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Fleeing the terror of the Russian occupation, then taming exile

Simona Supino Le Devoir Un autocar transportant des réfugiés ukrainiens est arrivé à Varsovie, une nuit de décembre dernier.

The old coach appears on the wet road, alone in the darkness. It’s four o’clock on this December night, and platform number five of Warsaw East Station comes alive in a sleepy Polish capital. In the cold rain, through the dripping windows, we see numb figures getting up. Children, old people, young people, families: they are survivors of the war and its bombs, but also of another, more insidious violence, made up of repression and abuses. On board, around forty Ukrainian refugees have just fled territories militarily occupied by Russia, two years after the invasion launched by Vladimir Putin.

A middle-aged man comes down the steps, leaning on crutches. Then, little by little, the whole bus empties. Prams, a wheelchair, luggage. A boy floating in his long yellow coat stares at the ground with his puffy eyes; an elderly lady, walking heavily, drags a small bag and bottle of water, the only personal effects of her journey. The purr of the engine breaks the silence of the small crowd, mute with fatigue, which is heading towards a set-up of white humanitarian tents, a fence all around. It is there, in this temporary reception center administered by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) since March 2022, that they take their first steps in exile, at the end of a most unique itinerary. The front line, which stretches over a thousand kilometers, where violent fighting still rages, remains impassable. So a grueling four-day journey is required, first crossing the Ukrainian territories occupied by Moscow, then driving from Russia to Belarus, before finally crossing the border of Poland, that of European Union.

Fleeing the terror of the Russian occupation, then taming exile

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir Ukrainian refugees who fled territories militarily occupied by Russia received a hot meal upon their arrival at a temporary reception center administered by the Norwegian Refugee Council since March 2022. Between fatigue and distrust, few dare to confide.

In the refugee tent, the floor is filled with luggage. We drink a hot drink there, while waiting to be taken care of by a volunteer. Between fatigue and distrust, few dare to confide. How to face the dizziness of leaving everything behind, after seeing your haunts pulverized ? After the anguish of life in Russian times, the plunge into the unknown. Often lacking resources and, for the most part, having never set foot abroad before, they are fleeing Ukraine for the first time since February 24, 2022.

An untenable situation

Outside the tents, a small group smokes cigarettes, a moment of respite before hitting the road again. Warsaw, with its two airports and its host of rail connections, remains a nerve center of transit. Some want to go further west, particularly to Scandinavia, others, fewer in number, will try to start a new life in Poland. For Nikolaï, by his assumed name – many like him wished to remain anonymous, for fear of reprisals for their loved ones left behind – it will be Germany. Long coat on his back, growing beard, he too experienced the “war before the war”, that of Donbass, which began ten years ago. Donetsk, his hometown in eastern Ukraine, fell under the control of Moscow-backed pro-Russian separatists in 2014. “If I stayed there for so long, it was to take care of my grandmother , sick. Recently, a bombing hit very close to my house, the windows were broken. The situation is no longer tenable. »

Added to the bomb lottery is also the slump of a local economy which is collapsing. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have already fled areas occupied by the Russian army, some 20% of Ukraine’s land area. In the fall of 2022, Moscow held sham referendums there in order to ratify the annexation, in defiance of all international law, of the conquered regions in the south and east: Kherson and Zaporizhia, as well as Luhansk and Donetsk.

Oleksandr, a man with an affable face, is talkative. A form of relief, after two years of deprivation and persecution ? The 44-year-old man, met early in the morning, recounts without restraint the terror reigned by the occupying forces. That of the Russian soldiers who roamed the streets, of these insistent interrogations, of these threats at gunpoint where it was necessary to “speak ill of Ukraine”, under the duress of a camera. His town, Kakhovka, located in the Kherson region, was among the first localities to come under Moscow's military control, in February 2022. “When the Russians arrived, some cheered them, but they quickly became disillusioned. After the curfew, the Russians could sometimes shoot into the windows if they saw a light. »

Fleeing the terror of the Russian occupation, then taming exile

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir To reach the European Union, residents of the territories occupied by Moscow must make a long, grueling journey, having to pass through Russia then Belarus before reaching Poland.

