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Even before the start of a full-scale war, the Russian authorities began to “evacuate” residents of the temporarily occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts to Russia. Starting from February 24, the Russian Federation has expanded the scope of deportations and started relocating Ukrainians from Mariupol and other temporarily occupied localities.
Residents of the cities and villages on the front line have also found themselves at risk. The Russians were firing at “green corridors” that led to the territory controlled by Ukraine as well as the settlements on the front line. Thus, they created conditions that forced people to decide to go to Russia.
hromadske reveals how Ukrainians who had been forced to go to the territory of the Russian Federation still find ways to escape.
“Three kilometers under mortar firing with flowers in my hands”
“None of us wanted the war to come to Mariupol. On February 23, at 4 am, I was walking around my peaceful city and there was no feeling that something was about to start,” says 25-year-old Yaroslav. We have been having phone conversations for a long time — for almost two months now, he has been trying to build his life anew in a Latvian village.
Until March 16, Yaroslav lived with his family in Mariupol. He graduated from a university, had various jobs as a copywriter, car mechanic, security guard.
After the outbreak of a full-scale war, he moved in with his friend. In his friend’s apartment, the walls seemed to be stronger. The guys were hiding from airstrikes and shelling in the corridor and from the windows they could see the houses opposite burning and rescuers still coming to extinguish the fire.
Since March 3, there has been no communication in the city. Yaroslav could not call his mother, who lived in another district of Mariupol to say “I’m alive”. Therefore, on March 7, he decided to walk to her under fire.
“Three kilometers under mortar shelling with flowers in my hands, — Yaroslav laughs into the phone. — A man was walking next to me with roses and daisies, and I took five flowers from him for my mother. I took the Stanislavska and Taganrohska streets. On Mezheva street, I heard machine guns being fired at Azovstalska street. I turned into Moskovska street and reached my parent’s apartment. I stayed with them”.
Temporary accommodation center in Taganrog, where the “evacuated” Ukrainians are staying
Photo: Instagram of volunteers
“If you go outside — they’ll shoot you, if you stay inside — you’ll burn alive”
In the evening of March 10, armed "little green men" from the occupied “DPR” and “LPR” walked into the entrance of the apartment building where Yaroslav’s family lived.
The next day, a shell landed in their apartment. At that moment, there was nobody in the room where it landed.
“We decided to leave. We realized: if a shell hits the building again and we run out into the street, we will be shot. And if we stay inside, we’ll burn alive. So we got into a car that no longer had windows and went to the friends of some people we know,” says Yaroslav.
On March 16, the family managed to get cell phone reception and learn that the evacuation of civilians to the territory controlled by Ukraine begins from the Drama Theater. At that moment they finally decided to leave the city. This happened a few hours before the Russian military dropped an aerial bomb on the Drama Theater.
“First we went to the Bilosarayska Spit, where some strangers let us in. The phrase “We are from Mariupol” was enough.
They said, “You can stay with us, but there is no heating”. We were still happy with the electricity, the windows were not broken and we could make some tea not under an air raid. We spent there a few days and went to occupied Berdyansk. We tried to get fuel there for a week. There was one queue of “500s”, and another one of “800s.””
At that time, the family began to receive news that cars traveling from Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia in the humanitarian corridor were shelled.
This happened many times: the russian military fired at columns of people despite the agreements with the Ukrainian authorities on a “green corridor” for civilians.
Yaroslav’s family decided to change the route and go to russia through Crimea, and then to Europe.
“Are you from Azov regiment?”
We had to get past a huge number of checkpoints on our way to the border with Crimea.
“At first, the dialogues at checkpoints were like this:
- Do you have tattoos?
-What kind of tattoos?”
- Neutral ones.
- You can go.
At Chonhar checkpoint, I was stripped to the waist. Then, all the men who passed the border between the “new temporarily occupied” and the “old temporarily occupied” territories were taken to a booth for questioning.
“Are you from Azov regiment? Have you served in the military? Do you know anyone from the national battalions? Do you know anyone from the police?”, they asked.”
Yaroslav passed the questioning, but he was later detained during the verification of documents. He didn’t renew the photo in his passport on time — it’s been two months since his 25th birthday and he was late, — therefore, the occupiers declared his documents invalid.
