Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s referendums: “Of course I didn’t vote, damn it!” | International

Constantín, a 28-year-old internet installer, couldn’t take it anymore. On Tuesday he took his gray Lada 110 car, mounted his brother, his wife, their son and his daughter, loaded it with everything he could, including packages on the roof rack, and left the five. Gone was Ivanivka, his Russian-occupied town in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine. That was the last of five days in which Moscow had organized annexation referendums there and in three other partially invaded regions to consider those territories as Russia. The next thing is to impose from this Saturday, October 1, on men between 18 and 35 years of age in those areas the enlistment to fight in Russian uniform against the troops of their own country, Ukraine. Constantín did not open the door of his home on Monday, when two armed men accompanied the woman who, from house to house, was looking for a ballot box in hand for the neighbors to participate in the illegal vote. And she doesn’t intend to wear the enemy uniform either. The occupation has lasted seven months and the war, insecurity, inflation and harsh living conditions are now joined by the harassment they suffer from the Kremlin’s plans. “I was scared”, settles the man hours after arriving in Zaporizhia.

That city, capital of the homonymous region, also hosts officials from the official administration of kyiv who have fled their towns after refusing to collaborate with the Russians. Moscow’s agenda “does not change our lives or those of our troops at all. Berdyansk will remain Ukrainian. We will fight until victory”, reacts Viktor Tsukanov, councilor of the Berdyansk City Council. The 40-year-old mayor of this occupied city tries to play down what might come out of Vladimir Putin’s mouth. The Russian president plans to announce this Friday unilaterally and without official support from anyone that the areas controlled by his soldiers in the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Lugansk, Zaporizhia and Kherson become part of Russia.

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Despite everything, there are thousands of citizens who, like Constantín and his family, have not waited for Putin’s announcement to leave. The scene of the caravans of vehicles putting land in between resembles that of the Russians who flee their country to also avoid being enlisted in the army and being sent to fight in the Ukraine. To get to the city of Zaporizhia you have to overcome Vasilivka, where hundreds of cars accumulate. It is, as dozens of interviewees describe, a kind of border hell of strict controls where Russian troops try to make it difficult for the population they had supposedly come to save from the “Nazism” of the kyiv government to leave. There, Constantín says that he was forced to wear his underpants so that the soldiers could check his tattoos, since he has several that are clearly visible on his arms. It is the way that the invaders have to detect patriotic or nationalist signs that are not to their liking and thus have an excuse to proceed with the arrest. Other men consulted describe similar scenes.

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Ina, 24 years old, is Constantín’s wife. She deals as best she can with Danil, the four-year-old, while she carries little Vladislava, nine months old, in her arms. The family has arrived at a transit center enabled in the hostel that occupies an old factory until they find a place to settle. There are several of this type in Zaporizhia where they try to organize the refugees by their place of origin. At one point in the interview, Constantín gets up to help the rest of the volunteers to unload a truck that has arrived with help.

Ina holds her daughter Vladislava in her arms, in the transit center where she is sheltered together with her husband and her other son.

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His wife remembers with dread the hours they spent in Vasilivka. They even tried to arouse the sympathy of the Russian soldiers with the argument that the child had a broken leg, because they scrutinized in a fierce manner and with very bad manners, according to Ina. The worst of the four controls was the second. There they disassembled everything they had in the car and, for a long time, they took all the electronic devices, even Danil’s tablet. She assures that they registered social networks, contacts, Google or YouTube history and groups of the Telegram social network. They detected one on Ina’s mobile that she didn’t like. Then, “one of the soldiers went crazy and screaming, very aggressive, he asked me to get out of the car,” she recalls. She implored them: “Please, I am the mother of two sons, one with a broken leg. Let me continue.” But there was another moment that was about to cost them a turnaround, as happened to four of the cars that were part of her 16-vehicle convoy. That was when the Russians suspected Artem, 33, Constantin’s brother, because he didn’t have a phone. That meant for the soldiers that they had to hide something, says his sister-in-law with anguish. The nightmare of fleeing through Vasilivka ended when they passed the last checkpoint, which “was in the hands of Chechens,” says Ina with some relief.

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Councilor Viktor Tsukanov and a group of municipal employees and volunteers from Berdyansk, a city in the Russian-occupied region of Zaporizhia, celebrate a birthday at the offices where they help refugeesLuis de Vega

Also welcomed in the facilities is Sergei Tatarnikov, 36 years old, who advances leaning on an old wooden crutch and his left leg bandaged. He was injured by shrapnel during an attack on August 24, Ukraine’s Independence Day. It was also the six month anniversary of the invasion. They had to evacuate him by ambulance from Orejov, one of the towns that the Russians have not managed to invade, but which lives permanently under siege. “It’s a war zone,” says Tatarnikov, who estimates that 5% of the 50,000 inhabitants should remain.

In the facilities where the inhabitants of Berdyansk receive help, Irina, 44, remembers how in Vasilivka the Russian troops humiliated them by making fun of “Slava Ukaine!” (Glory to Ukraine) that all the locals chant to cheer each other up and greet each other. Another Irina, a 69-year-old nursery school teacher, observed how her neighbor opened the door in the voting, a “farce” in the eyes of the international community, and she was forced to introduce the ballot. She has been accompanied on the bus trip by her son-in-law, Oleksei, 38, a newspaper advertising employee who has been unemployed by the war and who escapes from the enlistment with which the invader threatens him. He recounts bitterly how “many” acquaintances and former classmates now collaborate with the Russians.

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A woman in the parking lot of a shopping center in Zaporizhia converted into a reception space for people arriving from the area under Russian occupationLuis de Vega

Night falls in the old Zaporizhia factory while dinner is distributed in the dining room provided by the NGO World Central Kitchen, led by the Spanish chef José Andres. Not even at that time does the trickle of refugees who reach the facilities, ten stories high, stop. The testimonies of both on the odyssey to escape agree. Valentina, 65, a philologist and doctor of Ukrainian Language, managed to leave the city of Kherson by crossing the Dnieper River on board a small ferry, whose bridge has been bombed. Her group was held for two days in Vasilivka, where an old woman welcomed them into her house. “In Kherson most people are still with Ukraine. They are waiting for our army to arrive to liberate us”, affirms this retiree who hopes to be able to take steps in Zaporizhia to recover her pension, impossible to receive under the Russian authorities. When she undertook the trip, last Sunday, the ballot boxes of the illegal referendums were still going from house to house guarded by the military. “Only a few opened the door to vote,” she notes. And she makes it clear that she was not among them: “Of course I didn’t vote, hell!”

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