By Eleftheria Kousta
Amid deportations, floods and shelling, grassroots groups have formed to help Ukrainians evacuate the frontlines and occupied territories.
Simon Kramtsov and his family left Kherson in southeastern Ukraine last year after living for three months under Russian occupation. They were driven out of the Russian-controlled areas by his brother’s friend.
“I counted 27 checkpoints along the way to Zaporizhzhia [a neighboring region],” said Kramtsov, who sought refuge in Ukrainian-controlled territories and has remained internally displaced since then. “The occupiers did not hinder our departure. They would stop the car, check our documents, and ask where we were going. Some would inspect tattoos, while others would look at our belongings. Perhaps no one prevented us because we had a baby.”
Kramtsov’s evacuation was good timing because, shortly after, Russian forces started severely restricting passage into and out of occupied territories. Kherson native Dariia Gasova and her family of six had to plan their escape for months, collecting the information given to them by friends who already attempted to leave. After great consideration, they realized they could not take the road to Kyiv.
“This road is a battlefield, full of mines and shelled on a daily basis,” Gasova said, explaining that Russian troops had set up numerous roadblocks, preventing people from leaving and returning them to Kherson or arresting them. Eventually, Gasova and her family decided to escape through Crimea and then Russia in order to ultimately reach Georgia. Going across enemy lines was a nerve-racking experience, as Gasova’s family was subjected to long wait times in passport checkpoints and excruciating interrogations by FSB security agents and border guards before managing to complete their journey.
For civilians to escape the frontlines and occupied territories it can be a very dangerous and arduous task, where authorities and international organizations can do little to help their safe evacuation. However, as the war rages on and Ukrainian citizens continue to demonstrate tremendous levels of defiance to the Russian occupation, new forms of resistance are taking shape, including the rise of grassroots groups facilitating the safe exit of civilians from the frontlines and occupied territories. Run by volunteers in Ukraine and abroad, their mission is to help Ukrainian civilians flee to safety and avoid the dreaded alternative that is being deported to Russia.
A lifeline for those who need it most
Dina Urich plays a leading role in the volunteer-run, evacuation group Helping to Leave. While her focus is on assisting people in the occupied territories, the group also works with those at the frontlines, like in Kharkiv, where bombs and deportation are the main threats. To coordinate this extraordinary effort, her group assembled a team of volunteers ranging from locals in the affected areas to those living in other parts of Ukraine and abroad, offering informational support and monitoring calls for help.
Given the dire situation on the ground, local volunteers can access areas where international organizations cannot. These groups are a lifeline for thousands of people in need of humanitarian aid. “We aim for the largest quantities of aid to reach those who need it the most,” said Urich, who also noted that Helping to Leave has supported 53,100 people so far through the entire evacuation process.
Similarly, Vostok SOS, another organization helping to evacuate civilians and provide humanitarian aid, has been preoccupied in recent weeks with the dire situation of the Kakhovka Dam collapse in Kherson, where large swaths of land are now flooded. According to Vostok SOS board member Oksana Kuiantseva, volunteers were able to activate an entire response system within hours.
This swift reaction happened thanks to a decade-long culture of organizing that has only grown stronger since the full-scale invasion. Vostok SOS was originally founded to assist activists and civilians in occupied Lughansk in 2014 when Russians took over by propping up Kremlin-backed separatist movements. By the end of 2022, the group had evacuated more than 46,000 residents from frontline and de-occupied settlements, including over 4,500 people with disabilities and limited mobility — afterwards helping them to reach their families or find a new place to live.
Despite bad telecommunication signals in the occupied territories, volunteers have established solid networks and the trust of the local civilians. For Helping to Leave, the process often starts with a phone call or a message from someone in distress or their relatives. Once a team member gets to them, they’ll arrange a driver to collect the person from a relatively safe point, usually their address. In some ways that’s the simple part. The evacuation process only gets more complicated from here due to a number of issues and barriers — all of which are a product of the Russian occupying forces.
Because evacuees have been deceived in the past, they sometimes fear that the driver sent to help them is actually working with the Russian authorities to deport them. Therefore, it is vital that volunteers establish trust with local communities. Urich said they often get the relatives of the person awaiting evacuation to record a voice message, so that the driver can play the audio to reassure the evacuee.
Amidst this reality, the Russian occupying forces are hostile to the volunteers. “The occupiers are aware of what we’re doing, and they’re trying to prosecute people that are cooperating with us,” Urich said. “It’s laughable how they pretend that they’re obeying the law while committing terrible crimes like torturing people in basements.” The Russian occupying forces apply different decrees every other day regarding people’s right to move across lines — with different commanders giving different orders to their troops, creating administrative chaos designed to justify their denial of exit to civilians.
According to Urich, the occupiers have been unpredictable. In the Kharkiv area they let out almost a thousand people in one day, only to impose restrictions the next day, like asking for extra documents and forbidding cars from approaching the checkpoint. Similar measures were also adopted in Zaporizhzhia, as a means of stemming the flow of cars leaving the areas under Russian control and forcing residents to go to the occupying administration to get exit permits.
Restrictions also affected single mothers when the occupiers started requesting the father’s permission to travel outside occupied territories, which for many reasons these women were unable to get. Grandparents trying to get to their grandchildren — because their parents were killed or went missing — have been faced with the same barriers, complicated by the fact that the occupying authorities in places like Mariupol have stopped issuing death certificates amid the mounting civilian casualties from shelling.