All Yaroslav’s relatives were allowed to enter the territory of Crimea. They also took away his migration card, which he received at the border and which he needed to leave Crimea and russia. They put him on a bus full of people, and sent him to Dzhankoy.
A resident of Ukraine in a temporary accommodation center in Taganrog
Photo: Instagram of volunteers
Temporary detention center
Yaroslav was taken to a temporary accommodation facility. In the Russian mass media sphere, you can also come across the abbreviation PVR (“temporary accommodation centre” — ed.). This is a place that the Russian authorities allegedly organized in their cities for people from the “liberated territories”.
Ukrainian human rights activists know that there are probably about 500 such facilities in Russia.
“We don’t know the exact number of these facilities. First they talked about 700, then about 490. The other day I saw the figure of 9,5 thousand on russian resources. You should not believe it. The russians couldn’t install so many facilities.
They are located throughout the russian federation and in the annexed Crimea. According to the quotas allocated by the russian federation, Crimea should take in about 4,700 Ukrainians,” says Aliona Luniova, advocacy director at the ZMINA Human Rights Center.
According to the former Commissioner for Human Rights Lyudmyla Denysova, since deportations continue, new temporary accommodation facilities for Ukrainians appear almost daily.
These facilities can be classified into two types. The first type — for a short stay — includes hubs that are usually located near the border with Ukraine. For example, there are such facilities in Taganrog, they started “evacuating” Ukrainians to such facilities from the temporarily occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions on February 18.
Most often, they include those who have passed filtration and who the russian authorities are going to send further — to the places where they will live and work. Such places are, in particular, in Astrakhan, Tula, Rostov-on-Don, Penza, Belgorod, Syktyvkar, Nakhodka. Journalists of the British media outlet Inews also found out that there are camps for Ukrainians in Sakhalin, the Far East, Siberia, the Arctic Circle, and the Kuril Islands.
On the photos that we found on social networks using the corresponding hashtag #PVR we can see that quite often these are schools, gyms with cots and with Russian symbols on the walls.
Yaroslav got to the center that was installed at the boarding school.
“There were up to 250 people in our temporary accommodation center — both men and women. I was lucky — I lived in a three-square-meter room with two other men. But there were people who slept in the corridors on the ground floor, where someone was walking all the time. They gave us pasta with a cutlet, some soup with sour cream. There were no forks in the dining room. They said it was so that the children wouldn’t get hurt by accident. There were also volunteers there. They asked us what we needed. I asked them for at least a toothbrush and an extension cord so I could charge my phone. There was one for 50 people,” says Yaroslav.
Admission is free, but not for everyone
According to information from several residents of Mariupol, temporary accommodation points can be avoided.
“We were dropped off near the сenter for temporarily displaced persons in Taganrog. No other verifications — you can either go inside, or do whatever you want”, tells a resident of Mariupol, who was forced to get out of the city through the so-called “DPR”, filtration and Russia to the territory of Ukraine.
19-year-old Nadiya, who was forcibly deported from the basement of the Mariupol City Hospital to the territory of the “DPR”, went to visit her friends in Russia after filtration, and from there she went to visit her relatives in Romania.
“Over the past two months, we have not received any information that people cannot leave temporary accommodation centers, that they are held there, their freedom of movement is restricted, and their documents are taken away. If you want, you can say that you have relatives — and you are free. It is the same in the places that are located in remote areas of russia, where people are taken by train. However, it is true that it will be difficult for those who do not have money to get out of there. Moreover, they are located tens of kilometers from cities, not at the intersection of logistics routes,” says Aliona Luniova.
Yevhenia, a volunteer from Estonia who helps Ukrainians leave russia as soon as possible, says that often such camps are really free to enter and exit. However, there may be problems with unauthorized access.
“When the volunteers that we cooperate with tried to come to the center to interview the people who settled there, the FSB started chasing them. They had to get away by car, like in the movies.”
Russian media “explain” this restriction like that: “For the residents of the boarding house, the entrance and exit from the territory are free, but strangers are not allowed here, in order to protect the peace of people traumatized by tragic events. They need silence so much right now...”
Residents of Ukraine in the Taganrog temporary accommodation center
Photo: Instagram of volunteers
“They asked “What is the ethnic structure of Mariupol?”
