Friday, March 1, 2024

The Russian soldiers turned up at her home close to midnight with an ominous message. “They said, ‘If in two weeks you don’t have a Russian passport, we will talk to you in a different way,’” recalled Evelina, a social worker who until this month lived under Russian occupation in southeastern Ukraine.

She didn’t wait to have that conversation. Instead, she bundled a few possessions into a suitcase and left with her teenage daughter, heading for territory controlled by Ukraine.

In the Russian-governed lands, she said, it has become so tense that “you are afraid to look out your own window.”

The military deadlock that has settled in across southeastern Ukraine poses a looming security threat to the rest of the country, and menaces Europe with a long period of instability. But for the estimated 4 million to 6 million Ukrainians living in Russian-held areas, as Evelina was, the stalemate means something more dispiriting: an occupation with no end in sight.

Emptied of about half of its population and under the thumb of a harsh military rule, the swath of Russian-occupied territory, an area the size of the Netherlands, is stuck in a distressing state of limbo: run by Russia but recognized by most of the rest of the world as Ukrainian.

Demographics in these regions are changing as working-age people flee, leaving an older and poorer population.

Russian soldiers quarter in abandoned houses and crime has risen. Russian businessmen are strong-arming local business owners into selling stores and farms, and Central Asian migrants have shown up to trade in markets and work as laborers.

Searches are commonplace. Serhiy, 41, who left the city of Enerhodar this month, said his apartment was searched by three soldiers. “One stays in the stairwell with a gun and the other two come inside and go through all your stuff,” he said.

Repression, including torture in makeshift detention sites in basements, targets those who reveal pro-Ukrainian views, altering the political makeup of the area in Russia’s favor but also shifting the cultural landscape away from Ukrainian language and identity.

Russia now controls about 17 percent of Ukrainian land, a half-moon-shaped expanse of farmland, villages and cities in the southeast. The region is off-limits to rights groups and most independent reporters, but accounts by people who have left the occupied areas offer a window into this portion of Ukraine.

Evelina took an unusual but increasingly popular route back into Ukrainian-controlled territory: traveling into Russia and heading north and west, then back into Ukraine through an unofficial border crossing near the northern city of Sumy.

That path is taken by about 100 Ukrainians daily. They hire drivers or take public transportation in Russia to get to the border. From there, they stagger into Ukraine, a thin stream of exhausted families walking two miles on a rutted rural road between the two armies, an unlikely corridor of peace between two nations fighting a violent war.

The armies use the crossing to trade bodies and prisoners, and have negotiated an informal truce that has mostly held, border guards working in the area said. Civilians got word of the site and those with a Ukrainian passport have been piggybacking on the informal cease-fire to escape occupation.

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