Featured Article

The only place to safely cross the border between Russia and Ukraine

Published on Oct 12, 2023

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 2nd edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on October 12th, 2023. The article was written by Svitlana Oslavska for Babel and was translated for n-ost by Natalia Volynets.

Check out the complete edition of this week's newsletter. You can access the original article in Ukrainian under this link. It was first published on September 28, 2023.

On 6 August 2023, Ukraine’s Ministry of Reintegration announced that its northern Kolotylivka-Pokrovka border checkpoint will be reopened. The village of Kolotylivka is located in the Belgorod region of Russia, while Pokrovka is in the Sumy region of Ukraine. The distance from the checkpoint to the city of Sumy is almost 60 kilometres.

Through the border, Ukrainian citizens can legally and relatively safely return home from Russia and the occupied territories. Since hostilities began, the checkpoint between the Belgorod and Sumy regions has been open before, yet people only learned of it through word of mouth. Those unaware of its existence used a detour —through EU countries to Ukraine, which is thousands of kilometres longer. A similar corridor currently operates between the Brest region of Belarus and the Volyn region of Ukraine. The Ukrainian border service does not disclose exactly how many Ukrainians have already returned through Pokrovka — the Russians monitor this information and make such a passage difficult for people, especially children. Some data is available.Since 24 February 2022, more than 25,000 people have returned from the occupied territories to those under the control of Ukraine. Journalist Svitlana Oslavska visited the humanitarian aid point near the Kolotylivka-Pokrovka checkpoint, covered part of the difficult way, and recorded the stories of Ukrainians forced to live next to Russians. Some of them hate pseudo-republics and are heading for west Europe while others must cross the border all the time, as their relatives live under the occupation. Some are waging their own little war with the occupiers, writing patriotic slogans on the streets of their home-towns,and risking their freedom and life. The humanitarian corridor also works as a passage for the exchange of prisoners — taking pictures is therefore mostly prohibited there. For security reasons, our heroes have also asked us not to use their real names and not to film them, because they are afraid that the Russians will try to take revenge on them or their relatives.

The material was created as part of the “Life in War” project, with the support from the Public Interest Journalism Lab and the Institute for Human Sciences (Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen).

Nastia and Valeryi: escaping occupation

The road from the Russian checkpoint Kolotylivka to the border offers only one direction of travel — to Ukraine. The Russians do not let cars through, so people must walk almost two kilometres of asphalt, gravel, and sand between Kolotylivka and the place where the bus meets them from the Ukrainian side. On the Russian side, there are anti-personnel mines on the edge of the road. Scattered on the Ukrainian side are suitcases, packets of biscuits, and a pair of shoes, as if the owners suddenly realised they could not carry all these goods any further.

Before crossing the border, people must queue in front of a table hedged by sandbags. On one side of the table, there is a concrete slab fortification, where Ukrainians are selectively examined. After crossing the border, people are taken by bus to the place where the Ukrainian special services check them. Since the queues are long, in the spring of 2023, a place to rest opened, called the Atmosphere aid station. It has a kitchen, a children’s playroom, and several rooms with beds. Today, no one goes to bed, in case they lose their place in the line. Where exactly the point is located is not to be revealed — the Russians can shell it.

A bus carries a group of women, children, and many pensioners. Several people are in wheelchairs. Cats stare out of carriers, and dogs are held close on leashes. Someone is looking for a sedative, and a mother of five takes a pill out of a huge plastic first-aid kit container. Someone is drinking tea and resting.

Eighteen-year-old Nastia comes from Luhansk. She has dark hair pulled back and faint freckles. In 2014, she left for another city in the Luhansk region, which was still free then. In the spring of 2022, it became occupied as well. At that time, Nastia was still an 11th grader.

Nine years ago, when the girl was leaving Luhansk, the Russians told her to do three things: give them her Ukrainian passport, hold up the Russian flag, and sing the Russian anthem. She told them she did not know the words. Now, in the queue at the Russian checkpoint, the guards told her to lift-up her T-shirt.

“Just like that, in front of everyone,” she tells me. “They said perhaps I had a corset with something underneath it.”

Nastia reached Kolotylivka by a private car; a trip from Luhansk costs 17,000 rubles — about 5,000 hryvnias (about 130 Euro).

56 year-old Valeryi is from Oleshky, just east of Kherson. Volunteers helped him arrive at the checkpoint for free, but it took a longer time than Nastia.

“It’s just two kilometres to our people,” he says, “but it took six days to get here.”

He is one of the few people from the left-bank Kherson region who passed through this humanitarian corridor today. In June, people travelled here en masse, say the Atmosphere coordinators, with everyone able to tell their own scary story. When the Russians blew up the nearby Kakhovka hydropower plant (HPP) in June 2023, the streets of Valeryi’s town were flooded. The Russian rescuers arrived by boat and asked the people, who were sitting on their roofs, if there were any children with them. Hearing the negative reply, they turned around and sailed away. Valeryi, like thousands of other Ukrainians in the occupation, did not want to leave for a long time, but finally succumbed, due to his daughter’s persuasion.

