d meet us and help us with our Russian documents.
When we got off the train, a police chief approached me and took me into an interrogation room. He asked where I was going in St. Petersburg, who I would see there, and why I had changed my decision. Then he interrogated my kids. He asked if I’m really their mother and if they like being in Russia. He took photos of all my documents and wrote down my phone number. When I said somebody had come to pick us up, the man took us into the waiting area and waited for the person who was supposed to pick us up to arrive. It was a guy from St. Petersburg. At his own risk, he’d agreed to meet us and take us to St. Petersburg to some acquaintances of his. The police asked him for the address where we’d be staying and then let us go.
The people who took us in in St. Petersburg were very kind and welcoming — friends of friends of my daughter who were following what was happening in Ukraine. They let us wash up, fed us, watched our clothes, and then set us up with a bed. For the first time in 27 days, our bed was warm and comfortable. The kids slept like little angels.
In the morning, a taxi picked us up and took us to Ivangorod [a city on the Estonian border]. On the way, we had to go through a checkpoint, where they checked all of our documents again and asked where we were going and why we were leaving Russia. They asked the kids again whether I was really their mother, whether they like Russia, and where we were headed. Then they took pictures of our documents and let us continue on. The driver took us to the Estonian border and then left. At the border crossing point, they checked our things, took our documents, and spent about an hour and a half doing something with them. Then they asked us again where we were going, why, and who we were going to see; I told them we were going to visit relatives and gave them the address of some friends. Then they interrogated the kids with the same questions as before. After that, they released us, returned our documents, and let us into Estonia.
On the Estonian side, in Narva, a local police officer met us. She helped us pass quickly through the border crossing and рудзув carry our things to the bus stop. From there, we went to the home of the people our daughter had spoken to, who had agreed to help us.
Now, it’s very hard to remember all of this. I can’t convey what we went through — how they buried people in our yard, how I miraculously escaped death myself several times. The missile sounds, the tanks outside our apartment, the constant shelling… And the voices of kids, for three weeks, saying, “Mom, I’m hungry; Mom, I’m thirsty; Mom, we want to live; Mom, when can we go home?”
I trained to be a sailor, went into the service, and saved up all my money for the apartment I recently bought. I finally finished renovating it on February 24. When all of this began, I realized all of my dreams for the apartment and for the rest of my life in general had collapsed, and that something else would take its place.
As soon as this all began, people were extremely scared. You could feel the anxiety in the city. They started destroying one of Mariupol’s districts almost immediately, but compared to some other cities, things were more or less fine here. The looting began practically right away. First people started buying up all the food, then they started stealing it.
We all hunkered down in the Prymorskyi district, where we lived. At first, we couldn’t even tell a war had begun. A week and a half passed. On March 2, they turned off telecommunications in Mariupol. There are several people who were last heard from on that day and who have been missing since. My girlfriend and I would go to hilly areas to try to get service and let our relatives know we were alive.
I picked up my girlfriend and brought her to my place, because her district was just a mess [from shelling]. They turned off the electricity and water almost immediately; thank goodness we lived on a private plot and there was a stream nearby. Some people in the center didn’t have water, and they died from the dehydration alone. We also managed to start our diesel generator to warm the house.
Around March 5, they turned off the gas, too. That was the worst part; when there was gas, we could at least maintain some semblance of a life. After that, though, we started making fires, going out to collect wood — it was like the stone age. We’d get up in the morning and heat up some water to wash up with and drink tea. One time, we rode with our neighbors to a store in the city where they were giving out water. We got there and saw 150 people in line. We went to see [my girlfriend’s] dad, who lived nearby. We met him outside of a store and then went to his house so he could give us his documents. As soon as we got away from the store, heavy shelling began. We heard a whistle, and then a shell hit my girlfriend’s father’s building and just tore it apart.
When we heard the whistle, we dropped to the ground. My girlfriend’s dad is former military, and he said to run away immediately. As soon as we ran away, a hailstorm of shrapnel hit the spot where we’d been standing. That was around March 10.
The next time we got phone service, I talked to a guy from my school who said his friends had escaped to Berdyansk, where there was service and power. The scariest thing in our situation was the lack of phone service and Internet. When you can’t get in touch with people, it's hard to shake the thought that everyone you know is dead.
We went home and told my parents about it. Dad was impatient to leave. We quickly packed our things, got in the car, and left while we still had the chance before the curfew. We drove in total darkness. There were bombs going off and tanks driving around us as we traveled. We were lucky we didn’t get hit. There was debris and corpses all around us. Trees had fallen into the road.