In the absence of official guidelines from the occupying authorities, Urich and her team are collecting testimonies from evacuees and their drivers. “Without the help of the volunteers, it’s almost impossible to leave,” said Urich, who noted that it’s the Russian army’s own crimes against civilians that drives the restrictions disproportionately affecting certain areas. “The logic is that if people exit this site, they will reveal what happened because they’re witnesses to war crimes.”
People leaving en masse also presents a challenge to the occupying forces due to their need to continue the propaganda that the occupied territories are better off under Russian control. “They were shooting all their propaganda videos in occupied areas [in the Kharkiv region] to say [that they were] in a good state, that ‘Russian peace’ is amazing,” Urich said, while noting that Izyum and Mariupol were completely cut off due to the destruction of civilian infrastructure.
Evacuations are also physically dangerous and energy-consuming for volunteer crews and those awaiting evacuation. “We work in towns and villages close to the frontline, under constant shelling. Our evacuation crews risk their lives every day on their missions,” Kuiantseva said. She also noted that members of the Vostok SOS crew were shelled by Russian troops in Kherson, even though the convoy was marked as a humanitarian mission.
As if things weren’t hard enough, the eastern bank has been immensely affected by the flood, resulting in most of the calls for help coming from that area. Yet, Russians have forbidden entry or exit, prevented evacuation crews from helping people to the Ukrainian side and refused to organize any evacuations for civilians despite continuing to shell the region.
Challenges also surround the evacuation of people with limited mobility, who remain particularly vulnerable. According to a Vostok SOS spokesperson, “the state takes less responsibility for this issue than it could,” leaving the group constantly searching for institutions that have vacant places where they can take care of the people they have evacuated. With little luck finding such places, they’ve been pushed into using their own resources to secure appropriate housing for displaced people.
Documenting a trail of abuses
Given that the work surrounding evacuations is quite sensitive, volunteer groups have been at the forefront of documenting violations. Urich said that a lot of information is shared by locals on Telegram group chats, which helps them better organize their operations and remain updated on the situation on the ground. “We organize a lot of things online,” she said. “We monitor and systematize all that information as the situation is always changing. Certain checkpoints might work today and not work tomorrow.”
Apart from easing operations, documentation has also led to some worrisome discoveries. The Russian occupying forces have been conducting the forced removal of Ukrainian citizens in occupied territories further to the east and into Russia, which Urich describes as “systematic,” adding that this issue affects all occupied regions. The reason this is happening, according to Urich, is so that Russian authorities can paint a picture where people support the invasion and turn to them for protection as Ukraine tries to recapture lost territories.
However, the reality for Ukrainians deported to Russia is quite different because many are left without the resources they were promised or any substantial help from the authorities. Helping to Leave volunteers have also been monitoring these movements, figuring out the Russian cities where Ukrainian evacuees might end up, so they are ready to assist them upon arrival with informational and logistical support — in the case they wish to be repatriated or go to a safe third country.
Often, those most at risk of such removals are children under social protection or people with disabilities. Since October, Helping to Leave recorded that 2,000 minors were taken away, with the Russian authorities saying they would be transferred to Crimea. But their whereabouts are mostly unknown, and Helping to Leave has been unable to track their location. While much of this information has come from witnesses, Russian authorities haven’t exactly been secretive about it either, trotting out children they “saved” at propaganda events.
With the liberation of Kherson’s west bank in November, the fate of civilians taken by Russian forces before the Ukrainian army’s arrival remains uncertain. “Occupants were doing anything to not let people out,” Urich said. Checkpoints are now treated as “borders” in annexed regions, and everyone trying to cross them undergoes intense and invasive security screenings. Russian FSB agents at frontiers bordering Russia collect fingerprints and saliva in order to register DNA identification information. “You cannot exit at all if you are a man under 35, and it’s very hard for people that are state workers, like teachers or doctors or any employees that work for civilian services.”
The route to Russia isn’t any more certain, as Helping to Leave recorded cases where people reached out to them for help, but were never heard from again after crossing into Russia. This was likely due to the fact that people entering Russia through the occupied territories have to go through filtration and refugee distribution camps, and sometimes end up being detained there indefinitely, according to Urich.
“Russian evacuations are actually deportations because they are mostly done without informed consent,” Urich explained, citing what happened in Kherson ahead of the Ukrainian counteroffensive as an example. “Armed Russian soldiers were knocking on people’s houses, saying that the Ukrainian forces approaching are going to shell everything and that this is a mandatory evacuation. This cannot be considered something people consented to.” According to Urich, the Russians also lied to people about where they were going, saying that they would be transferred to Crimea, when many were instead transferred to Krasnodar in Russia — something people only discovered after they had arrived.
Despite the horrific situation and many barriers, volunteers are more committed than ever. Vostok SOS’s spokesperson said that “every day we get a lot of feedback from people we helped. We are incredibly pleased to hear and see all this because you understand what you are working for almost 24 hours, six days a week.”
As for Helping to Leave, being at the frontline of some horrific events has further motivated them to amplify the voices of those who managed to escape — and showcase the resilience and defiance Ukrainian civilians and activists have demonstrated despite what they have suffered under occupation. “Thousands of people still live under occupation, completely deprived of their rights,” Urich said. “We want to emphasise that these are not isolated cases. Occupation is a system of abuse. Its goal is to keep people under constant fear.”
Eleftheria Kousta is a freelance journalist and researcher with an MSc in Security Studies from UCL. Having worked and volunteered in the advocacy space, she is interested in covering movements, civilians in conflict and refugees
This article was published on July 6, 2023 at WagingNonviolence.