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‘I felt like an inmate’ In their own words, Ukrainians describe waiting for days at the Russia-EU border
In the last two weeks, long lines have built up at the checkpoints on Russia’s borders with Estonia and Latvia. But most of the people waiting in them aren’t Russians fleeing mobilization; they're Ukrainians from Russian-occupied territories fleeing to the EU in the wake of Russia’s annexation of their homes. Russian border guards, however, seem to be doing everything they can to slow down the process, forcing the refugees to spend days waiting in freezing temperatures and sleeping in border checkpoint waiting rooms. Meduza asked two Ukrainians who made it into Estonia to recount their experiences.
Name changed at his request
We only had one exit [from the Ukrainian territories recently annexed by Russia] to Ukraine left — through [the city of] Vasylivka in the Zaporizhzhia region. It was closed in the run-up to September 23 for the pseudo-referendum. They stopped letting men between 18 and 35 out [of the region]. We thought they [the Russian authorities] would start [mobilizing] people for their side, so we decided to get out of there rather than waiting around. Some people decide to go to Crimea, but being in Russia is scary — there are more soldiers there than civilians.
On September 25, my wife and kid and I left the occupied territory [in the Zaporizhzhia region] for Crimea. From there, we went through St. Petersburg to Ivangorod, where we met some other refugees from Ukraine.
On the afternoon of September 30, we arrived at the border checkpoint. There were about 10 people [waiting in line]. We thought, “Cool, this won’t take long.” Then we realized that the Russians have the people in line make lists of everyone in the order they arrived — and that there were already 60 people on the list. After that, they take the list, enter the people into their database, and call them in [in order]. All of the 60 people on the list arrived on September 29, and only eight of them made it through that day. Flash forward to two days later — that’s when we arrived. Now they’ve started letting about 40 people through each day — about 6–8 people every four to six hours.
The only good thing is that the border guards let us into the checkpoint building [rather than making us wait outside]. One woman got angry: “What’s taking you so long? Can’t you go a little faster?” A border guard came out and said, “The first 25 people on the list can stay inside, and the rest — out.” But then she changed her mind and let us inside. Everyone slept on the floor, on benches, and on the windowsills. I say “slept," but it was more like resting.
Even if you have a small child, they won’t let you skip ahead in line. I stayed in line because someone had to be on duty — the situation at the border crossing point changes every 15 minutes — and my wife and kid went to a hotel, as did the other families.
Russians and Estonians are allowed through the border in five minutes. One [Russian], standing in line with us refugees, got angry: “What’s going on here? Am I supposed to wait in this line?” He started cursing. Then one of the border guards pointed at the line for Russians and said, “Calm down — that’s where all the decent people are standing.” We realized we were being treated like cattle. Plus, everyone who had to wait [in the border checkpoint] froze and caught colds. They’d either kick us out [of the building for no reason], or they’d said they had to clean the floor at four or six in the morning [and kick us out for that reason]. They might not let us back in for 30 minutes, and it was seven degrees [Celsius, or 45 degrees Fahrenheit] outside in the daytime. It was cold. And the stress and travel had already taken a toll. [...]
[One it was your turn], in the filtration zone, they would take your phone, say “Give me the PIN,” and take it and run it through a program. Who knows what they got into. Maybe they bugged the phones — anything’s possible. We didn’t see our phones for 15–30 minutes; for some people, it was several hours.
While they have your phone, you go in for questioning. They ask, “What’s going on with you? What was your life in Ukraine like before all this? Why are you going abroad? Why don’t you want to stay in Russia?” They ask about your parents, your sisters, your brothers. They asked, “We brought the Russian world to you, but you don’t like it, right?” Provocative questions like that. Some people were asked, “What do you think of our president?” Meaning Putin. They ultimately let us through.
On the Estonian side, we got through in 30 minutes. [...] Now we’re in Estonia. I’ve read in the news that they’re already conscripting men in Melitopol and Kherson. We don’t plan to go back to Ukraine until things settle down.
Traveled from Ukraine’s occupied Kherson region through Crimea and St. Petersburg to Ivangorod before crossing into Estonia
For a long time, [my family and I] couldn’t bring ourselves to leave — we all thought something would change. Everyone was telling me, “Get out of here! What are you staying here for?” At first we couldn't bring ourselves to, but the “referendum” was ultimately the turning point. [...]
[At the Russian border with Estonia,] we asked who was in line, and in response, they just added us to the list. Then we asked how many people were being let through, and they told us that only two people had gone through that day. There were a hundred people in line, and it was already after lunchtime. That’s when we realized how long we’d have to wait.
There were a lot of kids and pensioners. The only silver lining was that men and women over 60 were allowed to skip the line. But if people over 60 were traveling with children who were, for example, 40 years old, they would stay with the children, because nobody wants to get separated in a situation like that. Another problem was little kids — there were babies as young as three months [at the border].
I don’t know why this is the case, but [the Russian border checkpoint] doesn’t have a bathroom at all. There’s just not one on the territory. Maybe there’s one in the building — the workers probably need one — but for visitors, for “waiters” like us, there’s not one. I heard one woman ask an employee about it, and the employee responded, “We have wonderful composting toilets: go over to the pond [near the border checkpoint] and behind the bushes.” [...]
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There’s no water [in the border checkpoint] at all. We bought some in town after we drank all of what we’d brought with us. There were also volunteers that helped us — they brought water in plastic bottles as well as hot water. We brought food with us, but the volunteers also brought soup, cookies, pastries, and gingerbread.
The volunteers were just magical. Whatever happened, they’d help you out from A to Z, even at night. I’d never had to ask volunteers for help in my life, and I honestly didn’t know people could be like that.
At the border, you had to give them your phone — it was mandatory. They said that if it was locked, you had to unlock it or give them your password. Mine was unlocked. Then they asked me to leave the room. I’m not used to anybody, not even in my family, looking at my phone, because that’s my personal space. So that’s what struck me most of all, although the photographs they took and the fingerprinting also left an impression. I mean, I’m just a citizen of a different country, but I felt like I was some kind of inmate.
If they’d done the [document check] the standard way, it wouldn’t have taken more than a half hour, but instead, it took four or five hours, beginning when I entered the room. The rest of the time, you’re just sitting around and waiting. We were able to cross the Estonian border much faster.
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