By Alyona Semko
“Where are you going? At least they don’t shoot people here,” I often heard. People who decide to stay in the occupied territories don’t feel comfortable there, but their fear of the unknown is greater than their will for freedom.
Before the war, a minibus could make the 230 km trip from Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia (via Vasylivka) in 3 hours. In May, people from Berdyansk and Mariupol spent three days on this route, terrified and uncertain about their future. This was the price of their freedom.
The City Looked Older Now
“We left after all. I couldn’t breathe in Berdyansk anymore,” a friend wrote to me on a Telegram app a few days ago. That’s exactly how I felt during the last few months.
Ukrainian supermarkets were closed in my city, and Ukrainian-produced goods had disappeared from the shelves. Russian and Belarusian ones appeared instead, and at exorbitant prices, too. Mostly, it was humanitarian aid, but the locals were charged for it in markets and stores.
Soldiers with assault rifles walked along my boulevard. I saw them look with menace at a little girl holding yellow and blue balloons, and listen to what mothers talk about near the playgrounds.
From my window, I could see a military base where the occupiers were stationed. When I would hang my laundry on the balcony, I felt like I was being watched.
Almost every day, I would find out that they took someone to the colony for “re-education” or recruitment. A tension one couldn’t get used to hung in the air.
The city looked older now; it regressed by several dozen years. There was almost no cell service, hucksters got rich at poor people’s expense, wartime songs played on the radio…
ALMOST EVERY DAY, I WOULD FIND OUT THAT THEY TOOK SOMEONE TO THE COLONY FOR “RE-EDUCATION” OR RECRUITMENT.
Every morning, I sat on the bed and told myself: “I have an interesting day ahead of me.” However, it was the same as yesterday and a month before. I would hunt for food and take my son for a walk next to the military base where the Russians settled.
Those who left hardly showed their new life. They seemed ashamed to be happy when their hometown drowned in depression. However, more and more people would leave every day. Official data stated that about 30% of Berdyansk’s residents had left, but the actual number was much higher.
Up to $250 per Passenger
It took me three weeks to find a way to get from Berdyansk to Zaporizhzhia. I joined various groups on social media, monitored announcements, and asked for help… All in vain. There are several groups on Telegram and Viber where some people are looking for ways to get out of the city, and others are offering their carrier services. But the demand exceeds the supply by a mile.
Finding a driver to get out of the city was also challenging because the trip back from Zaporizhzhia to Berdyansk was grueling. Cars would sometimes be detained for weeks at checkpoints. While waiting for permission to enter the occupied territory, drivers had to spend all their earnings on rent and food. The people driving their first group out of the city usually ask for 200-250 dollars per person. Others raised prices “only” to UAH 2-3 000 per passenger (this trip cost UAH 1 000 at the beginning of the occupation). Asking people with cars for a ride is also an option, but drivers are reluctant to take on strangers.
On May 10, I saw a Facebook message that a group of volunteers from Israel was organizing an evacuation from Berdyansk. They were only gathering women with children and retirees to pass checkpoints easier. For men, a similar journey is a much more complicated undertaking. Men with a Donetsk residence permit aren’t allowed to pass; every man has to show their military ID, and then there’s a thorough check of his name on numerous blacklists.
Later that same night, a woman who introduced herself as Anna called me and told me that the bus from Berdyansk would leave at 8:30. In the morning, my son and I arrived at the meeting spot we agreed upon. A few older women from Mariupol were waiting with us.
“This is my third attempt to leave Berdyansk; it didn’t work out before. I am staying at a sanatorium, and I’m ashamed to go back again if this falls through”, — one of them complains. She’s wearing light slippers over warm socks and holding a sizeable checkered bag and a few plastic totes.
A car drove up to us. A young man came out, called himself a volunteer, and said that the bus driver was held up at one of the roadblocks. The volunteer offered to take us to our homes and told us to wait for further announcements in the Facebook group. He talked on the way:
“In this situation, I am most worried about the driver. I was in his shoes. I was taking people and goods in and out of the city, and once, they stopped my car at a roadblock and started to grill me. They didn’t like my beard. They made me undress and examined my tattoos. They suspected me of being a soldier from the Azov regiment. So they took me to a cell and beat me several times a day. If the door opened, I knew they would beat me now. Buryats are the worst; each one eagerly awaited his turn to hit me. There was one normal Dagestani soldier. He brought me a blanket, and once he said: “They will keep you for a few days and release you.”
My relatives raised the devil when I disappeared. They came to the commandant’s office and demanded that I be released. They told my relatives that I wasn’t held captive, but no one fell for that. The laziness of another Dagestani soldier saved me: he did not take my car away; he parked it right in the yard of the commandant’s office. Relatives pointed it out to the Russians.