When we got to Berdyansk, some volunteers set us up in a kind of dormitory. After that, we had a choice — we could either go to Zaporizhzhia or go to Crimea. It wasn’t possible to stay in Berdyansk; it was a humanitarian disaster there, too. I know several people who set off in their cars at that time. They tried to make it to Zaporizhzhia, but there were about a hundred cars trying to get there.
I knew it would be really dangerous to go there. Someone could denote a mine, or they could start shelling, or they could blow up a bridge. We decided to go to Crimea and go from there to a third country. At that point, there was a problem with fuel in Berdyansk. Luckily, my girlfriend’s uncle was a volunteer and drove a humanitarian aid truck. He gave us some diesel to help us get to Crimea.
There’s a road that goes from Berdyansk to Melitopol. Before we reached it, we turned towards Chongas [a village in the Kherson region and a border crossing point between Ukraine and Crimea] and went to Crimea. There was a huge line at the border crossing, there was a huge line. We were waiting for a long time.
When we were there, it was a total bureaucratic snafu. They didn’t know what to do. You got the feeling that the government’s instructions were changing every second. Every official had different information. When it was our turn to cross the border, they spent a long time interrogating us. They spoke with me for about 20 minutes, then took my phone and went off somewhere. Eventually, they let us through; for some reason, they didn’t check my girlfriend’s phone. They didn’t check me for tattoos, either, but they checked a lot of my friends. It was also notable how at every checkpoint on the way to Chongar, there were guys who looked 16-17 years old — literally children. Sometimes they’d be older. They all tried to squeeze something out of you in the exact same way. You sit in your car and some kid questions you about your documents. His helmet is too big for his head. You can see how scared he is. I don’t understand how it works over there, or who they send here.
At first, they sent us to some school in Dzhankoi, but later that same day day, they changed their minds and sent us to Alushta. Initially, they wanted to set up a temporary shelter there, but after a few days, they changed their minds again. That whole time, we were waiting in an old health resort. They gave us migration cards, which gave us permission to live there, move freely, and stay wherever we wanted to 90 days. By the end of the period, we would have to get registered somewhere, find someone to live with. My girlfriend and I went to stay with some friends in Krasnodar, and our parents stayed with their friends in Crimea.
We got a little delayed because we didn’t know where to go next. We stayed there for two weeks, then we got an apartment in Krasnodar. Eventually, we left the country for Estonia. We wanted to go to Georgia, but it turned out to be much easier to go to Estonia. On the Russian side of the Estonian border, they were a lot stricter. There were people from serious government agencies [likely from the FSB’s border service]. There were a lot of people in civilian clothing, but people in uniform would walk up to them and ask what to do.
They were really rough when they searched me there. Apparently I was acting suspicious somehow. The oldest, most senior employee in civilian clothing called me into his office, and he spent about an hour and a half questioning me about everything. We talked about every picture on my phone and every message in Telegram. But I responded confidently and didn’t hide anything. It went fine, and then I moved on.
They treat women a little bit more gently. The bus driver even warned us that Ukrainian men had better go in [to the border crossing checkpoint] first because it would take them longer to search us.
We didn’t know what to do next. There was just nowhere to go after we arrived. We hoped to find someone in the train station, but there was nobody there. We just went to a nearby McDonald’s, connected to the WiFi, started sorting through social media groups, and found some people and a place to stay for the first few nights. We got some help from some really nice volunteers who were originally from Kyiv themselves but had long lived in Tallinn. We spent several days in Estonia, then we found some tickets to Stockholm for eight dollars and decided to go there to try to get a residence permit.
Now I’m living in a hostel with my girlfriend and a friend. We took the train to a different city and are now looking for work. Since I remodeled my apartment myself, I know a little about how that works. I think I can earn some money that way at first. After the war ends, of course, I want to return to Ukraine. That’s where home is — that’s where everything is. All of our friends, family, acquaintances. I’ve heard that my apartment is already gone. My parents’ home is gone, too. My parents’ neighbors’ home was hit directly. Still, a lot of people want to go back to try to rebuild the ruins however we can.
On March 14, shells started landing right outside my home. They were coming from Donetsk. By some miracle, I learned that it was possible to get out of Mariupol through a checkpoint that had been destroyed. I just happened to overhear some people talking about it in the street, someone offered to let us join their caravan. I proposed to my relatives that we try to escape the city ourselves rather than waiting to be evacuated. It was a good opportunity — and the only one we had at that point.
