Millions of Ukrainians have fled the war, but many have found themselves in what they consider ‘enemy territory’

The Narva border crossing in Estonia is only a few hundred meters long, but for the hundreds of Ukrainian refugees who authorities say still cross it every day, it’s the culmination of a long journey . This includes not only fleeing a war zone, but also crossing into Russia, a vast country that many Ukrainians consider enemy territory.

Estimates of the number of Ukrainians who have ended up in Russia since the invasion vary. Russia says more than 2.4 million people were taken in as part of a humanitarian mission, while Ukrainian officials say 1.2 million of its citizens were forcibly deported to Russia or occupied territory by Russia, such as Crimea, since the end of February.

In July, the US State Department concluded that between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens had been forcibly deported to Russia. According to researchers with Human Rights Watchthere were reports of refugees being threatened, aggressively searched and held against their will in several detention centers known as “filtration camps”.

“We passed through enemy territory,” said Dariya, who is from Kherson Oblast and had to cross Russia-annexed Crimea to eventually reach Estonia.

We spoke Russian on purpose not to draw attention to ourselves, as we don’t know how the situation is.”

In many cases, after passing through checkpoints, Ukrainians were put on buses and trains and taken to 55 regions of Russia. Many chose to get into the vehicles and head west because there was little other choice when it came to fleeing eastern Ukraine.

Here are some of their journeys.

“We miraculously survived”

Igor, 49, is a retired worker from the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works: the same fortress-like factory in Mariupol that attracted international attention this spring when Ukrainian units, including the Azov Regiment, defended for three months before surrendering in May.

Igor attempted to flee Mariupol with his family on March 17, but it took them months to reach the EU. When the city was first besieged in late February, Igor, who asked to be identified only by his first name for his safety, said he took shelter in the basement of his building with his wife and two children.

The building came under heavy attack. He says he knows at least two of his neighbors who died. A video of his house was posted online which showed his building partially collapsed and completely blackened by explosions.

“Miraculously we survived,” he said. “Then for another week we hid in the basement of the house next door.”

Igor’s family currently lives on a cruise ship that was previously used for passengers traveling from Riga, Latvia to Stockholm, Sweden. It currently hosts over 1,800 Ukrainian refugees in Tallinn, Estonia. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

At that point they decided they had to get out, he said, and since there were no safe corridors to the east they were forced to head for Russia.

But as they were leaving town, Igor and his family were stopped at a Russian checkpoint. When soldiers discovered a tattoo of a Ukrainian trident under a ring on that left hand, he said he was arrested and his family refused to leave Mariupol without him.

The trident is a symbol of Ukraine and associated with the country’s military. He said he got a tattoo while serving in 1991. According to Ukrainian refugees and a video released by Russian state media, Russian soldiers frequently check tattoos as they research military affiliations and any symbol that the government says it associates. with “Nazism”.

From flight to detention

Igor did not want to specify what exactly happened during his detention, but he was questioned. He said he was taken to a number of detention centers before being sent to a military barracks in Russian-occupied Donetsk, where he slept on the floor on a wooden pallet. He said government employees and volunteers from Ukraine’s territorial defense unit were being held alongside him.

“I had no way of contacting my family,” he said. “I couldn’t get in touch and they didn’t even know where I was.”

Igor spoke to CBC News on August 31 in Tallinn, Estonia, where he is currently staying on a cruise ship with 1,800 other Ukrainian refugees. At one point during the interview, he removed his ring to show a mutilated piece of skin underneath.

Igor, 49, shows the burn mark and remnants of his tattoo that he tried to burn off while in a detention center in eastern Ukraine. He got a Ukrainian trident tattoo when he was in the army in 1991. (Janis Laizans/CBC)

While in custody, he grabbed a piece of coal from a potbellied stove used for heating, he said, and pressed it against his skin. He was trying to burn off his tattoo so that no more Russian soldiers would see it.

The blue outline of the trident is still partially visible.

Igor was released after 30 days, but he said Russian soldiers kept his passport. All he was given back was a photocopy with a stamp of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic”. The self-proclaimed separatist government, backed by Russian forces, has ruled an occupied area of ​​eastern Ukraine since 2013, but remains unknown to most of the world.

Once back in Mariupol, Igor and his family boarded a bus bound for Taganrog, Russia, and upon arrival his daughter connected with volunteer groups on social media to offer help.

