Refugees from the besieged city of Mariupol have survived unspeakable horrors, including over a month of non stop shelling, and then life under the Russian occupation in the city.
One refugee recalls sharing a basement with 106 others during the bombardment in Mariupol. One day, she told volunteers: “It was warm and the sun was shining and we all left the basement to breathe fresh air and cook outdoors. Suddenly we see a few men passing by the yard. They were dressed entirely in black with balaclavas on their faces. They started filming us on their phones and laughing. “
“Seconds after they left, shells flew directly into our yard. We ran but were thrown by the shock waves from the explosions. One guy cooking was badly injured in the legs, chunks of meat torn off of his legs. Another person’s shoulder was badly cut, so we sewed it up with regular sewing thread since we had nothing else for it. We don’t know what we did to provoke the attack, we were just laughing and cooking food.”
For many refugees in occupied zones, the only means of escape is evacuation to Russian territory. It is estimated over a million Ukrainians were loaded on buses, detained in filtration camps, and relocated to Russia, presumably to resettle there. Many find themselves trapped deep within Russian borders with no place to go.
Volunteer crews in Russia have stepped up to evacuate many of these refugees to safety across the border to Latvia and Estonia despite the crackdown of Russian authorities. The German nonprofit organization Rubikus, with funding by Nova Ukraine, coordinates housing and transportation to other countries in Europe. They work with each family to develop individualized travel plans. This work is possible in part thanks to donations from Airbnb.org and Uber who donated housing and transportation funding, as well as funding from Nova Ukraine donors to arrange flights, meals, group shelters, and hostels along the evacuation route.
Refugees describe passing through “filtration camps” — usually Russian-run police stations — where they are fingerprinted, interrogated and debriefed to ascertain their political loyalties. Families are separated, and some refugees are stripped naked and examined for pro-Ukrainian tattoos and military scars.
“The filtration camp in Dokuchaevsk was in a public school,” recalls one of the refugees. “We slept on desks, mats, and on the floor. There were no beds. They just threw down clothes. At least there was hot water – at 4 in the morning. We could wash in the sink for the first time in a month and a half. But after a week we were taken to a second camp, and that was much worse. There were no toilets or wash basins, just a latrine hole that was dug next to the recreation center, which was lined with pallets.
“We were driven like cattle, lined up like children, 2 by 2 holding hands,” she continued. “It was more scary for the men, because there were rumors they would be taken for interrogations, that they would take your documents and send you to the front to fight. But we were lucky: we went through all the checks in 4 hours: fingerprints, phone scans. Then we could go —- but no one told us where.”
In Russia, refugees are free to leave – but at their own expense. Russian volunteers have been aiding refugees, at great personal risk, to reach the Russian border with Latvia and Estonia. From there, volunteers funded by Nova Ukraine provide travel arrangements, money, and accommodation for each family to their final destination. For most families, this is somewhere in Europe. Others seek to return to Ukraine.
One family describes: “We spoke with a volunteer and by the next day we had tickets sent to us. After crossing the border, we were contacted by another volunteer who told us what to expect in Riga, ordered our tickets for the ferry, and reserved a room for us in a hostel. The volunteers greatly simplified our journey.”
In this way, your donations have helped over 1840 families escape from Russia. Sadly, only those who “pass” filtration camps are allowed to leave. The fate of those who did not is currently unknown.
Refugees escaping Russia pass through Rubikus hostels on their way from Latvia to final destinations in Europe