‘I saw it was over’: The boy who tried to escape the war in Ukraine via Russia | Ukraine

On April 4, with his city in lockdown, 16-year-old David boarded a bus from Mariupol bound for Russia. When asked, he said he told the Russian soldiers exactly what he thought they wanted to hear: “I nodded and said ‘Yes, yes, I want to go in Russia,'” David said. “There was no possibility of going to Ukraine. i thought i would get [to Russia] and exit quickly via Belarus.

But when David arrived at the bus’s destination, a town in western Russia, local authorities sent him to a children’s home because he was under 18. They told him that he should stay there until he was of age and took away his passport.

David lived for eight months in a Russian children’s home and was only able to get out of it thanks to a huge effort by his former youth club leaders, who had evacuated to Kyiv on the second day of the war, and a secret network of Russian volunteers, who operate behind the scenes to help deported Ukrainians leave Russia.

David, who declined to give his last name, is one of thousands of Ukrainian children who have reportedly been deported and sent unaccompanied to Russia. Unlike David, most of the children are believed to have been moved from Ukrainian orphanages and their destination is not known.

According to Russia’s own public data, at least 400 children taken from Ukraine have been adopted by Russian families. Ukraine says Russia’s actions constitute genocide as it forcibly transfers children from one national group to another.

David is a musically gifted teenager with a range of four octaves. He said that fact passed by his own mother, but others recognized his musical promise. He became the only altar boy paid to sing in the Mariupol church.

People in cars line up to prepare to leave Mariupol after the Russian attack in Mariupol on February 24
People in cars line up to prepare to leave Mariupol after the Russian attack in Mariupol on February 24 Photograph: Carlos Barria/Reuters

Before the invasion, David had left his mother’s apartment in Mariupol and lived on the couches of various friends. All her life, her mother drank heavily, David said. He remembers prioritizing buying alcohol over other things.

Two days before the invasion, David – along with his friends from a large group of LGBTQ young people in Mariupol – went out for a pro-Ukrainian demonstration. David said he sang the national anthem to the crowd, but not well, although “it doesn’t matter, what matters is that I sang it”. Three days after the start of the invasion, he again sang the national anthem in the city’s central square, when the Russians were already on the left (east) bank of the Kal’mius River in the city.

“After March 1, there was no electricity or internet and I understood that was over,” David said, referring to the city. “The city was already divided. People on the left bank had days, even hours, to go out. I lived on the right bank.

David in 2021
David in 2021 Photography: Instagram

David had stayed with his grandmother the night before the invasion. He stayed with her until March 8 – Women’s Day in Ukraine – when he decided to try to visit his mother as she was expecting him. Bombs were falling everywhere, David said. He said they were stuck and he looted like everyone else in the neighborhood to survive.

When David arrived at his mother’s house, she was very happy to see him, but she had started living with a man whom David described as a “complete pro-Russian asshole”. There were two radio stations available, David said, one pro-Russian and the other Ukrainian. The pro-Russian station was on whenever the man got up.

“I couldn’t fall asleep,” David said. “I couldn’t contain my aggression. I demanded to know why we had to listen to him. Fucking [Vladimir] Solovyov,” he said, referring to Russia’s most prominent propagandist. David described how the propaganda changed within days. At first all Ukrainians were fine, he says, then they all became Nazis and they all have to be killed.

His mother said they listened to Russian radio because they were “telling the truth”. She then proceeded to accuse David of being “a Ukrainian”, while identifying as a Russian. He returned to his grandmother, with whom he had a prior arrangement regarding Russian propaganda. Along the streets and in the courtyards, he says he saw bodies in different stages of decomposition.

“But she was so tired,” David said of how he found his grandmother when he arrived at her house. She died two weeks after leaving Mariupol.

Russian soldiers then entered his area. They arrested him as he was walking down a street singing. They forced him to strip down to his underwear and stand against a fence. “They were asking me ‘Have you seen any dills?'” slang for Ukrainians or, in this case, Ukrainian soldiers.

Russian soldiers walk past a town name repainted in the colors of the Russian flag at the entrance to Mariupol in June
Russian soldiers walk past a town name repainted in the colors of the Russian flag at the entrance to Mariupol in June Photography: AP

Russian authorities began to offer evacuations and David decided to take a chance. A young woman he was seated next to on the bus pretended to be his guardian as they made their way through checkpoints and screening. But in Russia, the woman said she couldn’t take care of David. David was taken to a children’s home.

David told the staff that he wanted to return to Mariupol. He tried to call his mother and persuade her to pick him up. But she refused.

During this time, David found solace in his music. He recorded two albums in the laundry closet on a phone sent to him by his former youth group leaders in Mariupol via a chain of Russian volunteers. He mixed traditional Ukrainian folk music and poetry with electronic music. On the description of the album posted online, David wrote: “I hope it will be enjoyed even by those who don’t like [folk] music … Unfortunately I am currently in deportation [just like Taras]– referring to the Ukrainian national poet who was forced to live in Russia because of his Ukrainian nationalist teachings.

One of David’s songs

The children’s home was a depressing place, David said. Mealtimes, time out, and bedtimes were scheduled and it was difficult to be alone. At the local school, they pushed him back two years so he could catch up on Russian history and other aspects of the Russian curriculum.

David spoke about his pro-Ukrainian stance and the invasion, much to the annoyance of the adults around him. He was also bullied. One boy threatened to hit him: “I took his hand and put it over my face and said, ‘Well, go on.’

At the beginning of October, David discovered that he could be recovered if his mother gave permission to a third party. “It was like a stone falling,” he said. Staff at the children’s home said they did not offer him that option because David’s mother was ‘indifferent to him’.

Thanks to the same network of Russian volunteers who had delivered the phone, a plan was hatched to extract David from Russia. A Russian volunteer, involved with a pro-Putin aid organization to cover up his dissident activities, has been chosen as David’s alleged guardian. It still took weeks to persuade David’s mother to go to the notary in Mariupol, but finally she did.

“They found money for the notary, for everything. They took me back [to Ukraine] completely free of charge,” David said. The trip lasted less than a week. At each stage he was accompanied by a new group of volunteers, with whom he spent the night before heading to the next stage of his journey the next day.

David now lives in a hostel in Kyiv, planning to record his third album under the stage name TRUFFIKSS, which he insists must be created using live, not electronic, musical instruments.


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