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Kharkiv Oblast resident forcibly deported to Russia: ‘It’s not a country, it’s a prison’

by Daria Shulzhenko April 18, 2022 10:24 PM 6 min read
A Russian soldier watches Ukrainian civilians being evacuated from besieged Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast, on March 20, 2022. Around 45,000 Ukrainians have been illegally deported from Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine to Russia since Feb. 24, 2022, according to the President's Office. (Getty Images)
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Editor's Note: The Kyiv Independent isn't revealing last name of the person interviewed for this story and the name of his native village for safety reasons.

Ukrainian farmer Ihor escaped the “living hell” of Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine in late March after he had spent a month in his occupied village in Kharkiv Oblast.

But instead of being evacuated to a safe place, he was brought to yet another “nightmare” — Russia itself.

Ihor, along with 60 other residents of his native village, was forcibly deported to the Russian city of Belgorod on March 17. They haven't been able to return to Ukraine since.

“We were confronted with a fact — you are going to Russia,” Ihor says. “No one even asked us whether we wanted it or not.”

Tetiana Lomakina, who coordinates humanitarian issues at the President's Office, says they estimate that around 45,000 Ukrainians have been illegally deported to Russia from the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine.

It's not just weapons that Russian occupiers use to force people to flee to Russia, but the unbearable living conditions they create in the occupied cities and villages, while at the same time not allowing locals to evacuate to Ukrainian-controlled areas.

“It’s a violation of the rules and regulations of war. Forcing people to cross the border of their country is a war crime,” Lomakina says.

A month of horror

Russian shelling cut off power lines in Ihor’s village just an hour after Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. Since then, the power supply hasn’t been restored.

Russian forces soon entered his village. Ihor says he was terrified to see dozens of Russian tanks and armored vehicles near his home.

“You understand that there is nothing you can do, and you no longer control your life,” he says.

Local grocery stores opened later that morning, allowing residents to take goods for free to prevent looting and destruction of their buildings and equipment. Butchers from the local farm gave away pork to civilians as they could no longer store meat in coolers without electricity.

That was the last time people in the village received fresh food.

Russian forces occupied the village so quickly that only a few residents managed to escape. Most residents remained in their homes, living with no power, heating, and mobile network, as well as no supplies of medicine, food, or hygiene products.

Ihor says he was lucky to have had some food stocked. He also had a dairy cow, whose milk he was giving to a neighboring family with small kids that were starving.

Soon, Russian soldiers started wandering around the village, demanding that the locals give them their food. People were too afraid to disobey.

Ihor was told that one of his fellow villagers refused to follow the order, yelling at the occupiers and telling them to leave the yard of his house.

“He got shot immediately,” Ihor says.

After Russian forces found documents listing the names of local veterans who had fought against Russia in the Donbas in the village’s administration, they launched a hunt for them. Ihor says they were breaking into houses and destroying everything on their way.

Ihor knows of only two veterans who managed to escape. The fate of others found by the Russian military is unknown yet. Ihor believes they were killed.

He says that despite all the horrors, his village didn't witness the same level of Russians’ atrocities as in Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka. He assumes that was because many soldiers occupying his village were recruited from Russian-occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

He heard some of them saying they were forced to fight.

A man in his 50s from a Russian-occupied city in Donbas told Ihor that his daughter and son-in-law had just bought an apartment in Kharkiv and he was "sent to fight against them.”

"He said, ‘they are there now and I’m here, shelling them,’” Ihor recalls.

The village is still under occupation and the number of casualties there is yet to be revealed.

In early March, Ihor was told about 20 new graves that had been dug for the dead locals. Several days after that, heavy shelling killed a couple he knew, along with their pregnant daughter, and her little son.

No choice

With mobile and internet connection cut off, the village’s residents had no access to news about Russia’s war since the first day of the full-scale invasion. Not knowing how it was going added to the fear they lived in, Ihor says.

Russians knew exactly how to use that.

“(Russian) soldiers have been spreading rumors that Kharkiv surrendered and Kyiv was about to be taken as well,” Ihor says. “They kept saying that 70% of Ukraine was taken by Russia.”

