Imagine being uprooted in one’s own country. That is what happened to a 16-year-old boy, Dima. With a hodgepodge of Russian and Ukrainian documents, he escaped from the Crimean Peninsula — occupied by Moscow since 2014 — and arrived a few days ago in Kyiv, where he now lives with his brother. To reach the Ukrainian capital, he had to travel for four days through three countries (Russia, Turkey and Moldova). A necessary detour to leave the peninsula that is part of Ukraine, but under Russian control, and return to territory that is part of the same country. It is clear from his testimony that he is not leaving behind a ruthless dictatorship, but a system that is trying to erase Ukrainian identity, history, and culture.
The big worry for many Ukrainians like Dima is that they will be forced to put on a Russian uniform, because they live in an occupied zone, and end up shooting their fellow countrymen. Although he is still a minor, that is what torments Dima (not his real name for security reasons) the most. “I’d run cross-country if I had to,” he asserts. He already has acquaintances who, having just turned 20, have been conscripted into the occupation forces and are operating in the neighboring region of Kherson.
The same fear affects young men and women living in other Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, such as parts of the Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhia, and Kherson regions, where Russification is also being imposed with the distribution of passports from the invading authorities as a condition for collecting pensions, paying bills, and banking. “Even in school we were given pamphlets to brainwash us,” the young man adds.
In Sevastopol no one cares about anyone else, everyone is trying to cheat and screw the next guy
The escape plan, tempered with the unwavering desire to return to his hometown of Sevastopol as soon as possible, is part of a process that has been simmering for some time and stems from a rejection of a life under the Russian tricolor flag. Dima was seven years old when the Russians occupied Crimea and remembers “almost nothing” of that assault, but as he explains, he has done his best to maintain the link with Ukraine and complete his education within its system. On the advice of his family, he had been studying for four years by distance learning in the Ukrainian education system, while attending face-to-face classes imposed in Crimea by the Russian Ministry of Education.
During the interview with this newspaper in a Kyiv store, Dima savors several glasses of Pepsi Cola, one after the other. Until now, they were an inaccessible luxury among the Russian imitations of U.S. soft drinks. “With the beginning of the invasion last year, Ukrainian-made “coketails” that were stolen from establishments in Kherson started arriving in Crimea,” he explains as he shows a photo of one of the cans on his cell phone. “You could buy them in small stores,” he notes.
Gradually his life is adapting to the capital. In a few days he will take the university entrance exams with the idea of studying economics or international relations. The Kyiv education authorities were surprised that he showed a Crimean birth certificate and his grades from a school in the Donetsk region for enrollment. In fact, although he has lived under Russian occupation of the peninsula for more than half his life, the war that began last year eventually affected his academic education. The first center where he was enrolled for distance learning under the Ukrainian system was located in the town of Volnovaja (Donetsk). It was destroyed last year and today is in the middle of the front line. Thus, he had to attend a school in Sloviansk, in the same region, and by taking the exams from Sevastopol, he obtained his Ukrainian transcript of records.
Dima arrives at our meeting straight from the hairdresser’s. His haircut, he claims, could be a reason for him to be picked on or called gay in Crimea, “a closed and violent society.” Because of details like that, he says he wanted to “escape from a regime” where they were always “tightening the screws.” In Kyiv he was surprised that a salesclerk took the time to ask about his preferences or that at the book fair a friend of his brother’s was interested in him and his trip. “And he didn’t know me at all,” he stresses. “In Sevastopol no one cares about anyone else, everyone is trying to cheat and screw the next guy,” he argues.
Dima left home with his 47-year-old mother on June 18 and arrived in Kyiv on June 22. His 46-year-old father does not have the opportunity to leave. To avoid being enlisted in the invading army, he is not registered with the Moscow authorities and this prevents him from traveling abroad.
Two hours by bus allowed them to get from Sevastopol to Simferopol. They then traveled some 20 hours by train to Sochi, Russia, leaving Crimea via the bridge across the Kerch Strait. The transportation link that was opened in 2018 by Putin to shore up the occupation was attacked this week for the second time. The young man acknowledges that they did not have to pass special checks by security forces but describes the carriage as “a hellhole without air conditioning, old and very Soviet.” A plane from Sochi then flew them to Istanbul. And that’s when the family’s original plan began to fail. The mother had to turn around because the Istanbul airport would not accept her Russian passport to take another flight to Chisinau, the capital of Moldova. Paradoxically, the minor did manage to pass with a Russian passport, and went on alone, he says.
His mother, a legal advisor, is now trying to get a Ukrainian passport — her old one had expired — to try again to leave Crimea.
The young man arrived alone in the Moldovan capital, where he says a border agent immediately began questioning him while rummaging through his suitcase. “Everything changed when I told him that I was a Ukrainian refugee leaving Crimea and that I was going to join my family in Kyiv. Then he stopped asking me questions and helped me re-pack,” he explains. A driver contacted by his brother picked up Dima and drove him to a Moldovan border crossing with Ukraine in the Chernivtsi region. If the Russian passport was enough to leave Crimea, the birth certificate was enough for him to gain access to Ukraine.
As he reached Kyiv by road with his brother and sister-in-law on June 22, Dima saw the damage caused by the Russian invasion with his own eyes. The vehicle was driving along the remains of the battle and houses and buildings reduced to rubble in the surroundings of towns such as Bucha and Makariv. He has not experienced that “war landscape,” as he describes it, in Crimea, where the shelling and clashes between the two armies are experienced in the distance.
Dima has also experienced how alarms in Kyiv still frequently warn of possible attacks. Just two days after his arrival, a Russian missile killed five civilians. The rumbling was heard at his brother’s house in the middle of the night. “There are no sirens in Sevastopol,” he says while explaining that the Russians are trying to give everything a patina of normalcy on the Crimean Peninsula.
There his mother is now waiting for a new opportunity to leave. The city of Sevastopol is the base of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, one of Moscow’s main military tools for keeping the occupied peninsula secure. In parallel, in 2014 the Kremlin launched a major resettlement program of Russians, both civilian and military, to mix with the Ukrainian population. Crimea had 2,350,000 inhabitants that year. By the end of 2021, the Kyiv government estimated that at least 600,000 Russians had arrived on the peninsula in that period, meaning a population increase of 30%. Dima and his family have noticed it in their own neighborhood community, where sparks often fly between Ukrainians and Russians.
Crimea is the jewel of the Russian occupation of Ukraine. Kyiv insists that its return is an essential condition for peace talks. Dima has just arrived in Kyiv, but keeps his desire to return home to Sevastopol on the horizon. He is optimistic and hopes that it will be in a year or a year and a half. The condition is that “the Ukrainian flag will fly over Crimea.” Meanwhile, on his bedroom wall, a map with the official borders of the country, those recognized worldwide, except by Russia, awaits him.
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