Statistics show that during the last 12 months, the population of Ukraine has read less, eaten less, and drank much less wine. Behind the numbers lies the simple truth that there are now many fewer Ukrainians in Ukraine. Compared to a year ago, there are many more of them in Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, and the United States.
“What needs to be done to get you back?” I might ask the eight million Ukrainians who have ended up abroad.
I can imagine their answers: rebuild housing, give us security guarantees, index our pensions so that we can survive. But answers like these would come from only a part of the refugees. Others would remain silent because they do not believe that they will return or because they have already decided to stay abroad.
The most enterprising refugees, often the younger adults, have already found jobs or started their own businesses. In Europe and the U.S., I have noticed young Ukrainian couples, sometimes with children. I cannot help wondering how conscription-age men managed to leave Ukraine.
Some Ukrainians were already abroad when the war started, of course. I met a few in the south of France. For example, a young couple from Chernihiv and their seven-year-old daughter. On Feb. 24 2022, they were vacationing in Egypt. Their return flight to Kyiv was canceled. They called their relatives in Chernihiv. They could not decide what to do. The hotel expected them to leave as per their holiday dates, but then allowed them to stay when no new Ukrainian tourists appeared to replace them.
After several days of thinking about what to do, they flew to Europe. The husband, Ihor, is a cook. His wife is an accountant. Neither had good English. After a short stop in Spain, they ended up in a refugee center in Marseille, France. During our short conversation, Ihor did not mention how he got a job as an assistant cook in a hotel, but that is where I met him last summer.
The hotel bartender asked me where I was from. When I told him, he was overjoyed. “I have a colleague from Ukraine,” he cried. “Hang on. I’ll call him!” Ihor had landed on his feet. The owner of the hotel had not only given him a job, but also taken in his family and provided accommodation for them in the hotel. They were happy with their situation and were not thinking about the future. Dressed in his white chef’s jacket and apron, his curly hair showing beneath his chef’s hat, Ihor was the spitting image of a Frenchman.
How other men ended up abroad one can only guess. Many left in the very first days of the war, before martial law was introduced. Some would say they were lucky.
Escaping from Ukraine
No one knows how many men have left Ukraine illegally. A week ago, in a single day, border guards in Transcarpathia stopped seven men who were trying to cross into Europe undetected. Since February 2022, hundreds of Ukrainian men have been detained while trying to leave the country. Some attempts must have succeeded. The illegal guides industry has grown and become a profitable, albeit risky, business for border-region residents.
These guides charge between €1,000 and €8,000. Those who pay perhaps see it as the price of being “saved” from possible death in the war. On Ukrainian social media, there is a great deal of discussion about these male refugees. For the most part, their situation is regarded with a degree of sympathy. The strongest accusation against them is that they lack patriotism.
While some men continue to storm the country’s western borders, others go to the front both as volunteers or as mobilized civilians who may not be so keen to fight in this war. Following an information campaign designed to make it clear that a man of conscription age can, by law, be presented with a summons to the draft board anywhere and at any time, the Ministry of Defense has sent “assault brigades” out onto the streets. Summonses to the draft board are being given out in cafés, shops, fitness clubs, and even in sanatoriums hidden in the Carpathian Mountains. Odesa has recently seen several “mobilization” scandals when men were physically detained on the street so that summonses to the draft board could be put into their hands.
In Ternopil, in western Ukraine, there is outrage over the tragic case of 33-year-old Bohdan Pokitko. He had never served in the army and had no military experience. However, he was mobilized and sent straight to the front line in the Donbas without any training. He died five days later. His indignant relatives and friends demanded that Ternopil’s Regional Governor explain how this could have happened: “Is Ukraine now recruiting its citizens into the army like they do in Russia – to be used as cannon fodder?” they asked. The Ternopil military registration and enlistment office is now investigating this case.
The Ministry of Defense does not report data on Ukrainian losses. They are certainly very significant. Continuous battles in the Donbas in and around the towns of Vuhledar, Soledar, and Bakhmut take hundreds of Russian lives every day. European military analysts suggest that Ukrainian losses are comparable, although Ukrainian spokespeople insist that Russia is losing many more soldiers than Ukraine. The recent acceleration of the mobilization campaign in Ukraine indicates that more soldiers are needed.
Not surprisingly, Russian special services are stepping up their efforts to sabotage mobilization in Ukraine, sending tens of thousands of messages to Ukrainian numbers via Telegram messenger. The recipients are urged to save their lives and refuse to be mobilized. Ukrainian intelligence agencies have identified more than 40 fake Telegram accounts from which these anti-mobilization messages are sent. Interestingly, many of these accounts were previously used inside Russia to disperse propaganda in support of the Russian war in Ukraine.
The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.
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