Right after the full-scale invasion in February 2022, Russian forces advanced so swiftly in some regions that many fleeing Ukrainians were unable to safeguard their property or evacuate relatives from the war zone.

As a result, it’s now common for Ukrainians to travel back to the occupied territories by various means and for diverse reasons – some go to visit relatives, others to sell property vulnerable to seizure. Kyiv Post interviewed two women from the Donetsk region who set out to visit their old homes.

Traveling to Donetsk to sell property and reunite with relatives

Generally only women return to their homes now occupied. Men rarely travel to the occupied territories because of departure restrictions within Ukraine itself and the high likelihood of forced mobilization into the Russian army, particularly in the Donbas.

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Angelina, a young woman, went to Donetsk to sell real estate she’s owned since 2014, while Kateryna, a pensioner, traveled to the occupied Donetsk region to visit her husband, who couldn’t manage to leave in time.

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Kateryna now fears that her husband won’t leave their rural homestead unattended, as vacated houses in the area have been inhabited by Chukchi and Buryats, Russian citizens from Asian regions.

The women consented to be photographed only from behind, fearing for their relatives in the occupied territories. Vacant properties are confiscated by Russian authorities and settled by Russians from distant regions, aiming to assimilate Ukrainians. This motivates many war refugees to return briefly to sell their properties.Angelina, for example, notes increased demand and rising prices due to the influx of Russians. She reveals that square meters in Donetsk can now be sold for a decent price, unlike in the past.

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“The Russians are buying up all of Donetsk. They’re developing land. Everything’s become more expensive. In 2015, my 130 square-meter apartment cost $25,000; now it’s $100,000,” Angelina said.

She fears the apartment might be illegally occupied or confiscated. According to her, most individuals traveling to Donetsk with her are solely attempting to sell their homes.

Travel route and challenges

According to our sources, the route for Ukrainians going to Russia remains consistent – through Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. All other options, such as crossing the land border, are excluded. The route involves travel from Kyiv to Warsaw by bus, then to Minsk, Belarus, and finally to Moscow by plane.

Navigating this route alone is challenging, prompting the emergence of intermediary networks. Halyna, one such intermediary, coordinates travel arrangements upon receiving the travelers’ information, promptly announcing prices and terms.

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“From Kyiv via Warsaw-Minsk-Moscow to Donbas costs €350 for the bus and an additional €150 for the plane, totaling €500 for a one-way trip, excluding meals. The trip takes four days,” Halyna said.

This convoluted journey contrasts starkly with the previously seamless access Ukrainians enjoyed to these regions by car or train.

Halyna also tells us that there are no problems because the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and law enforcement agencies are aware of what is happening, and it is impossible to halt the movement of hundreds of people. However, she advises considering that even if you are permitted to enter Russia, your passport will be stamped, potentially causing issues upon your return to Ukraine.

“Filtration”

Angelina and Kateryna followed this particular route. They didn’t consider that the sole point of entry to Russia – Sheremetyevo Airport – was designed with a purpose. What unfolds at the airport is termed “filtration” by the Russian security forces, involving the screening of “undesirable elements.” Undesirable, of course, for Russia.

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“Complete disregard and humiliation,” is how Kateryna described the process.

“We were detained in a small waiting room, with lots of people, and stuffiness. You can’t buy anything to eat because they can call you at any moment. After three hours of waiting, they called me for a conversation. I don’t speak Russian; I’ve spoken Ukrainian all my life. The Russian security officer repeatedly asked me, not understanding Ukrainian, and demanded that I should switch to Russian. Then, he started an hour of monotonous questioning about why I had a new phone. I said I broke it when I went down to the basement. A cynical question followed: ‘For what?’ I responded: ‘Because you’re shelling us. He denied everything and said that I talk like Zelensky. Then, he asked me who I voted for in the 2019elections. I said Poroshenko. He smiled and remarked that soon Poroshenko’s head would be in the Kremlin as a trophy.”

Angelina shared a similar story:

“We were kept on the floor in a little room for 27 hours. They handed me a questionnaire with absurd questions. For instance, ‘How do you feel about Special Military Operation?’ – as the Russians call the war. If you express non-support for the war against Ukraine, you’ll face problems. If you say you support it, they might let you pass, but you’ll be at risk, as your profile could fall into the hands of Ukrainian special services – what then? It’s a heavy moral burden,” Angelina said.

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Russians apparently gather data not only about individuals but also about their relatives.

“Then they opened a file on my daughter,” Kateryna said. “Everything was there: where she lived, worked, her social media activity. They provided extracts of all her social media likes to the military and donations to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Simultaneously, they ask you to fill out a questionnaire in which you’re compelled to validate your details. I left it blank. Subsequently, they proposed recording a video where I express support for Russia’s policy, declare a desire to change my citizenship, and permanently reside in the ‘liberated’ territory. I firmly declined such a record, and I was escorted to Minsk for deportation. I returned on my own,” Kateryna said.

Angelina mentions that more than a third of the passengers were removed from her flight:

“Approximately 50 out of 150. Interestingly, when I was deported, they were reluctant to give me back my passport. The flight attendant handed my passport to the border guards of another country at another airport.”

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Despite moral pressure and humiliation, both women assert they didn’t succumb to fear.Kateryna regrets not seeing her husband and the €700 she spent on travel and food was futile. But now she is proud that she, a pensioner, and her daughter, a teacher, are under scrutiny by entire FSB groups, as if they were dangerous agents.

Angelina remarks that the situation in the occupied territories is increasingly dire. It’s nearly impossible to access them with a Ukrainian passport, and Russia coerces people into obtaining Russian passports, threatening to strip them of social benefits.

“Now, without a Russian passport, nothing is feasible there, not even conducting a burial if someone dies. My aunt passed away there – they didn’t allocate a burial plot or issue a death certificate. An ambulance won’t respond to you, and you won’t be able to register with your family doctor (who is still there),” Angelina said.

Kyiv Post observed that there are no statistics as yet on how many individuals attempt to access the occupied territories, but our sources indicate hundreds attempt this journey every month.

The Ombudsman’s Office advises against trips to the occupied territories, citing the dangers to life and health under the extralegal occupation regime, advocating instead for systematic assistance to Ukraine in reclaiming the occupied territories.

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