“She told me I should not take much, well, I don’t have much now,” he jokes. Valeryi lost his farm, garden, and a minibus. His black shepherd dog, Sky, survived and now stands gloomily by his side in a muzzle. Until Oleshky is free, Valeryi does not plan to go back home.

Nastia has a different story — she is already studying at a university in Dnipro, but comes to the Luhansk region from time to time to visit her relatives. Her father cannot leave as he served in Ukraine’s Anti-Terrorist Operation (ATO) in 2014. Passing Russian checkpoints and checks is dangerous for ex-servicemen: the Russians can detain or beat them. Many people have disappeared after such checks. Nastia’s mother does not want to leave her husband.

Sisters from Donetsk: life in the stupid abyss

A bus ticket from Donetsk to Kyiv costs 22,000 rubles (about 8,400 hryvnias) (about 207 Euro). A driver has to be paid the entire amount at once. People get to the border and, in the controlled territory, change to another bus, and receive its licence plate number during payment. This is expensive, but not everyone is aware that volunteers are also on hand to help people arrive at their destination for free.

Many people do not want to give their names as they plan to return to the occupied territories. I meet two sisters in their early 50s, who came from Donetsk. Messengers provide enough information about passages through Kolotylivka, but the women saw an announcement stuck to a telegraph pole in their hometown, “Donetsk — Kyiv via Sumy, safe route.” To take the bus, they used the money from their own business, where they go to the field, collect herbs, dry them, and sell tea. The sisters willingly talk about their life in Donetsk and their daily resistance to what they call the “stupid abyss.”

“The first day of the invasion. A woman jumped out onto the road and spread her arms in front of the tanks. A soldier, black-skinned, wearing a balaclava, got out and dragged her to a nearby bus stop... You won’t believe it, but we went and threw our icons away. If Ukraine wins, we’ll buy new ones.”

“[Using an old radio] I found a stick and screwed on an antenna, and caught Ukrainian Radio. It creaks, but at 3 a.m. you can hear something. Once I heard the song ‘My heart is steel, my blood is Azov.’ We once went to [the seaside city under occupation] Berdiansk, there was a guy from the Azov [Regiment]. We talked to him, he even hugged me. Write about that, perhaps he will remember me.”

“I take a marker and write ‘Glory to Ukraine’ on garages. On the next day, someone adds, ‘Z, V, Russia forever.’ Well, what else should I do with my emotions? What can we do to show that we haven’t descended into this stupid abyss?”

On their departure from the occupied territories to Russia, the two sisters, like others, were required to fill out long questionnaires.

“Such questions like, ‘What do you think of the SMO [special military operation]?’ What can I say? How can one feel about the war?” one says.

“And I was afraid. I said, ‘Positively.’ They can bury us in Donetsk, and no bones will be found.”

A third woman, the sisters’ companion, approaches us.

“On the Ukrainian side, they asked, ‘How do you feel about the occupation of Donetsk since 2014?’ And I said, ‘Since 2014, I wish Russia to burn in hell.’”

The woman says she has a son in Donetsk who has not left home for ten months now to avoid being mobilised. She is thinking of how to help him get away. The sisters have a grandson of the same age at home, and the problem is similar.

Ms. Alla: helping out with tea

Kateryna Arisoi, the coordinator of the Atmosphere aid station, found out about the checkpoint in the spring of this year. Her friends came back from under captivity through this checkpoint. She met them and saw that ordinary civilians were also crossing the border, but there was no infrastructure for them. With the help of the Krasnopil community and international donors, Kateryna and her colleagues set up a separate space. Volunteers also help those who cross the checkpoint and have no ongoing transport, give advice over the phone, and sometimes keep in touch with people even after they have moved on, especially if they are lonely. Volunteers can send them a care package or just call them.

“The name ‘Atmosphere’ contrasts with the information vacuum under the occupation. People come confused, and they don’t know how to get an internally displaced person (IDP) certificate,” says Kateryna.

She is not happy about the attention from journalists — she is afraid that if they talk about the Atmosphere too much, the Russians will shell it. Recently, the shelling has been very close.

The World Central Kitchen organisation also brings food to the aid station and Ms. Alla takes care of everyone in the kitchen.

“Some tea, maybe?” she offers, smiling.

She used to work as an accountant, but now she comes here for a shift by bus from a village that is only five kilometres away from Russia. The Sumy Regional Military Administration announced a voluntary evacuation from the border zone, but Ms. Alla refuses to leave — she does not want to leave her home and household.

“They say you can’t get used to shelling. You can, you can get used to anything,” she says. They were lucky today — there was no shelling, it was quiet.

“I’d like a cup of tea,” a thin elderly woman in a shawl is stirring sugar and tells me how she lived in a monastery in St. Petersburg for several months. The Moscow Patriarchate church took her there from somewhere near Kramatorsk. And it is to Kramatorsk that she returns.

At the table, nobody asks about political views and activities during the occupation. Ms. Alla puts pasta with meat and beetroot salad on everyone’s plate. But people still share their opinions.

“I’m a Ukrainian and I won’t swear an oath to the country that attacked my homeland,” says a woman from Luhansk. She adds thatshe and others are being forced to get a Russian passport by winter.

