In early July, Ukrainian authorities urged residents of the temporarily occupied south to evacuate. They asked to travel to all available destinations, including the occupied Crimea. On July 30, President Zelensky asked residents of the Donetsk Oblast to evacuate.
Is it easy or even possible to do this? hromadske talked to those who left and those who couldn’t. To find out the details, see our article.
“It’s a hard decision to leave your hometown, but life is more important”
18-year-old Nastia wanted to move to the territory controlled by Ukraine from the beginning of the occupation of the Kherson Oblast. However, her parents and close relatives refused to leave. The girl was afraid to leave alone: she heard that the Russians were shooting cars with civilians. “My parents kept saying that no one needed me, that something bad would happen on the road, and “why to leave if there is no shooting here.” All the talk about leaving would come down to saying that I didn’t understand anything. But in recent weeks, the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine intensified, planes or missiles have been flying over our house, and it is dangerous to stay at home now,” says Nastia.
That’s why the girl decided to go to Zaporizhzhia on her own. Nastia doesn’t have her car, so she started looking for transport. Drivers usually charge from 4 to 5 000 hryvnias (between $100-140, ed.) but sometimes even more. Two months ago, Nastia was offered to leave for 8 thousand hryvnias, the girl did not have such amount of savings. Nastia’s friend found a driver for her who charges 3 thousand hryvnias. Now, the girl is waiting for him to gather the necessary number of people, and she will leave Kherson Oblast soon.
“There are two ways to leave at the moment: to Vasylivka (city in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, ed.) and Crimea. I didn’t even consider the second option, so I focused on the first one. It’s hard to decide to leave your hometown, but life is more important,” says Nastia.
“Oh, so you are a khokhol?” they took the documents and interrogated me for 4 hours
In early July, Deputy Prime Minister for the reintegration of temporarily occupied territories, Iryna Vereshchuk, called on residents of the south to evacuate so as not to endanger themselves and facilitate the work of the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Ms. Vereshchuk asked the Ukrainians not to delay the evacuation.
“But for some reason, Vereshchuk does not say how exactly people should do this because it is not so easy to leave the occupied territory. People often either don’t have the money for a carrier or their own car,” says volunteer Stefan.
He and his friend tried to leave Nova Kakhovka twice. However, they dropped the idea because the road to Kryvyi Rih was constantly under shelling.
“We were engaged in humanitarian aid and organized the delivery of medicines to the occupied territory, so the invaders began to consider our activities extremist. Later, I learned that representatives of the occupation authorities were already looking for me, so I decided to try to leave again,” says Stefan.
Stefan got out of Nova Kakhovka in April. He reached the border with the occupied Crimea in a small bus packed with women and children. Stefan passed the first filtering there: “Two hours of interrogations, but they tried to play good cops. They took my documents and tried to persuade me to cooperate with them because I was going to the occupied territory. They interrogated me about my attitude towards nationalists, the Ukrainian authorities, and the Azov Regiment. I cleaned my phone, but not as well as I thought. They found correspondence where a person addressed me as a volunteer. If they had had access to the Internet at the checkpoint at that moment, they would have found my Twitter account, where I expressed a pro-Ukrainian position, and I would not be talking to you now”.
The trip to the border with the occupied Crimea cost Stepan 1.5 thousand hryvnias, he crossed the border on foot and took a bus to Georgia. There are several routes from the occupied Crimea: getting to Poland costs $500, but the bus goes through Moscow, says Stefan; getting to Georgia costs $300, and you can also get to Moscow, Simferopol, and Turkey.
“The road through Russia was not the most pleasant, the next checkpoint was at the entrance to Georgia. When the Russians saw my documents there, they greeted me with the phrase, “Oh, so you are a khokhol?”. They took away my documents and interrogated me for 4 hours. They also forced me to sign a document stating that if the Russian side had any questions for me, they could detain me for a period from 3 hours to infinity. They let me go in the end,” says Stefan.
He says that it’s not only security issues that make it difficult to leave the territory but also a lack of money. In the fifth month of the war, it is difficult for people to get cash, and it is not cheap to leave through the occupied Crimea or get to the territory controlled by Ukraine. Today, getting to Zaporizhzhia from the occupied southern cities costs on average 5 thousand hryvnias, sometimes, drivers charge much more.
“I have friends who had to pay 20 thousand hryvnias each to leave. In addition, some carriers screw people: they ask to make advance payment and then disappear. Therefore, my team and I decided to collect donations for the free evacuation of residents of Nova Kakhovka and nearby villages. We have collected 300 thousand hryvnias and are now looking for transport. We found drivers who are ready to take people out, we are ready to pay for fuel, the only problem at the moment is to find cars,” Stefan says.
About 300 people have signed up for evacuation. A team of volunteers from Kherson, which Stefan joined, also takes people out of the city free of charge. Since March, they have received 23 thousand requests, and approximately 8-9 thousand people have been evacuated.
We could finally leave only on the fifth attempt
Artem left the Kherson Oblast with his wife and child in his own car on July 20. They traveled to the territory controlled by Ukraine for 6 days. It was their fifth attempt to leave. Four times they returned because of long queues — the Russians were making people waiting at checkpoints for weeks.
“That time, we were the 320th in the queue. We were lucky because my brother lives near Enerhodar, and we could go to him for the night. The queue is controlled by people who also leave, so everyone was just putting their names on one piece of paper, memorizing who is in front of them and who is behind them. During these days, 4 pensioners died in the queue, because it was very hot, and another woman gave birth in a car,” says Artem.
No more than 20-30 cars could pass through the checkpoint every day, but after the deaths in the queue, the occupiers began to let people pass more actively, says Artem: “From Sunday to Monday, we were the 130th in line, and the next day we were lucky enough to leave. On that day, they let more than 100 cars leave.”
The occupiers were searching the cars demanding to take out all the things and show the trunks, and checking information on laptops and phones. They didn’t let people with Luhansk and Donetsk registration pass: “They would immediately start being aggressive towards them, even to the point saying “we can easily recruit you to serve.”
There were also fuel restrictions — the occupiers allowed people to have only one 20-liter canister with them, although there were no gas stations nearby. Local residents were helping with gasoline. In addition to private cars, there were also buses in the queue that were taking people out.
“There was a bus in front of us, its driver had a power of attorney for export shipments issued by the company he worked for. For some reason, they didn’t like this document — and kicked all the people out of the bus. These people then were approaching different cars asking to take them,” says Artem.
After a long journey, Artem’s family finally has the opportunity to have some rest after months of living under occupation. Stefan has been temporarily living in Georgia for almost four months now. His family — his mother, grandmother, and brother — also moved there. Nastia, who will soon break through to the Ukraine-controlled territory, says at the end of our conversation: “I hope that I am not leaving Kherson Oblast forever.”
Author: Ksiusha Savoskina