Denys Fedotov had already fled his home, lost three fingers and a thumb in a Russian bombardment, and navigated a nearly monthlong journey with his pregnant wife from the Ukrainian port city of Mariupol across Russia before he was strip-searched and interrogated for hours by Russian border officials at the Finnish border.
“It was a psychological interrogation,” Fedotov told RFE/RL’s North.Realities. “They asked questions about if I knew [Ukrainian] soldiers, what I ate yesterday, and why my wife and I rented an apartment close to a military base [in Mariupol].”
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It was a nerve-wracking conclusion to what Fedotov, 20, and his wife Victoria Kuznetsova, 19, describe as the most difficult experience of their lives: fleeing the Russian siege of their home city with only one bag between them and their eight pet rats while traversing checkpoints to Russia where they then had to sell what few valuables they still had to make it to Finland.
Now in Joensuu, a city in eastern Finland near the border with Russia, the young Ukrainian couple are finally beginning to process what they experienced to make it to Finland, where they’ve since applied for asylum and are now awaiting the birth of their son.
Before fleeing their native Mariupol on March 23, Fedotov was caught outside with a friend when the city was shelled and shrapnel hit his hand, leaving a thumb and three fingers dangling off his hand. The friend was hit in the leg and began to bleed out. The pair hid in a nearby shelter before Fedotov ran for help. Medics said it was too dangerous to retrieve his friend and Fedotov’s fingers were then partially amputated.
“Before that, I had never truly been afraid of anything in my life. I will not forget this fear,” Fedotov said about the shelling. “I was scared that I would never see my mother, my wife, and my [unborn] son.”
Upon arriving in Finland, he learned the good news that his friend survived, but he says that day has forever changed his life. Mariupol remains effectively sealed off from the world, and information about what is happening inside is difficult to confirm independently, with growing reports and first-person accounts of life in Russia's so-called filtration camps, set up outside the city and elsewhere in Ukraine to house and process civilians before they are evacuated.
Still reluctant to leave their home in the early stages of the war, Fedotov and Kuznetsova were told to evacuate by soldiers with white armbands that identified themselves as pro-Russian fighters from the self-declared “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a separatist-controlled part of Ukraine. Fedotov says a “cleansing” of the area by troops then took place, with residents from their section of the city told to bring one bag and prepare to be evacuated to Russia.
They were told that pets weren’t allowed, but Kuznetsova refused to leave without their domesticated rats, so Fedotov says he went to hopefully negotiate with a soldier.
“I ran out and found a military man and asked if it was possible to take animals because my pregnant wife wouldn't leave without them,” he said. “He agreed to allow it.”
'Shooting From All Sides'
Mariupol has been the site of some of the war’s most harrowing destruction, with Ukrainian officials saying that at least 95 percent of the city has been left in ruins and that more than 21,000 civilians have been killed in the siege, which began after Moscow’s February 24 invasion.
“There was shooting from all sides. One day, a shell hit a neighbor’s house and knocked out all the windows,” Fedotov said. “The people survived, but their dog was torn to pieces – only the leash was left. Each day we went to bed with explosions and woke up to explosions.”
After being told to pack a bag and leave their home, Fedotov and the pregnant Kuznetsova walked for more than 10 kilometers with their eight pet rats in a carrier until they reached separatist-controlled territory where they then waited a whole day in line for inspection. The cold weather, however, had left the wounds on Fedotov’s hand bleeding again and the stress of the journey had begun to affect Kuznetsova’s health.
“In the morning there were thousands of people and by evening [thousands more arrived]. We were lucky that she was pregnant,” Fedotov said, recalling that pregnant women were allowed to move up in the line.
At least one million Ukrainian civilians have fled the fighting into Russia, according to Russian Defense Ministry numbers that the Ukrainian government also accepts as valid.
According to accounts from refugees and U.S. and Ukrainian officials, in some instances people suspected of having sympathies to the Ukrainian military have been detained at filtration camps after being evacuated and tortured.
In many cases, especially in the devastated city of Mariupol, residents like Fedotov and Kuznetsova were effectively forced into separatist-controlled territory or Russia with no option to seek refuge elsewhere. In other examples, especially in the separatist-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, the travel to Russia was voluntary.
For the pregnant Kuznetsova, however, the trip from Mariupol had left her exhausted and on the verge of a premature birth. She was then taken to a hospital near Donetsk, an experience that the young Ukrainian couple says made it clear to them that they didn’t want to give birth or live in separatist-controlled territory or Russia.
“There was a nurse in the hospital who said she hated Ukrainians. When she was on shift, she gave injections in the most painful way possible,” Kuznetsova recalled. “They talked to us there in a very aggressive way: ‘You, from Mariupol, shut your mouths, you have no rights here.’”
When her condition stabilized, the pair decided to go Europe. Fedotov’s parents, who had also been evacuated to the same area, decided to go to Russia and stay with relatives there until they could safely return to Mariupol.
Safe But Still Thinking Of Home
The United Nations estimates that the Ukraine war has uprooted nearly 14 million people and counting, with eight million internally displaced and the rest fleeing as refugees.
Like millions of other Ukrainians, Fedotov and Kuznetsova made their way to the safety of countries in the European Union where they could apply for asylum.
In order to cover the trip to Finland from Taganrog, a city in southwestern Russia just across the border from Ukraine, the couple sold their laptop and what little jewelry they had on them and asked some relatives already living in Europe to wire some money.
They slowly made their way north through Russia, crossing through Rostov, Moscow, and St. Petersburg before reaching the northwestern city of Vyborg. From there, they took a taxi to the Finnish border and after a frightening interrogation by Russian border guards, they were let into Finland on April 10.
Since then, Fedotov’s brother and sister-in-law have also made the journey to Joensuu and the two couples share an apartment that was provided to them -- along with a stroller, crib, changing table, toys and baby clothes, and diapers -- by the local refugee center.
They now await the birth of their son in Finland and are happy that he will be born into safety, but they say that their minds are still on their family who stayed in Ukraine, including Kuznetsova’s sisters and mother.
“When they first gave us money here, I went to the store to buy a chocolate bar,” she said. “But all I could think about was my sisters who couldn’t have this small luxury. Even a piece in my mouth doesn’t taste sweet anymore because I can enjoy it and I know that they can’t.”