As evacuees from Mariupol and other occupied Ukrainian towns make their way across Russia to third countries, they begin to tell stories of their harrowing journeys and the lukewarm treatment by Russian authorities.
Vlad Shorohov, 25, is a former resident of Mariupol. A former journalist and restaurant manager, he was able to escape the artillery-ravaged city via Russia to Finland, where he currently works in construction.
Shorohov left Mariupol on March 20 with his mother, grandmother, niece and other family members and neighbors after spending three weeks in the freezing basement of a high-rise building not far from the Azovstal steelworks. At the time, they were without food, water or electricity.
The nine people in Shorohov’s group left their shelter after a night of heavy shelling by Russian forces. He remembers having learned of an evacuation organized by the Russians by a passerby. They went to the meeting place, where the Russian army ordered them to march in single file to a checkpoint seven kilometers away.
“We stood there in the open and under fire for nine hours. No one was controlling the queue,” he told VOA. city located in the occupied territory of Donetsk Oblast, just inside the border with Russia.
The group, unlike others, was allowed to stay together en route to the village of Oleksandrivske, where the members settled into a school building. From there they traveled to the village of Siedovo to join relatives but were stopped at a checkpoint and ordered to return to Oleksandrivske to await their so-called “filtration” procedure.
Denis Kochubey, chairman of the Mariupol city council, told VOA that the council had received numerous reports of people going through the screening in occupied territory of Ukraine and on the Russian border. He said some Ukrainians have been singled out for “deep screening” – a process that involves lengthy interrogations and often beatings. The procedure is used primarily against men, especially those who have served in the armed forces.
“If a person even has a tattoo, Ukrainian symbols, even a yellow-blue T-shirt, literature in the Ukrainian language, carelessly says the word in Ukrainian, this can be a reason for hard screening,” Kochubey said.
In the case of Shorohov’s group, a man was stopped at the checkpoint outside Siedovo, where he was interrogated for two hours and more than half of his money was stolen. But rather than return to Oleksandrivske, they then headed towards the Russian border where they told border guards they had already been screened and allowed through.
Their stay in Russia was less eventful. They arrived in the southern city of Taganrog, spent a night at a friend’s house, then traveled by train and taxi to the border with Finland. Shorohov was subjected to extensive questioning on the Russian side of the border crossing, which included checking his phone data and lasted more than six hours. Yet he was allowed to leave.
Another Mariupol resident, Kateryna Vovk, who left the city a day before Shorohov with her husband and a 3-year-old child, told a similar story. Their food was running out; they had no drinking water and could not find safe passage out of town. They learned of the Russian evacuation from a neighbor and arrived at the village of Nikolske, which was occupied by Russian forces. There, the family spent a night in a school gymnasium sleeping on chairs. There was little food. The next day, eight buses arrived.
“The drivers were Russian military. About 600 to 800 people tried to leave. Naturally, not everyone would fit in and a stampede started to get us all on the bus,” Vovk told VOA.
They too were taken to Taganrog, the city with the largest camp of Ukrainians. After screening – which in their case was limited to questioning – the family were sent to a large school gymnasium so full of people that Vovk says he had a panic attack.
The family left Taganrog as soon as possible, taking the first train, and arrived after about 24 hours in Vladimir Oblast, east of Moscow. There they were taken to a hotel in the town of Kovrov by local volunteers who, she recalls, were friendly, respectful and well organized.
“Then came people from the investigative committee who took our testimonies. They said that we would be the injured party in a war crime on the part of Ukraine,” she said.
Vovk recalled that volunteers also helped them leave Russia. Just like in Shorohov’s case, his family found it more difficult to leave Russia than to enter it, but they were eventually allowed to cross to Estonia.
“At the border, Russian customs officials behaved terrible. They interrogated men in a separate room for four hours, checked their phones, read their correspondence, stripped them down to their underwear, examined their tattoos,” she said.
In March, Ukraine closed its embassy and consulates in Russia. At the same time, more than a million Ukrainian citizens have crossed the border into Russia, according to the UN refugee agency. UNHCR lists more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees in Russia on its regularly updated portal.
A UNHCR spokesman told VOA that the organization does not distinguish between Ukrainians who have come to Russia voluntarily or not. “We are aware of reports of forced evictions, but we do not have the means to verify this information,” she said.
According to Russian media, more than 2.1 million people have arrived in Russia from Ukraine, including temporarily occupied territories. Russian authorities call them refugees and say they have received material aid worth around $72 million.
The Ukrainian authorities consider these people to be deported or forcibly deported. Iryna Vereshchuk, deputy prime minister for the reintegration of temporarily occupied territories, told Ukrainian media that 1.2 million Ukrainians, including 240,000 children, have been forcibly deported to Russia since the start of the war.
Since February 24, Russian forces have disrupted half of the humanitarian corridors organized by the Ukrainian authorities, she said at a press briefing.
Many find it difficult to leave Russia because they lack documents and money or are moved to remote parts of the country, said Oleksandra Matviychuk, a Ukrainian human rights lawyer and head of the Center for Civil Liberties .
“In one case, a family was taken to Vladivostok. The wife was pregnant and the husband had no papers. They didn’t want their child to be born in Russia and given Russian documents,” she said. at VOA.
The International Committee of the Red Cross has an office in Moscow which, they said in an email to VOA, “supports the work of the Russian Red Cross, including a program to provide cash assistance to people who have had to leave their homes as a result of the conflict.”
But many Ukrainians had to flee their homes on short notice without their papers. For them, replacing the missing documents might be the most difficult task, said Matviychuk and the Russian volunteers who spoke to VOA.
According to a St. Petersburg volunteer, whom VOA does not name for security reasons, Russian volunteer organizations provide money and practical assistance to Ukrainian citizens wishing to leave the country, including paying for overnight accommodation and tickets. by train or bus.
“It’s not hard to leave [Russia] if you have documents,” she said. “But it is impossible to leave with copies of documents” or with electronic documents, which is common in Ukraine. It becomes even more difficult for families with newborns, who may not have any documentation, she explained.
In these and other similar cases, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine recommends contacting Ukrainian embassies in neighboring countries or the hotline of the Department of Consular Services of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for assistance.
“When there is nothing at all, the territory is captured, and there is no access to their documents and various systems, this also imposes difficulties in helping these people,” said Oleg Nikolenko, MAE spokesperson.
He said the Ukrainian government was doing what it could to help. In addition, Kyiv hopes for international help.
“The possibility of involving a third country, which could, for example, help with consular services, is being considered,” he said.
Nikolenko said that since the start of the full-scale war, several hundred Ukrainian citizens have contacted Ukrainian consulates asking for help.
Not all Ukrainians want to leave Russia, according to Matviychuk, volunteers and Ukrainian authorities. Of the nine people in Shorohov’s group, four remained in Russia. Some Ukrainians join relatives in Russia, finding employment and reasonable housing. Others, Matviychuk said, aren’t going anywhere because of the emotional trauma they’ve suffered.
“They were in bomb shelters for several weeks under Russian bombardment, without food, water or electricity. They lost their loved ones or loved ones. They found themselves in an aggressor country, not knowing what they had to do. I’m afraid a lot of people don’t have any internal will to fight and escape these circumstances,” Matviychuk said.
Some information for this report comes from Ukrainian TSN and Russian news agency Tass.