Ukrainians Embark on Arduous Journey to Flee Russian Control

by Ethan Kim
Russian Occupation Escape

For 68-year-old Ukrainian Rima Yaremenko, a strenuous 5,000-kilometer journey to flee Russian control concluded remarkably close to where it had begun. It took six days and travel through three nations, but she found solace just across the river from her besieged hometown.

Her journey was extensive and challenging, by bus through Russia, Latvia, and Poland. Now, she resides in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Kherson, with the familiar silhouette of Oleshky just visible on the horizon. Although only a stone’s throw away, her former town of 25,000 people might as well be a distant world.

Yaremenko spent 15 months under Moscow’s rule, enduring incessant artillery noise to stay near her cherished home and flourishing garden. The destruction of the Kakhovka Dam in June triggered devastating floods, reducing her cherished property to mere mud.

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Faced with a grim choice, Yaremenko opted for the only escape route – a long, winding and uncertain trek through Russia. “We didn’t want to go, but once we were flooded, I decided there’s nothing to stay for,” she confided.

Countless others embarked on the same voyage, leaving their inundated homes behind. Their path led across vast expanses of occupied territory, anxiety-inducing checkpoints, and Russia’s bustling urban core, all to reach the borders of the European Union.

Having moved out of Russian jurisdiction, these refugees gave The Big Big News a unique insight into life under occupation and their dramatic escape from Kremlin-controlled territory. Some spoke under the pseudonym of their first names due to the presence of family still residing in the occupied regions.

While both parties blamed each other for the dam’s destruction, water levels gradually decreased and the thunderous artillery resumed. The Dnieper River, marking the boundary between the clashing armies of Kyiv and Moscow, became a hotbed of escalated conflict. Russian allegations that Ukraine was to blame were challenged by an AP investigation.

The incessant shelling was intolerable for those already grappling with homelessness and access to clean water. Many lacked the financial means to rebuild, with occupation authorities providing a meager 10,000 rubles ($100) as compensation.

Lana, 43, described her previous house as “unlivable”, covered in mud, with broken and dirty water pipes, and filled with sewage. She left Oleshky on June 19 and reached Kherson slightly over a week later.

Initial hopes for a swift Ukrainian counter-offensive faded with time, and fears of being forced to accept Russian passports grew. Despite the receding waters, the calamity persisted, remarked Yevhen Ryschuk, the exiled mayor of Oleshky.

The AP interviewed nine individuals who escaped Oleshky between June 13 and July 1. The only available exit from the occupied Kherson region was via Crimea, annexed by Russia in 2014.

The administrative town of Armyansk was a mandatory stop for travelers. Here, phones were examined, email passwords collected, and suspected collaborators with Ukrainian forces interrogated or detained, sometimes disappearing entirely.

Inability to pass was often due to lost documentation and lack of funds, according to Nelly Isaeva, director of Helping to Leave, an organization aiding trapped Ukrainians in the east bank to escape.

The Russians “began to act more harshly than before,” shared an anonymous Oleshky resident, explaining that the soldiers now scrutinize locals’ documents even during mundane tasks like market visits.

Despite these hardships, life continued. Many relied on leftover food from those who had left. “They give us their stocks,” she said.

Many of those who fled continued their journey through Russia to either the Latvian or Lithuanian border, with some venturing further into Poland and crossing into Ukraine, while others chose to stay in refugee camps.

50-year-old Alla left after her mother, suffering from arthritis, refused to leave. The subsequent months under Russian control were the most difficult of her life. “Every day in Oleshky was a risk. Every day I thought about leaving, but I couldn’t bring myself to make a decision,” she confessed.

The flood was the final blow, rendering many buildings uninhabitable and threatening water-borne diseases. At the checkpoint, Alla was interrogated on her allegiance and knowledge about the dam’s explosion. Her answer was simple, “I just want peace.”

Those with prior collaboration had to go to greater lengths to conceal their history. Yuri, a 28-year-old former journalist, erased all evidence of his previous work and role in relaying coordinates of Russian army movements to friends with Ukrainian forces. His final destination was Kherson, a city under constant Russian bombardment but still home.

He expressed the irony of his situation, “It was just 20 minutes between Oleshky and Kherson. Now it’s three days.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Russian Occupation Escape

Who is the main character in this narrative?

The main character in this narrative is Rima Yaremenko, a 68-year-old Ukrainian woman who embarks on a long journey to escape Russian occupation.

What did Rima Yaremenko endure during the Russian occupation?

Rima Yaremenko endured 15 months under Russian occupation, with constant shelling and a devastating flood that destroyed her home and garden due to the destruction of the Kakhovka Dam.

What led to Ukrainians deciding to leave their homes?

Ukrainians decided to leave their homes due to constant shelling, the devastating flooding of their homes, and the fear of being forced to accept Russian passports. Moreover, they struggled with homelessness and a lack of access to clean water.

What were the conditions in Oleshky as described by the people who left?

The conditions in Oleshky were described as harsh and unlivable, with damaged houses, broken water pipes, sewage problems, and threats of water-borne diseases due to the flood.

What was the journey of the people who left Oleshky like?

The journey of the people who left Oleshky involved travelling through three countries and occupied territory, crossing nerve-wracking checkpoints, and dealing with interrogations. Their only way out of the occupied region was through Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.

What hardships did they face at the checkpoints?

At the checkpoints, their phones were inspected, email passwords collected, and those suspected of collaborating with Ukrainian forces were interrogated or detained. Some were unable to pass due to lost documents and lack of money.

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RickyJ July 11, 2023 - 3:34 pm

Man, this is one intense story, really makes you think about what’s going on in the world… We need to do more to help!

JohnW July 11, 2023 - 6:46 pm

This is just devastating. No one shud have to go through this. My heart goes out to Rima and all the others!

Mandy July 11, 2023 - 10:16 pm

15 months under occupation, that’s insane! All respect to these brave people trying to escape and find a better life.

LizaD July 12, 2023 - 4:14 am

it’s just so heart breaking…they were just living their lives, minding their business and then war comes to your doorstep. unbelievable!

Sammy July 12, 2023 - 7:38 am

Im so touched by this story. its a harsh reminder of what many are going through. God help them!


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