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Inside the daring civilian effort to free Ukrainians who were forcibly deported to Russia

donetsk region reunitedPassengers hug on a platform next to a train arriving at the station in Kramatorsk, in the Donetsk region on April 8, 2023.

Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

  • Civilian-run groups are evacuating Ukrainians trapped in Russia or occupied territories in Ukraine.
  • The job is risky but vital, three volunteers with one such group — Helping to Leave — told Insider. 
  • The group has helped more than 160,000 people, including some who were forcibly deported to Russia.

Elisavet Karsanidi was surprised when she was told her mobile phone number is written on the walls of a destroyed building in Mariupol. 

But ultimately, she’s glad it’s there as a first port of call for Ukrainians who are desperate to evacuate the war-torn country, she told Insider in an interview.

Karsanidi is part of a non-governmental organization called Helping to Leave, which launched hours after Russia invaded Ukraine last year and has since grown into one of the largest assistance projects in the war to date. 

The group has provided financial, legal, medical, and psychological help to around 160,000 Ukrainians since the start of the war, according to an annual report published last month. It also helps evacuate them.

The job is rewarding but can be high-stakes, three volunteers, including Karsanidi, told Insider.

“Every day feels like a cardiogram. Every day you feel from high to low, and you go there so easily,” Nelli Isaieva, a supervisor for the group, told Insider. “But it makes me feel like I’m doing something good.”

Isaieva, who is from Ukraine, helps evacuate people out of temporarily occupied regions, like Mariupol, which was captured by the Russians late last year and has remained under their control. 

evacuation ukraineAn elderly woman lays in the back of the van after being evacuated her from her house in Kostyantynivka, Ukraine, on March 21, 2023

Ignacio Marin/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

But in March 2022, Isaieva said they also started getting messages from Ukrainians who are stuck in Russia after they were forcibly deported there.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of running a forced relocation and deportation program that they say has seen hundreds of thousands of people displaced.

Before being deported, many are forced to go through abusive screening processes – known as “filtration” – which may result in detention, strip searches, or torture, an Amnesty International report published late last year said. 

For Ukrainians who are deported, it is difficult to get out because many have their passports seized and replaced with Russian documentation, officials have said. 

Russia has also illegally transferred thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine said in a report published last month. According to a Ukrainian database, more than 16,000 children had been deported as of February this year, the report said. 

Isaieva told Insider that in some cases, they also help children to get out of Russia, though this is a more complicated task and depends on different factors, including how old the children are, and what their parents want for them. 

The NGO also helps other vulnerable communities, like a group of Ukrainian men in wheelchairs who were able to escape a Russian deportation center they were provided with legal support and transport, Insider previously reported. They have since relocated to Norway.

At the time of writing, Helping to Leave has helped evacuate around 2,000 Ukrainians who were forcibly deported to Russia, the annual report said.

How it works

The process of evacuating people differs from case to case, but largely works like this, according to the volunteers:

  • Anyone wishing to leave reaches out to the group on Telegram. 
  • The team, which includes Ukrainian, Russian, and English speakers, looks at all the different options they can get them out and then fact-checks the routes.
  • If people are in need of medical or legal assistance, Helping to Leave connects them to the relevant people. It has volunteers spread across Europe, but also volunteers on the ground, like drivers. 
  • If people want to be relocated to a different country, they get sent a database of all the places they can go to.
  • The group uses donations to cover most expenses, like chartering buses, hiring drivers, or paying for train tickets.
  • Members of the team stay in touch with people and help find the resources they need until they’re safe.

While in some cases, providing reliable information is enough to help someone get to safety, other cases can take weeks. 

Yuliia Kostrik, who helps people get out of the Kherson region, told Insider that they never force people to make any decisions, adding: “We can only offer options and allow them to decide themselves. But we do try to provide as many options as possible.”

The most rewarding feeling is once people have made it out of the war safely, the team members told Insider. 

“When I get calls from people who have gotten out, that is the best feeling,” Kostrik added.

Read the original article on Business Insider
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