Millions of Ukrainians were brought to Russia. Some were abducted or forced to move. Some of them want to go back home – and get unexpected help.

Nearly two million Ukrainian refugees were brought to Russia. Kyiv speaks of kidnappings, Moscow of humanitarian evacuations. The fact is: many of them would like to go back to Ukraine, but often it is not possible for them or they are prevented from leaving the country. Some still succeed, also thanks to the secret help of Russians, as a research by the AP news agency has now revealed.

According to this, not all Ukrainians were forcibly resettled, some voluntarily decided to do so with the hope of a better life, promised money and promised work. Nevertheless, many were actually forced.

About from Mariupol. After refusing for a long time, some, some seriously injured, accepted the Russian evacuations. They were given a choice: a bus to either Zaporizhia in Ukraine or Rostov-on-Don in Russia, one of the AP reported. But: “You lied. The buses only went to Russia.”

Victims continued to report human rights violations on their journey and that their documents were taken from them. Some of them were taken to the most remote areas of Russia – to Khabarovsk and Vladivostok, for example. The places are closer to Japan than Ukraine.

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Surprisingly, nearly all of the Ukrainian refugees the AP interviewed spoke gratefully about Russians. Because they would have secretly helped them escape through a secret network: they would have obtained documents, provided accommodation, bought train and bus tickets or exchanged Ukrainian hryvnia for Russian rubles.

The AP also spoke to some helpers. “We are against the war, against Putin,” they said. One reported that the helpers only know each other through Telegram and almost all remain anonymous “because everyone is afraid of some kind of persecution”. Some of the loose groups are also equipped with chatbots to protect identities.

Some stopped helping after receiving anonymous threats. Punctured tyres, the Russian symbol Z painted white on a windshield and graffiti on doors and gates calling them “Ukro-Nazi helpers”.

But many continue.

“I would like to name their names,” said Viktoria Kovalevska, who managed to escape with her two daughters. A bus driver from a Russian detention center first hid them on board, then they took a taxi to a shelter. There would have been hot soup, a place to wash and train tickets to St. Petersburg. Other volunteers would have met them there and bought a new suitcase to replace the frayed bags. Then it went seamlessly to the border crossing to Estonia.

Under no circumstances should you say that you want to go back to Ukraine, rather that you visit relatives in Estonia, a helper advised other refugees.

According to the AP, whether you are actually allowed through at the border posts often depends on luck and the whims of the officers. Some border guards would only let people through with their Ukrainian ID card, while others insisted on an international passport. In at least one case, a family was denied onward travel without a Russian passport.

Kovalevska safely arrived in Estonia with her daughters four days later. She said of the helpers: “I would like to say to them: You are like angels […]. Because there was no hope. No.”

For the research, the AP conducted interviews with 36 Ukrainians, mostly from Mariupol. They were all taken to Russia. Eleven of them are still there, the others are now in Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Georgia, Ireland, Germany and Norway. The AP also relies on interviews with Russian underground volunteers, video footage, Russian legal documents, and reports from Russian state media.

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