Oleksandr intended his life to cultivate his plot of land, among his chickens, or to work in the nearby window factory. “No one in my family wanted to leave voluntarily. It’s our country, after all, why should we leave it ?” It was to prevent his beloved home from being pillaged by the Russian army that he wanted to stay there despite the bombings. But a tipping point came for Oleksandr. When he talks about the modus operandi of the Russian torture apparatus, widely documented since the liberation of certain territories by kyiv, tears come to his eyes. A relative of his paid the price last September: “His genitals were electrocuted. After that, I no longer had the strength to stay. »

His first attempt to escape ended in failure. “As I refused to become a Russian citizen, I was sent to prison,” the man continues in a calm tone. Twelve days in the invader’s jails during which Oleksandr assures “not to have been particularly mistreated”. “Except they searched my phone and discovered my pro-Ukrainian leanings. They wanted me to take the lie detector test. » Anguish for Oleksandr, because he then collaborated with the Ukrainian army, on the sly. To be unmasked by Kremlin henchmen was to risk death. “By some miracle, the machine broke. They then forced me to do my Russian documents; to refuse was to risk torture. » Behind this forced issuance of passports lies an obvious objective of Russification. Access to medicines is also conditional on holding Russian papers, while the education system has been put at the service of Kremlin propaganda.

When hope gets bogged down

At the Gare de l'Est, one of the last aid points still operating in Poland, the reception of refugees is down to the dedication of the handful of humanitarian workers. Mostly volunteers, they stand guard in the NRC reception center, often night and day, countering a growing weariness among populations in Europe. “All this relies entirely on NGOs and civil society, the state turns away from its obligations,” regrets Kajetan Wróblewski, member of the organization Asymmetryści, which helps with the relocation of exiles to the bus station.

The flows have certainly dried up, compared to the first months of the war, but the distress has not disappeared. Worse, in recent times, more and more vulnerable individuals have arrived at the Gare de l'Est, “including sick or disabled people”, notes Agata Malec, coordinator of Rubikus, a network which organizes, distance, the transportation of Ukrainian refugees from occupied territories or those remaining in free Ukraine. “Many only leave their homes when they are destroyed. Often, entire families postpone their departure because they do not want to leave behind a loved one who needs care. There are also those who were not previously aware of the possibility of leaving. » After the sabotage of the Nova Kakhovka dam in June 2023, blamed on Moscow, the number of exiles jumped for three months. “A large number of these people lost their belongings in the floods that followed,” says Agata Malec.

Fleeing the terror of the Russian occupation, then taming exile

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir The refugees will register.

As the war enters its third year, against a backdrop of a bogging down Ukrainian counter-offensive, hope is fading. “Some have understood that the resumption of the territories by Ukraine will not happen soon, that they will have to build their lives elsewhere,” explains Anastasiia Zhuravsk, psychologist mobilized at the NRC center, met on the scene, who adds: “Many are fed up with having to hide their Ukrainian identity, seeing the place where they were born changing for the worse. »

At the Gare de l’Est, we also meet other Ukrainians, in smaller numbers, who have not necessarily experienced the occupation. Olga Merkulova, a 34-year-old Kievan, dozes on a spare bed, her two-year-old daughter, Mariem, on her lap. The day before, a Russian strike had just fallen in his neighborhood. It was too much for the young mother, who left a Ukrainian capital harassed by Russian firepower at the start of winter. Her choice of destination, France, does not matter much, perhaps she will find work there, at least she hopes so. “In Poland, prospects are limited,” she says, even though a million refugees have already settled there.

Fleeing the terror of the Russian occupation, then taming exile

Photo: Simona Supino Le Devoir Olga Merkulova with her daughter

It’s noon, the center is emptying. Sitting alone, Evgeniy, a young man with dark brown eyes, is about to jump on a bus to Germany, where he plans to join an aunt. At 23, from a village south of Kherson, his main fear was being drafted into the Russian army. “I have a friend who fights in the Ukrainian forces, how could I have found myself facing him, in the opposing camp, shooting at him ? That would have been the height of absurdity…” In his village , on the south bank of the Dnipro, the youth deserted, “only the elderly remained”. “The empty houses are then occupied by the Russian army. Seeing them arrive in the village with tanks and guns, I had fear in my stomach. They call it “liberation”. But what have they freed us from, apart from taking away our normal life, the one before ?”, quips Evgeniy, torn at the idea of ​​having separated from his wife, who remained behind.

Evgeniy remembers other unexpected scenes. Like the time he realized that “not all Russian soldiers are bad.” One day, in the village, “one of them, completely drunk, started crying, begging President Zelensky to do something, shouting: 'why am I here ?'” The Minutes thread, Evgeniy unfolds his story. A volunteer approaches, taps him on the shoulder, looking urgent: “It’s time to go. »

Teilor Stone

By Teilor Stone

Teilor Stone has been a reporter on the news desk since 2013. Before that she wrote about young adolescence and family dynamics for Styles and was the legal affairs correspondent for the Metro desk. Before joining Thesaxon , Teilor Stone worked as a staff writer at the Village Voice and a freelancer for Newsday, The Wall Street Journal, GQ and Mirabella. To get in touch, contact me through my teilor@nizhtimes.com 1-800-268-7116