The FSB officers at the temporary accommodation center had a special plan for Yaroslav. He was sent for questioning to the Investigative Committee in Dzhankoy.
“They scanned all of my documents there. And then these devils started inventing a criminal case against Ukraine, in which I was the victim. They say that it was the criminal “Kiev regime” that allowed such a disaster. They asked “What is the ethnic structure of Mariupol? What horrors did you see there? Do you know any of the nationalists? What were they doing? Where did the shells land? Who was shelling? What do you mean, russians? No, Ukrainians were doing it — we will write it down that way.” I said I didn’t know anything because I allegedly left the city on February 25. But I was still given about 9 pages of text with no meaning or coherence, which I had to sign.”
During the interrogation, they also asked about his property that has been damaged, the cost at which he would estimate it, and whether he wanted to apply for compensation.
“I said that I didn’t know anything, I didn’t need any compensation. I was released, and then, a few days later, they gave me a migration card.”
Road through Russia to Latvia
After that, Yaroslav lived with his godmother in Sevastopol for some time. From there, he moved to St. Petersburg to live with his father’s cousin.
“I didn’t want to stay in that box, so I immediately started looking for ways, volunteers, to go to Europe.”
On April 4, he went to the Ivangorod-Narva border crossing point to enter Estonia through it. And it was there that Yaroslav had to go through filtration.
Recently, the adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, Petro Andryushchenko, published information about filtration camps at the border with Estonia. Volunteers who help Ukrainians leave russia and with whom we managed to communicate also confirm that some people have to go through filtration just before leaving.
Although in most cases, Ukrainians end up in filtration camps in the temporarily occupied territories of Russia: in Olenivka, Bezimenny, Dokuchaevsk, Manhush, Novoazovsk, Volnovakha, Starobeshevo, Donetsk.
“I spent 6 hours at the border. First, the customs officers checked my phone, instant messengers, contacts, and all of my correspondence. Then, they sent me to the FSB room with no windows. I was offered to join the “DPR” battalion. I refused. After that, the check started: full-face and profile photos, fingerprints, and document verification.
They allowed to go to the toilet under escort, but the doors had to be open, because anything could happen. They stripped me down to my underwear. They were looking for bruises on my legs and collarbones, and for tattoos.
In their registers, they found a person with the same first and last name as I have. So, they started accusing me of serving in an anti-aircraft unit near Mykolaiv. They also found a person named “Pavlo leaflets” in my phone contacts. According to their databases, this number allegedly belonged to an employee of the SSU. In the end, I was forced to record a video with tears in my eyes where I handed over “Pavlo’s leaflets” and pledged not to return to Ukraine.”
Residents of Ukraine in the Taganrog temporary accommodation center
Photo: Instagram of volunteers
Estonian police officers are aware of what is happening at the Russian border
As soon as Yaroslav crossed the border, he was met by Estonian policemen in Narva.
“Estonians are aware of what is happening at the border. A policeman came up to me right away and said that I had been there for a long time. So I spent another 2 hours in the police, telling the truth about the Russians. The police showed me their photos. But, to be honest, after this horror, I wanted to erase these faces from my memory as soon as possible.”
Yaroslav went from Estonia to Latvia, where he applied for refugee status and received the necessary assistance. Now he lives in a hostel with other Ukrainians who were deported or who left the occupied territories to save their lives.
We don’t know how many of such people ended up abroad. In his address to the Icelandic parliament, president Volodymyr Zelensky spoke about 500 thousand deported Ukrainians to remote regions of the russian federation.
“We don’t even know the approximate number. There are figures provided by russia that cannot be believed, they tend to exaggerate the number. For example, they claimed 200,000 relocated Ukrainians. At the same time, Mariupol authorities tell about 34,000. This error is huge. Maybe they’re just trying to hide the murders of people who are buried under the rubble,” says Aliona Luniova.
International partners — Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland — could give clarity if they calculated how many Ukrainians entered these countries from the territory of the russian federation and Belarus.
“Ukrainians remain defenseless on the territory of the Russian Federation”
If a third country assumed the obligation to provide consular services to our citizens that could solve the problem of helping Ukrainians who find themselves within Russian territory.