Only then did they agree to let me go. The first thing I did when I returned home was hug my wife and children and shave my beard. I never go to Zaporizhzhia anymore. I’m helping out inside the city where I can”.
That time, our evacuation was interrupted. On that day, an announcement appeared in the group that the bus went missing with the driver (to this day, his fate is unknown), and there was no cell service in Berdyansk the following day. Luckily, I was able to arrange another escape route. A husband of my acquaintance would help my son and me leave the city.
Day One: a Road to a Trap
We had the following plan: my son and I would spend the night at my acquaintance’s place. We were to leave at 6:00 in the morning as soon as the curfew ended and join the convoy. Hundreds of people were waiting for this trip for several weeks. Since May 1, no one dared to transport people because of the complete absence of cell service in the city, and then everyone was afraid of Russian provocations on May 9. Evacuation to Zaporizhzhia was finally allowed on May 12. About 400 cars left Berdyansk that day.
At first, we told soldiers at checkpoints that we were going to Crimea. The Russian military did not hold up cars that went in that direction, they only checked passports and birth certificates of children, and sometimes they opened the trunks. We also wiped our phones in advance in case Russians would want to check them. But this cover story worked only as far as Melitopol, from where one road leads to Dzhankoy, and the other goes to Zaporizhzhia. As soon as we turned on the road to the Ukrainian-controlled city, the events took a dramatic turn.
No one was let through at the checkpoint in Vasylivka. They said they were waiting for an order. It looked like we would have to spend the night on the road. A Chechen soldier drove by, offering water from a tank. He assured us that it was potable. We poured some into a plastic bottle and used it as process water.
There were seven of us in the old Lada car: three adults and four children aged four to 11 (the driver, my son and I, and a woman with three children). We tied white ribbons on both sides of the car and put up sheets of paper with “CHILDREN” inscribed on them. The driver blocked the back doors from the inside so that the children would not jump out onto the road in the event of shelling or explosions.
Nina (the mother of the three kids) had not dared to leave the occupied city for a long time, although her husband, who worked in Poland, had been asking her to join him there. When the cell service was cut off again for a long time in Berdyansk, he could not stand it anymore and came to Ukraine. He waited for his family in Zaporizhzhia.
“He’s such a loon, quitting a good job like that. Now he needs to make a lot of documents to return there”, she complains.
She had no job prospects, and the kids were out of school since the beginning of the war (even though officially the school year lasted till May 2), so she eventually decided to evacuate.
All the way, Nina took sedatives and smoked a lot. Her kids reciprocated her nervousness and constantly quarreled. The fact that they could barely move didn’t help. To go to the bathroom they stepped out of the car, but we wouldn’t let them wander off into the grass, lest they come across mines. Nina promised us that she would quit smoking when it was all over.
In the evening, a strange woman offered mothers and children to spend the night in the hall of the local lyceum. But because of the fear to be forcibly deported to Crimea (there were a few cases already), many spent the night in their cars.
Day Two: a Convoy in Captivity
It was the scariest night of my life. Children slept on top of adults, and adults were afraid to close their eyes. At approximately 1AM, we saw Russian soldiers get out of a car standing in the convoy and quickly head towards the gas tank (the convoy stopped near a burned-down gas station). They returned just as quickly.
“Keep calm. If the Russians were planning a provocation, they would not have returned. We need to watch them and see if they will go”, the driver warned us.
And we watched; we peered into the darkness and shuddered at the explosions somewhere very close. Fatigue gave way to restless sleep. Two shots at the checkpoint woke us up at 3AM. Suddenly, the nearby cars started to turn on their lights and engines, and the military began to shout.
– What’s happening? Are they shooting at us? Do we need to leave?
Our questions hung in the air as the driver got out of the car to see what was happening. Finally, he returned.
– Idiots! Some people decided to drive to the front of the convoy while everyone else was asleep. They turned on the headlights and startled the orcs. Russians fired into the air.
He swore and said that if Russians got angry at the convoy now, they would hold everyone up for another day. And that’s precisely how it went.
Nervous clashes began. People were angry at the audacity of the night “daredevils” and threatened to slash their tires. Then the crowd agreed not to make the bad situation worse. Everyone calmed down.
In the morning, the convoy “captives” ate the food they brought from home. A man in a big car was boiling water on a travel burner for others. He also took pout a large bag of cookies to share. He often travelled this road, so he was prepared for this scenario.
– It might rain in the evening. If it rains, we can all turn our cars back. The road will be flooded, and no one will be allowed to pass for several days.
