Ukrainian refugees forced to flee to enemy soil in Russia

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For weeks, Natalya Zadoyanova had lost contact with her younger brother Dmitriy, who was trapped in the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol.

Russian forces had bombed the orphanage where he worked, and he huddled with dozens of others in the freezing basement of a building with no doors or windows. When she next heard from him, he was in tears.

“I’m alive,” he told her. “I am in Russia.”

Zadoyanov faced the next chapter of devastation for residents of Mariupol and other occupied cities: forcible transfers to Russia, the nation that killed its neighbors and bombed their hometowns almost into oblivion.

Nearly 2 million Ukrainian refugees have been sent to Russia, according to Ukrainian and Russian officials. Ukraine describes these transfers as forced trips to enemy soil, which is considered a war crime. Russia calls them humanitarian evacuations.

An Associated Press investigation found that while the picture is more nuanced than the Ukrainian government suggests, many refugees are indeed being forced into Russia, subjected to abuse, stripped of their documents and uncertain about to their future – or even their location.

Dmitriy Zadoyanov, an evacuee from Mariupol, speaks during an interview in Tbilisi, Georgia April 15, 2022. When he chose to evacuate, the only options were buses to Russia.

It starts with a choice: Die in Ukraine or live in Russia. They are taken through a series of so-called screening points, where processing ranges from questioning and strip searches to being passed away and never seen again. The refugees described an old woman who froze to death, her body swollen, and an evacuee beaten so badly that her back was covered with bruises.

Those who “pass” the screenings are invited to stay and often promised a payment of around 10,000 rubles ($170) which they may or may not get. Sometimes their Ukrainian passports are taken away from them and they are offered the chance to obtain Russian citizenship instead. Sometimes they are pressured to sign documents incriminating the Ukrainian government and army.

Those with no money or contacts in Russia – the majority, by most accounts – can only go where they are sent. The AP verified that Ukrainians received temporary housing in more than two dozen Russian cities and towns.

However, the AP investigation also revealed signs of dissent in Russia from the government’s narrative that Ukrainians are saved from the Nazis. Almost all of the refugees interviewed by the AP spoke with gratitude of Russians who quietly helped them through an underground network, collecting documents, finding shelter, buying train and bus tickets, exchanging Ukrainian hryvnia for rubles Russians and even dragging makeshift luggage containing the remains of their pre-war lives.

The investigation is the most thorough to date into transfers, based on interviews with 36 Ukrainians mostly from Mariupol who left for Russia, 11 of whom are still there and others in Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, Ireland, Germany and Norway. The AP also relied on interviews with Russian underground volunteers, video footage, Russian legal documents and Russian state media.

Exhausted and starving in the basement of Mariupol, Zadoyanov finally accepted the idea of ​​evacuation. Buses went only to Russia.

Along the way, Russian authorities searched his phone and questioned him. Zadoyanov was asked what it meant to be baptized and if he had sexual feelings towards a boy from the camp.

He and the others were taken to the station and told their destination would be Nizhny Novgorod, 1,300 kilometers from the Ukrainian border. From the train, Zadoyanov called Natalya in Poland. His panic mounted.

Get off the train, she said. Now.

The transfer of hundreds of thousands of people from Ukraine is part of a deliberate and systemic strategy, as government documents indicate.

Some Ukrainians stay in Russia because while they are technically free to leave, they have nowhere to go, no money, no documents or no way to cross the distances in a sprawling country twice the size of the United States. Others may have strong family ties in Russia or prefer to start from scratch in a country whose language they at least speak. And some mistakenly fear that if they return, Ukraine will prosecute them for going to the enemy.

Lyudmila Bolbad and her son, Gleb, evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, sit with their dog, Luna, in their hotel room in Khabarovsk, Russia, July 18, 2022. The family plans to stay in Russia in the hope of returning to a normal life for her family and the fear of being considered traitors in Ukraine.

Lyudmila Bolbad and her son, Gleb, evacuees from Mariupol, Ukraine, sit with their dog, Luna, in their hotel room in Khabarovsk, Russia, July 18, 2022. The family plans to stay in Russia in the hope of returning to a normal life for her family and the fear of being considered traitors in Ukraine.

Lyudmila Bolbad’s family drove out of Mariupol and ended up making the nine-day train journey to the city of Khabarovsk, near the Chinese border and nearly 10,000 kilometers from Ukraine.

Bolbad and her husband found work in a factory. Nothing else happened as they had hoped.

They handed over their Ukrainian passports in exchange for promises of Russian citizenship, only to find that the landlords would not rent to Ukrainians without valid IDs. Promised payments are slow to arrive and they are stuck with hundreds of others from Mariupol in a run-down hotel with barely edible food. But if she returns, Bolbad thinks Ukraine would see her as a traitor, and she plans to stay in Russia.

“We’re trying to get back to normal life somehow, to encourage us to start our lives over again,” she said.

For Ukrainians trying to flee, help often comes from an unexpected source: the Russians.

Recently in Estonia, a Russian tattoo artist accompanied a family from Mariupol across the border to a shelter.

The tattoo artist, who asked that his name be withheld because he still lives in Russia, was the latest in a chain of volunteers that stretched 1,900 kilometers from Taganrog and Rostov to Narva, the Estonian border town. He boarded in St. Petersburg twice a week, traveling to Finland and sometimes to Estonia.

He said Russians who help each other get to know each other only through Telegram, almost all remain anonymous “because everyone is afraid of some kind of persecution.”

“I can’t stop it,” he said of the war and the deportation of Ukrainians to Russia. “That’s what I can do.”

In May, volunteers from Penza in Russia ended their efforts to help Ukrainian refugees due to anonymous threats. Threats included flat tires, the Russian symbol Z painted in white on a windshield, and graffiti on doors and gates calling them “Ukro-Nazi” helpers.

For Zadoyanov and many others, the lifeline out of Russia was the Russians.

Zadoyanov got off the train for Nizhny Novgorod with the other Ukrainians, and church contacts there gave them shelter and the first steps to find a way out of Russia to Georgia.

“He was so emotionally damaged,” said his sister, Natalya. “Everyone was.”

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