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“No one oppressed us, although we always spoke Russian.” What refugees from Mariupol and Kharkov who came to Russia say – The Moscow Times

According to the UN, more than 4.4 million people have left Ukraine since the beginning of the war. Most of them leave for Poland. However, more than 723,000 have moved to Russia, the Russian Defense Ministry reported. Among them are not only citizens of the self-proclaimed DPR and LPR, but also residents of the besieged Kharkov and Mariupol, who, according to the Ukrainian authorities, are forcibly taken to the Russian Federation.

The arrival of 238 refugees from Kharkov to Voronezh became known back in mid-March. They were even allowed a film crew of the local state channel. The authorities did not report any refugees from Mariupol.

Unlike residents of the DPR and LPR, who were placed in children’s camps in the Voronezh region, refugees from Ukrainian cities were settled in the rooms of the four-star Azimut Hotel in the very center of Voronezh.

Kirill Plotnikov

Getting to them was not easy. The girls from the hotel staff flatly refuse to disclose any information. Finding the suspicious look of the guard on me, I hurried to leave.

By a lucky chance, at the entrance I met a friend who, as it turned out, works in a hotel. He said that the refugees live on the seventh floor. They were given a separate elevator so that they did not intersect with anyone. There are two ways to get to the seventh floor: tell the reception that you are going to the barbershop at the hotel, or ring the bell from the back door and introduce yourself as an office tenant. The story has acquired a touch of a spy detective.

The next evening I returned to the hotel. I notice that 11 out of 23 cars in the parking lot have Ukrainian numbers. Near one of these cars – old Zhiguli – two men. I walk up to them and strike up a conversation. It turns out that they are from Kharkov.

  Kirill Plotnikov
Kirill Plotnikov

“We would not like to give our names. In Ukraine, we are considered traitors. When we crossed the border, we even received SMS: “You entered the aggressor country.” And they set some crazy tariffs for calls, ”says a man in his 40s.

According to Kharkiv residents, they left Ukraine by “roundabout” ways in their cars. A lot of channels have appeared on Telegram in which people agree on ways to leave the country. Crossing the border on “safe paths” has become a business. The Ukrainian military, as the men said, demanded a lot of money for passage through the checkpoint to the Belgorod region.

“I know that the next day, when a convoy was driving along the same road [беженцев], she was shot. They shoot at civilians because they go to Russia. Even on the news you have shown here. This is a natural genocide,” a second man in his 50s joins the conversation.

In Russia, Kharkiv residents were checked for documents and demanded to undress in order to check if there were any tattoos on their bodies indicating belonging to nationalists.

“Now there is no turning back for us. Zelensky signed a decree criminalizing any cooperation with Russia. We went to the “aggressor country”. We are like collaborators. For this shines from 8 to 15 years in prison. But I had no choice: I have a family, children, a dog. They had to be taken away from the war,” says a 40-year-old Kharkiv resident.

Some people, he says, are leaving for the Poltava region and further to the west of Ukraine. When asked if the man is worried about his relatives who have remained in the country, he replies: “They don’t worry about me.”

  Kirill Plotnikov
Kirill Plotnikov

On the advice of a friend, I go to the hotel and walk up the side stairs to the seventh floor. The door is open. The floor is crowded. There-children run around here, people with big trunks scurry about, pensioners discuss the latest news at the cooler. I’m talking to an elderly couple.

“Journalist? Which? If American – in the forehead ladies! – Half-jokingly, a stocky man of 65 years old answers me. His name is Valery.

“We were at home in the village of Volonterovka when the war began. On the evening of the 28th, a Ukrainian soldier approached us and said: “Get out of here while you can. We do not promise that in the morning you will be able to leave the village“, recalls the pensioner.

With his wife, they left for Mariupol to visit their son. At first it was quiet in the city, then the bombings began. Who exactly bombed, the pensioner does not know.

“A man was killed at our house. Then they killed an 18-year-old boy, the little kid’s arm was torn off – he was taken to the hospital, ” – lists Valery.

Before leaving the country, he and his son went to pick up things from the house in Volonterovka. On the way, their car had a tire puncture – they had to get there with a flat tire.

“I just put the car on a jack, I hear the roar of the tank and shots – one, two, three! I look – they hit the next house. My son and I ran to the basement. They sat out a few more shots, as soon as it calmed down, they jumped out, quickly changed the wheel and let’s tick! They came for things, didn’t take anything – they fled from there! ” the man says.

He takes out a tablet and shows a photo of his destroyed house.

“Honestly, the Ukrainian authorities did not interfere with us in any way. We lived quietly, poking around in the garden. No one oppressed us, although we always spoke Russian. Pensions, of course, were small, but they are small in Russia, too, ” – Valery’s wife joins the conversation, asking not to call your name.

  Kirill Plotnikov
Kirill Plotnikov

“We can stay in Russia for no more than 90 days. What we will do after that, we do not know. There is nowhere to return: our house in Ukraine has been destroyed. But here they won’t give us an apartment, we are already old,” the woman complains.

Valery and his wife are in a hurry to have dinner in the canteen for refugees. I keep wandering down the corridor hoping to talk to the young people. I see a pregnant girl standing at one of the rooms. Her name is Svetlana. Together with her husband, she lived in the Kharkov region near the border. The invasion of the Russian army into Ukraine began with its village. Early on the morning of February 24, the girl woke up from the roar of bombers.

“What did we feel? We were horrified. God forbid you know what war is! – the 23-year-old girl answers the question about the beginning of the war.

She and her family came to Russia because it was closer and easier to get to. Svetlana’s parents had to urgently leave because her mother was injured.

Bombs flew into residential buildings from both the Russian and Ukrainian sides, the girl claims.

“Scary. Today I saw on the news about a bomb that fell on the railway station in Kramatorsk. I don’t think it’s a Russian bomb. Ukrainian. Because I have seen so many times when Ukrainian troops wrote on the shells with white paint “for children, for parents”, for someone else,” she says.

“We had legs, arms, and heads lying around the houses. Someone had to collect it. Everyone was afraid to go under fire. Maybe if Russia had not gone, this would not have happened. From whom are we to be protected? Not from anyone. The Ukrainians did not crush the Russian-speaking population. Maybe in some localities it was like that, but we don’t have it, ”the girl reflects.

While talking with Svetlana, I notice a security guard who has come to the floor. He watches my conversations for a while, but instead of driving me away, he calmly leaves. I think it’s time for me to leave too, just in case. My last conversation was with a family from the Severodonetsk region.

29-year-old Bogdan with his wife and two children came from the city of Rubizhne. When the fighting began near his city, the family woke up from the roar of shells. Shots were fired from all sides, the man says.

“We went into the basement. We sat and prayed. There was no water, electricity, gas. Then they cooperated with their neighbors and decided to go to Russia. There is nowhere to go to Ukraine, everything is on fire there too. We had to take the children to where the world is,” says Bogdan.

  Kirill Plotnikov
Kirill Plotnikov

Now the family is trying to get temporary asylum in Russia. The man shows his room: in a small room there is a bed, an old TV, soft toys and a laptop. Bogdan is trying to work remotely.

“The Ukrainian authorities strained us only with utility tariffs. Everything became more expensive – the country was arming itself. Now there is nothing left of our city. I have the same attitude towards the Ukrainian government as I do towards the Russian one. I am not a nationalist. Politics by politics. I want to live in peace with any nation,” he says.

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