On the night of March 14, we didn’t sleep. There was constant shelling outside, and our building wouldn’t stop shaking. We lived next to Neptune [an indoor swimming pool in Mariupol that has since been destroyed by shelling]. We didn’t have cell service, water, or power. We had no clue what was happening in the world outside of the rumors we heard. On the morning of the 15th, we got up and decided to leave. We packed our things, hung white ribbons on the cars, and wrote “CHILDREN” on them. There was no longer any point in staying behind, so the whole family left together. We went past the Drama Theater — this was back when it was still standing.
We decided to drive along the sea. The city center was totally on fire. We went through the village of Moryakov [a district on the outskirts of Mariupol]. There was nobody there — just bombed-out tanks with Russian helmets hanging from their poles. We continued to Berdyansk and were traveling for quite a while. There were about 70 cars. At the checkpoint, they checked our things, searched us for [pro-Ukraine] tattoos, and checked our hands for calluses [to see whether they had held weapons]. They let us through quickly; the searches weren't too extreme at that point.
In Berdyansk, we rented a room for six days at the first hotel we came across. We got some sleep, took some time to process, washed our clothes, and prepared for our next steps. On the six day, we left the city to search for some gas so we could leave, because it wasn’t safe in Berdyansk. We wanted to go somewhere in Ukraine, so we started calling our friends as soon as we got phone service. They said traveling around was very dangerous, and that we shouldn’t go to Zaporizhzhia because there was shelling there. We decided to go to Crimea. We went up to some guys and asked them where we could go to wait things out, and they said Crimea was the only place. We found some gas; they sold it to us for 100 hryvnias ($3.30) per liter.
There were a lot of checkpoints on the way there. We got to Crimea, waited in the customs line for over a day, then registered our car and our pets. They checked us all thoroughly, especially the men. We went up to them and asked where we could apply to stay. They sent us to Dzhankoi and said School No. 8 was accepting refugees. It was 10 a.m. We left Dzhankoi and found the school, and they just took us in. They fed us and immediately gave us spots. We gathered our things and went to sleep. Early in the morning, a man came and said we needed to clear out of the school because students would be getting there soon, but that we could go to Yalta if we wanted. Beggars can’t be choosers, so we agreed.
At eight a.m., we left in our car for Yalta. In Yalta, they put us in the building of a long-closed resort called Smena. Everything there was old — there was a common bathroom with a common shower. We spent about two weeks there. We didn’t have anything, including money. They promised us financial help — 10,000 rubles ($140), an insurance policy, temporary shelter, and so on, though ultimately they didn’t provide any of that. But the volunteers in Crimea were welcoming — they helped us and brought us food and clothes.
On April 4, a bald guy who looked like he was Tatar came to see us. They said he was our case manager. He would come give us various announcements from the authorities or from his boss, and he said the Krasnodar region was our sponsor. If any of us had working cars, he said, they would provide us with gas. If anyone had broken cars, they would help with repairs. Anyone without a car would be transported, but they couldn’t say where; “We’ll take you wherever they tell us to,” he said.
We asked if it was possible for us to go to Europe. He said yes, but why did we want to leave? I told him I didn’t have anyone in Russia, but my sister lives in Europe. That same day, I wrote to a friend who lives in Europe and determined what I needed to do next. She sent me the contact information of some volunteers from Sweden. I got in touch with them and they explained how to get there. First, we’d have to get to Rostov, but we didn’t have a single kopeck — our cards didn’t work. So another volunteer ordered a bus to come pick us up, and at 8:30 p.m. on that same day, it came to get us.
We rode all night, and by the morning, we were in Rostov. Another bus came at 10, and we spent an hour loading our things. Then it took an hour and a half to get to Europe. On April 7, we crossed to border into Estonia. Once we got there, some volunteers got us a room in a hostel, and we spent the night there. The volunteers helped us get there. Now we’re working on our documents here and searching for work.
Overall, I was interrogated at checkpoints and border crossings four times. They asked if we know anyone from the Azov Battalion, whether we’re friends with or have connections to any soldiers, and whether I served in the military; they checked our tattoos, bruises, and calluses [to see whether we’d handled weapons], and snooped through our phones; we had no idea what they might find and take issue with. In Yalta, some really serious guys came and started questioning us — they wanted to know whether we’d seen any Azov fighters and what kind of weapons they had. I explained that I’m not a soldier and I don’t know much about weapons. There was one guy traveling with us who totally wiped his phone, deleting everything. When they asked why, he said he’d recently bought a new one. Then they found a message from 2018, so they held him for a long time, but eventually they let him go.