Igor, who is temporarily living on a boat in Tallinn, was detained for 30 days when he first tried to leave Mariupol. (Corinne Seminoff/Radio-Canada)

A non-profit organization called ‘Helping to Leave’ helped them with accommodation and transportation, but when his family tried to cross the Russian border into Estonia in May, he said border guards would not wouldn’t let him out because he didn’t have his passport.

He and his family tried another way. They headed south and were able to leave via Belarus, before finally crossing Latvia and then Estonia.

“I breathed a good sigh of relief,” he said. “I didn’t think I would get out of it.”

The four of them are currently sleeping on bunk beds in a bedroom on the cruise ship in Tallinn. They would like to settle in Estonia, he said, and his children have enrolled in school, while he looks for work.

“There are people who hate us”

Human Rights Watch researchers say there is no public data on how many Ukrainian refugees have remained in Russia, but Natalya and her 17-year-old daughter are part of a group that has decided to stay, at least for the moment.

Natalya, who also asked to be identified only by her first name for her safety, spoke to CBC News from Ryazan, Russia, located about 200 kilometers southeast of Moscow.

She, too, fled Mariupol after spending three weeks in a bomb shelter with several other families.

Natalya fled Mariupol and currently lives in Ryazan, Russia. She said it was difficult at first because she was unaware of her rights once she lived in the country, but it gradually got easier. She hopes to be able to return to Mariupol once it is rebuilt. (Submitted)

On March 23, after the nearby building was hit, she said she and others started running.

“People were freaked out,” she said. “People were even stepping over corpses.”

She says she then met a group of Chechen soldiers who gave them bread and showed them the way to go. They marched to the coast and began heading west along the Sea of ​​Azov. She said when she turned to look behind her, all she could see was her city on fire.

She estimates they walked 15 kilometers before a bus picked them up.

WATCH | Why some Ukrainians choose to return home:

On board a refugee train with Ukrainians returning home

Despite the risks, some Ukrainian refugees are returning to the war-torn country, each with their own reasons. They board trains heading east to war-torn regions, hoping to reclaim what is left of their country.

When they finally crossed the border into Russia, she said she felt a sense of relief. At a reception center they were given tea and sandwiches, but she said some Russians were openly hostile.

“There are people who hate us. They don’t hide it.”

Natalya decided to stay in Russia because she doesn’t know what to do next, she said. She has no permanent place to live and divides her time between family and hostels.

“Everyone wakes up thinking they’re going home,” she said. “We want to return to a peaceful life.

Choose to enter Russia now

While the majority of Ukrainian refugees entered Russia in the first weeks after the invasion, others are now fleeing after living through the war for months.

On August 30, CBC News visited a temporary hostel in Narva, Estonia, which was used to house Ukrainian refugees. Dariya, 28, and Viktoria, 43, who also asked that their surnames not be published for their safety, recently arrived and were staying there with their husbands and children.

The families, from Kherson Oblast, spent months living through the explosions before deciding to leave. There are fears that fighting in the region could escalate dramatically as Ukraine announced the launch of an offensive to retake occupied territory.

Dariya, left, and Viktoria, right, spoke to CBC in late August in Estonia, after leaving Ukraine via Crimea. (Briar Stewart/CBC News)

In order to leave the country, the two families headed south through Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014. Going through checkpoints, Viktoria says she was careful to speak Russian and not Ukrainian.

Before leaving, all of the group members deleted photos and some contacts from their phones because they expected to be searched, which they said. Both of their husbands were taken aside, checked for tattoos and questioned.

Although most men between the ages of 18 and 60 are prohibited from leaving Ukraine, men can leave via Russia. In its report, Human Rights Watch said some of the Ukrainians interviewed said they evacuated via Russia because it meant the whole family could leave together.

Dariya said his biggest fear was that families would be separated or that some of them might have their documents seized.

You Just understand that if something happens, I just have no way out, you have to stay in Kherson,” she said.

When the guards asked where they were going, they answered St. Petersburg and did not mention that they hoped to reach Sweden. Viktoria said they asked them to register there and collect Russian passports.

It’s like they’re recruiting,” Viktoria said. “It’s like the banners they put up in Kherson. Russia and Ukraine are one.

Servicemen of pro-Russian troops stand guard at a checkpoint in the besieged port city of Mariupol, Ukraine, March 24, 2022. (Alexander Ermoshenko/Reuters)

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