Ihor says he almost believed in it until he found an old radio and listened to Ukrainian news. He was relieved to learn that it wasn't true.

Just like many other residents, Ihor wanted to escape the occupied village. The surrounding area was mined, so locals have repeatedly asked Russian soldiers to allow evacuation to Ukrainian-controlled Kharkiv. Their response was always the same.

“They kept telling us ‘go to Russia. You must go to Russia,'” Ihor recalls.

He asked the soldiers whether he could walk to Kharkiv. He could try, they said, but “if he got shot on the way, that was his problem.”

When Ihor was told that the Russians started illegally conscripting local men to fight on their side, he was terrified. He was convinced that refusal would get him killed.

But eventually, he was forced to be deported to Russia.

Dozens of locals gathered near a bus heading to Russia that day. The “severe” overnight shelling made them come, Ihor says. Only a few residents were deported before that.

Russian soldier watches Ukrainian civilians being evacuated from Mariupol, Donetsk Oblast, on March 24, 2022. (Getty Images)

Lomakina says Russia shelled occupied territories, including those in Kharkiv Oblast, to intimidate people and not let them escape on their own.

“Russian forces try to break Ukrainians’ will, destroy everything human in them and create impossible living conditions,” she says, so that they have no choice but to flee to Russia.

Lomakina says it's a brutal violation of the Geneva Conventions that prohibit deportation of people from “the occupied territory to the territory of the occupying power or to that of any other country.”

According to Ihor, when the bus to Belgorod took off, passengers were shedding tears. Devastated to leave their homes, they had no idea what to expect upon arrival.

Escaping prison

At the Russian border outpost in Belgorod, Ihor was questioned by a man who introduced himself as an FSB (Federal Security Service) officer. He says the interaction was very humiliating and oppressing.

Their first stop in Russia was a filtration camp set up in the middle of a field.

Lomakina says Ukraine doesn't have much information about these camps. She assumes these places often have no internet and mobile connection, and the staff is constantly watching people there. Some also have their documents taken away by the Russian forces.

Many Ukrainians are often sent to distant regions of Russia. Lomakina says they know of Ukrainians who have been deported to Samara, Kursk, Tula, Cheboksary, and other impoverished Russian cities.

Lomakina says that the Kremlin’s next step could be to bring Russians to the occupied territories of Ukraine instead. “That way, they would be able to better control the situation in the territories they are trying to seize.”

Ihor says no one from his village agreed to stay in the filtration camp. Some even lied they had places to stay overnight. So the bus just dropped them all off at a local train station.

Ihor had no money and no plan on how to escape Russia, so he headed to his relatives in Moscow. On his way to the capital, he saw multiple Russian cities — neglected and shabby — and heard people on the train discussing Russia's war in Ukraine. Many were saying that Ukrainians deserved the war.

He saw Moscow with multiple foreign stores closed, short on various goods as a result of sanctions, and people fighting to buy some sugar at grocery stores. Ihor says that no cashless payments are allowed, and neither is exchanging money.

“In Russia, if you are against Putin, you are against Russia,” Ihor says. “It's not a country, it’s a prison.”

He desperately wanted to escape Russia. Three days after he came to Moscow, Ihor reached out to a woman from his village who was still in Belgorod. She needed a driver to help her flee the country. He agreed immediately. Other Ukrainians he contacted were too afraid to try to leave.

The two decided to head to Belarus and then to Poland. When trying to cross one of Russia's border checkpoints, they were locked in a small room with no food and water. Russian border guards didn't explain why and how long they had to stay there.

They spent seven hours locked up before Russian officers let them go. Ihor still doesn't know the true purpose behind their “detention.”

After crossing into Belarus, Ihor felt relieved. Although they saw dozens of Russian tanks there, the country "felt nothing like Russia." People were kind and welcoming, he says, asking Ukrainians “to tell them the truth about the war.”

Now Ihor is safe in Poland, though he fears for those who are still trapped in his native village.

Ihor hopes it was the last time he encountered "the Russian world.”

“It felt like an escape from prison,” he says.

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