That prospect looked grim. The women with children who spent the night in the lyceum came back. They said that they were fed and allowed to sleep on some mattresses on the floor there. It was cold, but they felt safer sleeping in a building than in a field. There also was an option to rent a dorm room with beds and carpets for 100 UAH per person. We took note of this information.
The day dragged on tediously. People tried to entertain themselves as best they could: they lay on the grass, weaved wreaths, and walked around the convoy. Little ones could finally stretch their legs, and pets – dogs, cats, hamsters, fish, and even a Chinese sparrowhawk Kiki – could get some fresh air. However, just like Kiki, we felt caged.
As the day went by, the Russians voiced a few reasons for the holdup: there was no order to let people through, Ukraine did not want to let us in, there were military actions on the road to Zaporizhzhia, and finally that a truck got stuck in the mud on the highway and blocked the passage. Several vehicles from the “Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia” went to rescue the truck, by the way. Others could already go through in the afternoon, but they still didn’t let us out.
On May 13, new cars joined the convoy. About 800 vehicles and minibuses have already gathered at the checkpoint in Vasylivka. More than 4,000 people altogether were trapped on the road.
In the evening, Russians brought us tea and coffee. The Chechens (or Dagestanis), who poured the drinks into our bottles, kept saying: “Go back before it’s too late.”
– Back where? I have cancer. I need to go to the regional hospital in Zaporizhzhia, one woman cried.
– Soon there will be no hospitals there, the Chechen warned her.
There was a rumor that Russians would soon let the line of cars from Zaporizhzhia through, and then they would let us go. A young soldier approached the cars and shouted: “We need women with babies and pregnant women!” There were several dozens of cars with such passengers.
He ordered them to line up in a separate line to the left of the checkpoint. My neighbor and I showed that there were four children in our car. He looked at us and mumbled: “Get in the line!”
We joined the lucky cars in a separate line. But half an hour passed, an hour, another half-hour… No one paid attention to us. When asked when they would let pass, a young Chechen man in a balaclava started shouting:
– Who told you that we would let you through?! What soldier? He already changed shifts! And where will you go if there is shelling and the road to Zaporozhye is closed? What kind of mothers are you if you are taking your children under shelling? Did you give birth to them to have them killed?
– We gave birth to them to live in peace, said a young mother.
– Then go back!
The woman choked on her tears but said nothing to the Russian not to annoy him even more.
We just stood there. A man in black clothes arrived. We told him: “We have four children in the car. Please let us go! Help!” Suddenly, he waved his hand and pointed to the vehicle in front of us to let it pass.
– We are next in line!
– Okay, go fast before I change my mind!
Three cars rushed off this line of vehicles with “women with babies and pregnant”. We passed the following checkpoints without any issues, and at the last Russian roadblock, they shouted at us: “The road to Zaporozhye is closed. Go on, though – maybe they’ll kill you faster that way!”
They held our cars up for the night at that ultimate checkpoint. The Russians let us park the car at the beginning of the convoy that had already been held up there for four days.
A woman approached our three cars and invited us to stay at her house. Thanks to the kindness of Lady Vera, women and children were able to wash their faces, have dinner and sleep lying down.
Day Three: Hugs from Volunteers
At 06:00 in the morning, we were already in the car and ready to depart. But the “back-and-forth” began again. At first, the Russians told us that they would let us go at 8AM, then at 9AM, and then they stopped promising anything. All this time, there was heavy fighting very close to the highway. To calm the children who started crying, we learned and repeated the prayer: “Save, Lord, from all evil”.
Adults from different cars began approaching the checkpoint one by one and begging the Russians to let us through. At 11AM., they took pity on us. We passed the last Russian obstacle and rushed through the mud in the village of Kamianske with enthusiasm.
Both adults and children cried at the first Ukrainian checkpoint. The soldiers handed out candy to the children and shook their hands. The boys were beyond themselves.
When we arrived at the center for displaced persons (the military and police instructed us to go there), we could finally relax. Volunteers took down our data and led us to the UNICEF tent, where children received backpacks with coloring books and necessities (shampoo, shower gel, wipes). I received a warm blanket and hygiene products. Then we were invited to a free canteen and offered transport services. It turned out that we could get to any city in Ukraine and even abroad (for example, Poland or Romania) from Zaporizhzhia for free.
In the evening, my son and I waited for the last participants of the convoy to catch up with us. Then we started the ultimate stretch of our journey to freedom on a Red Cross bus. Most passengers, like us, did not want to stop for the night.
We wanted to keep going. Now we were not scared anymore.