‘With God’s help, we will go back’: Ukrainians flee annexed regions as Putin declares them Russian

Vladimir Putin declared on Friday that four regions of Ukraine were now part of the Russian Federation

Kim Sengupta
in Zhytomyr
Saturday 01 October 2022 19:54 BST
‘This is the will of the people’: Putin signs annexation of Ukraine’s regions to Russia

“Do you know what it’s like to lose your home, your job, and be told you have lost your country? To have to uproot yourself and try to escape, not knowing whether you are going to make it?” asks Darya.

“And you have to be really unlucky to have this happen to you twice in one lifetime”, she adds with a bitter laugh. “But I am sure it is not going to happen a third time. I am also sure that, with God’s help, we will go back to both our homes.”

Darya and her husband Yuri and two children are the latest in the exodus triggered by the war in Ukraine. They are among the people who have fled from the Russian-occupied south of the country in desperation as referendums ordered by Moscow were followed by annexation.

Vladimir Putin declared on Friday that four regions of Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia – were now part of the Russian Federation, further eroding the possibility of peace, and signalling that this long and bloody war is set to continue for a long time.

Darya, 34, her 39-year-old husband Yuri and daughter Natalya, 10, have been through this before. They left Crimea after it was annexed, again after a referendum, by Russia eight years ago.

It was a traumatic time they tried to forget as they settled near Melitopol, starting to build their lives again from scratch. Yuri worked as an accountant, Darya ran her own jewellery business.

President Vladimir Putin and the Russian-installed leaders in Ukraine’s Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions attend a concert (Reuters)

The family stayed on after Russians took over, initially determined to stick it out for as long as possible, and hoping Ukrainian forces would liberate the region soon.

Darya went on protest marches in the days after the Russians captured the area. She persuaded Yuri to stay at home and look after the children, pointing out that an arrest could lead to him being conscripted into the Russian armed forces.

Separatist officials, with Russian soldiers, had already called three times at their home. He had managed to get away each time before they arrived at the door. The couple decided, finally, to leave after Moscow called the referendums.

“Now the possibility was that we would have to take Russian citizenship and they would take me into the army. That was a real worry for many people: we heard of some men ‘accidentally’ breaking their arms to avoid conscription,” Yuri says.

There was also concern that Darya and the children may be taken to Russia under Moscow’s “filtration” system, which has seen thousands of people disappear over the border.

“If that happened I was convinced that we would never see each other again, we couldn’t face that,” Yuri explains, after arriving in the northwestern city of Zhytomyr following their eventual escape.

The decision brought back memories of leaving Crimea. Darya and Yuri talk of the sense of anger, and then deep apprehension, as the result was announced: 97 per cent of people supposedly voted to join the Russian Federation on an 83 per cent turnout.

I was reporting on the referendum from Crimea at the time, and colleagues and I had suggested that the Ukrainian and Tartar communities in Crimea should take part in the vote making it more difficult, with international media present, for the Kremlin to manufacture absurdly high figures for the outcome.

A member of an electoral commission walks past a destroyed building with a mobile ballot box and documents in Mariupol (Reuters)

“We were among those who did not take part. I know there were some arguments for it but what was the point, we thought, when they were going to rig the numbers anyway”, says Yuri. “Perhaps it was difficult for foreigners to understand, but we felt it was wrong to take part in something illegally imposed on our country.”

Coercion of the Ukrainian and Tartar communities in Ukraine to take part in the vote was limited at the time from the separatists and the Russians, although there were examples of intimidation. And for Darya and Yuri, leaving Crimea with Natalya – on a train from the capital, Simferopol, to Kyiv – was not too difficult at that time.

“It was very sad as we were leaving close family behind. We didn’t feel physically threatened but we had a Tartar friend who was beaten very badly by them [the separatists], he could not walk for weeks, we thought we would be next”, says Yuri.

The experience they had of the referendum this time was very different. Local officials and soldiers visited their neighbourhood to tell them they needed to vote, using the visits to track down people they were after.

A local resident casts his vote into a mobile ballot box on the third day of a referendum on the joining of Donetsk to Russia (Reuters)

“They were also very interested in Yuri. He always deliberately left when we heard they might be coming. They kept asking about him, they were quite threatening”, says Darya.

“We had a neighbour who had been in the old Soviet army, he had served in Afghanistan. He would come around whenever the Russians came with vodka, slap them on the back and share vodka and stories, that relaxed the situation a bit, although I worried what they might do if they got drunk.

“On one visit there was a soldier from Asia, I think he was an Uzbek. I almost mentioned our Muslim Tartar friends to try and get some common ground with him but I stopped myself. It would have been a mistake to mention our Crimean days.”

The situation became volatile on the last visit by the officials. “They broke a few things, but the real worry was this young man, he was thin and spotty, he had a face like a rat. He always made me feel uncomfortable, the way he looked at me. He started touching me, got very close to me and said, ‘I’ll see you again, I know about you’. I was angry and shouted at him to get out. Our neighbour and the other officials took him out.”

A dusty playground of a damaged kindergarten is seen following recent Russian shelling in the city of Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine (Reuters)

That evening Darya and Yuri decided after a long talk they must leave, worried about what may happen to Darya and the children if Yuri was arrested or conscripted. But getting past the filtration process and Russian checkpoints, they knew, would require money for bribes.

After a lot of effort Darya and Yuri got help, including from an official, to get away: they do not want to discuss details of the arrangement or how much they paid.

“It was everything we had and also borrowed money,” says Yuri. “We had to remain calm and told the children at the last minute that we were leaving. The night before, as we were packing, Darya said, ‘Do you remember when we left Crimea, we said thank God we won’t have to do this again’.”

Yuri was separated from the rest of the family at one checkpoint and strip-searched. “They were looking for tattoos to see if I was a Nazi. I have two football tattoos, one of Shakhtar (Shakhtar Donetsk) and another of TSK (TSK Simferopol, a Crimean team). I was a bit worried about the TSK tattoo, but I don’t think they noticed.”

After three hours Yuri was allowed to rejoin the family and soon afterwards they passed the final Russian checkpoint. There were missile strikes and shellfire near their car, one very close.

There have been two attacks on civilian convoys since the annexation was announced, killing 25 people in Zaporizhzhia and 20 more in the Kharkiv oblast.

“The bombs were scary. But we are just glad to be out of Russian occupation, it is such a relief,” says Darya. “The way our army is advancing we may get back to Melitopol sooner than many people think. And one day we’ll once again swim in the seas from Crimean beaches. One can’t give up hope.”

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in