Andrii, 19, lived in Mariupol with his mother before Russia’s full-scale invasion. In March, when the city was under siege and heavily bombed, they decided to flee to the Ukraine-controlled territory of Zaporizhzhia. They set out on foot but were soon stopped by Russian soldiers, who informed them that all the bridges had been destroyed. The only route out of Mariupol was to head to the DNR, a quasi-republic in the east of Ukraine that has been occupied by Russia since 2014.
Andrii and his mother walked to the nearest village in the east, where they encountered a checkpoint manned by the Russian military and a bus. They were instructed to board the bus along with other people. The pair were transported to Bezimenne in the DNR. Upon arrival, they were housed in a school for two days before being moved to Dokuchaevsk, a village north of Mariupol. The Russians used the central building there as a filtration camp.
“And right there, in the assembly hall of the cultural centre, we underwent filtration. There were many people; we stood in line for a long time. Everyone’s phones were inspected, fingerprints were taken, and individuals were stripped to look for tattoos,” Andrii recalls.
The Russians offered them a choice: stay in the camp or be taken to Russia. Andrii and his mother chose the latter, hoping to eventually escape through the Russian-Estonian border, as remaining in the occupied village of Dokuchaevsk seemed hopeless.
Joined by 60 other deported people, they were moved to Taganrog and settled in a boarding house. They were ordered to apply for Russian passports and await approval for three months. Although they complied, Andrii grew increasingly discontented with the situation. He resolved to escape at all costs, a decision not shared by his mother, who decided to remain in the boarding house in Taganrog due to the immense stress and her inability to face the prospect of fleeing again.
Determined, Andrii found volunteers who secretly helped him cross the border. After enduring weeks of hardship, bureaucratic hurdles, and a gruelling journey, he finally reached Norway.