Everything in Mariupol is destroyed. There’s no food, no supplies, no power, and no working stores. There’s not even any water. We searched for it wherever we could; we drained some out of our radiator and we found some in old fire stations. That water was rusty, so we had to boil it two or three times. My wife and kid and I spent almost a month and a half in a basement; it was dangerous to go outside. You could get hit at any time — at one point, a fragmentation shell landed nearby. People were hit by the shrapnel, and there weren’t any doctors; people just had to help one another however they could. My friend got hit by a piece of shrapnel, and we just sewed his wound up with regular thread. The things that happened in that city were truly hell. Then my parents said we needed to get our child out of there, because it’s impossible to live in those kinds of conditions.
On March 27, I learned it was possible to get out of Mariupol though Novoazovsk [a border town under DNR control]. We gathered all of the things we’d managed to save and set off. All of the possible routes we could take were under Russian control. The city was surrounded on all sides, so there was no way to get to Ukraine. After a month without food, heat, or power, though, you’re happy to get any kind of help at all. Especially when you have a hungry 7-year-old.
I found someone who agreed to drive us as long as I gave him money for gas. I paid him 500 hryvnias (about $16.50), and he took us to Novoazovsk [under DNR control], where there was a refugee intake center. We spent about three hours trying to fill out documents with soldiers and police officers. Finally, they registered us and put us on a bus. After traveling for about seven hours, we stopped about 15 kilometers [9 miles] from the [Russian] border. There, they searched us again, took our fingerprints, took pictures of us, and searched all of their databases for us. They questioned me for about 40 minutes, asking about my work, my reasons for leaving, and whether I’d served in the army. I had a permit from the factory where I worked, so on that count, I was lucky.”
After that, we crossed the border. There was one more interrogation there; they checked our phones and said we’d be sent to Taganrog. Initially, they told us they would distribute people throughout Russia, and that if someone had relatives, they could go to where they lived. We learned later that they would send people from Taganrog to some other part of the country, and if you didn’t like it there, you’d end up on the street. A lot of people got upset, but you had no choice but to go where they said. They don’t exchange hryvnias for rubles in Russia, and when they do, the exchange rate is ridiculous.
They told us that they’d take us, for instance, to Cheboksary, where we could undergo a medical exam and get all of the documents we’d need, apply for jobs, and collect a one-time 10-thousand-ruble (about $143) payment. If you had a family of three, the 30 thousand rubles was enough to break off from the group and go somewhere else, and a lot of people did just that. We had our grandmother with us; she’s about 70 years old and she wanted to go back to Ukraine, but they sent her to Kazan.
I had a good friend in Moscow, so we reached out to her for help. She helped us buy tickets to Moscow from Rostov, where we'd gone from Taganrog by train. In Moscow, she gave us a place to stay, and we found volunteers who told us how to get to Europe through St. Petersburg. She also helped us buy tickets to Ivangorod.
When we got there, we had to undergo another search. Russian border guards looked through our phones and interrogated us. Since I have a registration card from Mariupol, they let us through without any major issues; they were stricter with people from western Ukraine. They let us through after they checked us against their databases. From Ivangorod, we went to Narva, then we went to Tallinn by train; for Ukrainians, train tickets [within Estonia] are free of charge.
As soon as we got there, we bought plane tickets and went to Norway. It was nighttime when we got there, and some volunteers helped us find a place to sleep. In the morning, I started going to police stations. I don’t know English, so I used an interpreter over the phone to help me communicate. They gave us a referral to a temporary boarding house. Next, they're going to divide us by community. We’re currently 30 kilometers [about 18 miles] from Oslo, and they’ve given us a room here and feed us four times a day.
You can't have war without fear, terror; it forces people to abandon their homes. If it weren’t for the war, I never would have left Mariupol. The problem for Mariupol’s left bank right now is that it's just cut off — all of the bridges have been blown up. It was impossible for us to escape in any other direction. Right now, I want to stay and live here; I don’t want to go back to Ukraine, and I don’t want to go back to my home — it's been burnt to the ground. A shell hit my building on March 18, and now it’s in ruins. There’s nothing to go back to.
Abridged translation by Sam Breazeale
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