Another woman, from Bilokurakyne in the Luhansk region, says that without a Russian passport they are no longer admitted to the hospital and are not given a special permit to go to Luhansk. At checkpoints, Russians ask, “Why still without a passport?” To this, people give a prepared reply, “Already making, have submitted documents.”

Kolia: bandaged from a home-made tattoo

After people are checked by the Ukrainian special services, they go out into the dark, where minibuses with the inscription “Evacuation” are parked. Buses go to the city of Sumy and run all night.

At 06:47 daily, a train to Kyiv departs from Sumy railway station. Two carriages are free for evacuees. There is another Atmosphere station in Sumy, where people can wait for the train. Kolia, aged 15, volunteers here with a bandaged hand, and a fresh tattoo under the bandage. A month ago, he came through this humanitarian corridor with his mother and younger brother from Donetsk. Kolia only had a birth certificate and a “DPR passport,” so he is waiting for Ukrainian documents and volunteers at Atmosphere.

“It wasn’t my mother who took me away, it was me — I took everyone away. My whole family is pro-Russian,” says the boy.

When the Russians occupied Donetsk, Kolia was a child. Three years ago, he became interested in what was really happening in the city, and what the “DPR” (Donetsk People’s Republic)and “LPR” (Luhansk People’s Republic) are. It all started with the Ukrainian film, “Ilovaisk 2014. Donbas Battalion”. This was a feature film directed by Ivan Tymchenko, and released on 29 August, 2019. The script was written based on the real stories of military volunteers who took part in the Ukrainian operation to liberate Ilovaisk from Russian control. Taras Kostanchuk, the commander of the assault group of the Donbas Volunteer Battalion, played himself in the film. This movie was recommended to him by YouTube, after he saw a video of the murder of Alexander Zakharchenko, the self-proclaimed head of the “DPR.” He died in the summer of 2018 in Donetsk, from an explosion in a café, which had the symbolic name, “Separ [Separatist]”.

At the aid station, Kolia does not switch to Russian even with the people from the Donetsk region. However, he says, he did not become “highly conscious” all at once. At first, he understood that “the DPR is shit rather than Russia.” Kolia was going to join the Young Army, a Russian military-patriotic organisation for young people. Donetsk’s children take an oath to enter this group at the Savur-Mohyla, a mound in the eastern part of the region. Throughout the summer of 2014, there were heavy battles for the Savur-Mohyla. The Ukrainian military initially took the mound, knocking out the terrorists of the so-called “DPR,” but on 25 August the peak was finally occupied by the Russians, when the first wave of the invasion of the regular forces of the Russian Federation in Donbas began. It was this ritual that beckoned Kolia, but due to the coronavirus and the full-scale invasion, he failed to take the oath.

Now he has escaped from the Donetsk bubble and is making plans for his life. He intends to study for two years in Norway, volunteer for a year and clean the oceans, and then, with the knowledge of English and education, go to the USA to study international law. When I ask about the tattoo, Kolia answers with another question.

“Well, when you leave the occupation, what tattoo would you want to make?” a rhetorical pause, after which the boy shows a large trident on his forearm, with a yellow-blue ribbon below — all this is covered in small black cuts.

Mothers: bringing teens to the west

In the Sumy-Kyiv train, people look old and tired after a sleepless night. Their movements are slow, and their rhythm speeds up only when they stop in the city of Bilopyllia, where passengers buy huge fried pies on the platform. It is less than 10 kilometres from the station to the border with Russia, but the train stops there for 20 minutes, as if to feed everyone. In the carriage, sisters from Donetsk sort Ukrainian coins in a bag. Valeryi from Oleshky orders his third coffee of the day.

People’s way from the occupied territories to Ukraine is not always a one-way escape to de-occupation. Their paths are indirect — as are the answers to the Russians at checkpoints. For many, like for Kolia, Sumy or Kyiv is just a station on their journey to the West. There are many mothers with teenage children at the aid station. Women are saving their kids from Russian school, citizenship, and the “Russian world” on the whole, so that they can dream of volunteering or studying in the US.

“It’s already reaching us: people are wearing red side-caps [like in Soviet times], they’re handing out diaries inscribed with ‘for Putin,’ and ‘for Russia’. What’s that for? I sleep in my house, but it’s kind of alien to me. That’s what school’s like under occupation for children,” says a woman from a settlement in north Luhansk. Like everyone else, she asks not to be named. She has sent her daughter to Ireland, but is returning home herself, where her younger son and husband are waiting for her. All the way, the mother and the daughter hold hands.

“The class teacher said in May, ‘Get a Russian passport because we won’t issue you a certificate,’” adds a woman from the occupied city of Antratsyt.

Another mother accompanies her daughter to a Kyiv university, where she will study photography. The woman herself will go back: there are people at home who need her.

All the women speak quietly, and they all share a common experience: they lost their jobs during the occupation and almost stopped from going out of their homes. Their life has narrowed down to a house and its yard.

From 23 July to 5 August, 2023, Russia did not allow people to pass through the humanitarian corridor. The Atmosphere volunteers have an explanation: too many children were leaving, and Russia wanted to keep them.