“Our people cannot count on Ukraine yet. Ukraine and the Ukrainian authorities are not represented on the territory of the Russian Federation at all from the moment a new stage of the war began.
The third country should be determined not only by Ukraine, it should also be supported by the Russian Federation. This is unlikely to happen in the near future.
It is very disappointing to admit, but Ukrainians remain defenseless on the territory of the Russian Federation. If a person does not have a passport, he or she is trapped in Russia.
And it seems to me that the state is not taking enough measures to avoid this trap, so that our citizens can be taken back from there,” says human rights activist Aliona Luniova.
All the work to release Ukrainians from russia was actually taken over by volunteers who collect money for tickets and build safe routes to European cities. The human rights activist calls one of the initiatives that can be trusted “Helping to get out”.
Half an hour to get out of your house
Vita, a resident of Ruski Tyshky in the Kharkiv Oblast, that was under occupation by the russian military until May 10, lives in Latvia now, just like Yaroslav.
At the end of April, the russian military came to her home. They said she had half an hour to leave her house.
“We were evicted, they took away our Ukrainian bank cards. We managed to keep the phones that we had hidden. They took away the ones they found. They also took away all the money. And even cigarettes.”
Vita and her family had no choice but to evacuate towards Russia. She could not go to the territory controlled by Ukraine with an 11-year-old child because the front line was under constant shelling.
“Of course, we realized that we would have to leave soon. We saw a lot of military equipment passing through our town, and we passed this information on to our military,” she says.
The family had no money. As soon as they were on the territory of the russian federation, they received 10 liters of fuel free of charge. It was enough to drive to the nearest city.
“We went to a pawnshop there, handed over everything we had, refueled and drove on. We weren’t poor in Ukraine, but we had to do just that”.
The family traveled to the border with Latvia for two and a half days. They were making stops in small parking lots, slept there for several hours and drove on.
“We didn’t want to stay anywhere in the territory of the russian federation. Believe me, people who saw the military with machine guns coming into their home will not stop in russia.”
On April 25, Vita crossed the border with the russian federation.
“Russian customs officers even checked their favorite videos on YouTube. So, if you watched a video with Zelensky once and put a like — you could be detained.”
“People need to know that’s someone’s waiting for them”
The woman and her family settled in a village with a population of 700 people and began to help Ukrainians go down the same path that she had recently passed herself: she builds safe routes and coordinates Ukrainians who found themselves in Russia.
“These people need to hear a voice so that they know that someone waits for them, that someone is with them, that they are not on their own. It is important for them to write to someone: “We have already passed Orel and we are going to the border,” and important to get a simple answer: “We are waiting for you.” They can read anything on the Internet, but the human voice is important to them. I myself needed it so much while I was driving through Russia.
Many people have to go through filtration camps. Imagine how disoriented these people are. They sometimes settle in temporary accommodation centers. I advise them to go straight to the border without making stops anywhere.”
Human rights activist Aliona Luniova agrees with this — if possible, do not agree to any statuses, do not stop in the territory of the russian federation and do not hand over your documents. It is enough for Ukrainians to have an internal passport in order to cross the russian border and go to Europe.
“You should have as little contact with the state representatives as possible in Russia. A temporary accomodation center is about the state. The FSB knows the addresses of these facilities and the time people are brought there.
Also, the local FSB will know for sure that a citizen of Ukraine is staying in a certain hotel. They will most probably come there.
Propaganda gets aggressive. We don’t know when everything their TV dictates will show itself at the level of ordinary people. Today, they are happy to welcome Ukrainians to their cities, but this may change overnight.”
For Vita, it is especially painful that sometimes she is powerless despite her eagerness to save Ukrainians who were forced to find themselves in russia. And that, apart from volunteers, there is no one else to help these people.
She sends screenshots of her messaging with the relatives of those who were taken to Russia, or those who ended up there out of despair. These people can no longer keep in touch with them.
“Every story hurts. I take everything to heart. Take a look at these messages, you might be able to do something about it,” the volunteer says with despair at the end of our conversation.
One of the messages is a text from a girl on May 5. She is looking for the 67-year-old in-law of her grandmother from a village in the Kharkiv Oblast, who found herself in russia with no connection. The woman was on watch at the church once a month, walked on a stick, and always wore an amber necklace.
/By Olesya Bida