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Border escape: Ukrainians flee Russian-occupied territories

Anna Pshemyska in Sumy, Ukraine
May 5, 2024

Speaking with DW, Ukrainian civilians share their experiences of leaving Russian-occupied territories via the only open border crossing between the two countries.

Shelter in Sumy for people from occupied territories who cross Russian-Ukrainian border in Kolotilovka-Pokrovka
Ukrainians fleeing the Russian-occupied territories via the Kolotilovka-Pokrovka border crossing are limited to what they can carry

Each day, buses driven by volunteers travel from the town of Sumy to the Ukrainian-Russian border and back. They're collecting people who have crossed at the Kolotilovka-Pokrovka checkpoint, the former being a village in the Russian region of Belgorod and the latter in the Ukrainian region of Sumy. Since April 2022, this has been the only humanitarian corridor through which Ukrainians from the Russian-occupied territories can reach areas controlled by Kyiv.

On this day, 11 people and a howling dachshund are on the bus to Sumy. The passengers are mostly women and older people, but two teenagers are also on board. Some people gaze wearily out the window, while others doze.

Many have been on the road for several days, having made their escape through the 2-kilometer "gray zone" between Kolotilovka and Pokrovka, which they had to cross on foot, carrying their belongings.

A volunteer arrives to help Viktor, who tried to cross Russian-Ukrainian border without his wheelchair
A volunteer came to help Viktor, who tried to cross Russian-Ukrainian border without his wheelchairImage: Pluriton

Crawling across the border to Ukraine

"Everyone went ahead, but I was slower," says Viktor, a pensioner from the Luhansk region, about his journey. The double amputee sits next to a folded wheelchair, which gave to his wife, Lyudmila, so she could transport their luggage through the gray zone.

Viktor was determined to crawl the 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) with the help of a homemade pad, but the distance proved to be too much. "As soon as I crossed the border, I knew I wouldn't make it," he says.

When Lyudmila reached the Ukrainian checkpoint, she called for help from volunteers who, along with the Red Cross, are allowed into the area each day to pick up Ukrainians attempting to make the crossing. They met Viktor with a wheelchair and helped him get to the Ukrainian side.

Ukrainians take arduous route from Russian-occupied regions

'Among friends now'

Viktor and Lyudmila hesitated to flee for a long time because they knew it would be particularly difficult for him. Getting out of the Russian-occupied territories requires travel via Russia to a European country, which would have been time-consuming and expensive.

The Kolotilovka-Pokrovka crossing was their only option. Once they finally arrived, the checks went quickly.

"I've only experienced so much warmth from my own mother," says Viktor, shedding a few happy tears. "It feels like being among friends now." 

Their plan is to continue on to Kyiv, where their children and a newborn granddaughter are waiting for them.

Social workers meet with refugees who arrive via the checkpoint
Once refugees from the Russian-occupied territories arrive in Ukraine, they meet with social workers

In Pokrovka, officials check the papers and belongings of people coming from the occupied territories. Border guard Roman Tkach says the strict security measures also include a database search.

Afterwards, a bus takes the new arrivals to a shelter in Sumy where they can bathe and stay for several days before traveling free of charge by train to Kyiv, Poltava, Kharkiv or Dnipro.

'Drones and Russian soldiers everywhere'

Mykhailo, a former bus driver now in retirement, wants to meet up with his daughter Anna in Kharkiv. He lived in the Kharkiv region for 40 years, in the village of Tavolzhanka. But his house now stands in occupied territory, and is under fire from Russian troops.

"There are drones and Russian soldiers everywhere you look. They have dragged everything out of the houses and dismantled it, such as doors, floor coverings and carpets, because they are building shelters for themselves," he says angrily, describing his former neighbors as "collaborators." 

Mykhailo has a meal at the shelter in Sumy
After arriving at the shelter in Sumy, refugees like Mykhailo are welcomed with a meal

Many of his neighbors have since moved to Russia, but Mykhailo is quick to emphasize that he refused a Russian passport.

Fleeing the Russian draft

Anastasia, 18, left the Russian-occupied part of the Kherson region with her boyfriend Petro [name changed]. Petro, who turned 18 in December, received a summons from the Russian army in March.

"We decided to flee because I was afraid he might just be taken away," says Anastasia. She left her mother, her 7-year-old brother and her 80-year-old grandmother at home.

After arriving in Sumy, Anastasia meets up with her father, a solider in the Ukrainian armed forces. They cry and hug for a long time —they haven't seen each other in two years.

Ukrainian mother mourns 1 son killed, 2 missing

"Someone in the village betrayed that my father is a member of the military," says Anastasia. Men who she describes as representatives of the Russian secret service demanded to see correspondence with him.

"I had deleted it long ago and said that I was not in contact with him," says Anastasia. "They threatened that if we didn't have Russian passports in two weeks, we would be taken away or something else would be done to us. They were very harsh."

She and Petro will now stay with her paternal grandparents, who live in the Poltava region.

Crossing remains open despite shelling

Currently, 20 to 40 people use the humanitarian corridor each day to flee Russian occupation as the war wears on, says border guard Tkach. They come from the occupied parts of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, as well as from the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. So far, no one has been injured in the attempt.

Crossing is only possible for Ukrainian citizens during daylight hours and only in one direction — from Russia to Ukraine. "Ukrainian citizens have a constitutional right to enter the territory of Ukraine," says Tkach.

Despite increased shelling in the region, the crossing remains open.

This article was originally written in Russian.