Press play to listen to this article
KYIV – Ukraine’s capital is a home or transit point for thousands of internally displaced people and refugees – and now an impending Russian invasion threatens to uproot their lives again.
Ismail Ramazanov fled to Kiev three years ago. Crimean Muslim Tatar who openly criticized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea to Ukraine, Russian security services raided his Crimean home in January 2018 and he was beaten so badly that he was unable to appear in court the following day when charged with inciting hatred.
He was released after six months. But when he was warned he could be charged again, this time for terrorism, his father told him to leave Crimea.
Now, with Russia massing thousands of troops in Crimea and elsewhere along the border with Ukraine, and the United States warning that an invasion is possible as early as this week, the Russian forces that Ramazanov has escaped could catch him again.
Crimean Tatars were exiled from Crimea by Josef Stalin in 1944 and only returned after the collapse of the USSR, becoming Ukrainian citizens. Many oppose the annexation of Russia. An estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people have left Crimea for mainland Ukraine since 2014. They are part of an internally displaced population of 1.5 million who have left the peninsula or war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine under Russian control.
In Kiev, Ramazanov continues to raise awareness about the victims of Russian repression in Crimea.
Since being forced to leave Crimea, Ramazanov has no intention of fleeing again. After a life of peaceful protest, he learned how to handle a firearm, as well as tactical medicine.
“We have nowhere to run,” he said. “I won’t leave here.”
Belarusian Vadim Zamirovski is another victim of political repression who has taken refuge in Kiev. As a photographer for the popular independent Belarusian news portal banned last year, he covered the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass as well as unrest in his own country.
But Belarus no longer has room for a free press.
Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko violently suppressed protests following a rigged presidential election in August 2020. Last year, Tut.By offices in Minsk were raided and 15 editorial staff arrested . Zamirovski fled to Ukraine on what turned out to be one of the last flights to Kyiv, as on the same day Belarus forced a flight from Athens to Vilnius to arrest a Belarusian opposition activist. European and Ukrainian airlines no longer fly to Belarus.
Zamirovski had already spent 15 days in jail for covering the protests. “It was then something new and terrible that journalists were arrested,” he said. “But now I know it was just child’s play. Now people are sentenced to years in prison.
Around 250,000 Belarusians have fled, most to Ukraine where there has long been a large Belarusian minority and where they can legally stay for six months. Here they have their own “Belarusian world”, said Zamirovski, who speaks Ukrainian and now has a Ukrainian residence permit.
All hope for a more open and democratic society in Belarus has faded. Ramazanov repeats a common Kiev maxim that Ukraine will only be free to develop without the threat of its biggest neighbor after the departure of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Zamirovski thinks something similar about Belarus, which has become a Russian satellite thanks to Putin’s support of Lukashenko.
“Belarus can only change when Putin dies,” he says. “I want to believe that something will improve, but I don’t see what can improve it. When we left, a lot of people thought it was for two weeks, a month. But now I think it will take years.
Although 30,000 Russian soldiers are now crossing the border into Belarus, where they are ostensibly taking part in military exercises, Zamirovski has made no preparations to flee again.
“We were in such a terrible situation when we left Minsk, we have already experienced such enormous stress, that I can no longer react,” he said. “It’s definitely safer here than in Belarus right now.”
Kiev is also a haven for people from much further afield.
Sahar Merzaie fled Kabul after the Afghan capital fell to the Taliban in August. It took her three days to reach the airport, then she spent another six nights sleeping on a plane before it finally took off. He was taking her to Kiev.
“I didn’t know where it was,” Merzaie said. “I knew there was a country, Ukraine, but I had never thought of it before.”
Most of the Afghans on his flight were evacuated further to Canada with the help of The Wall Street Journal, where they worked. Merzaie, 28, who had worked for BBC Media Action as a social media manager, was left behind in Kyiv. Still reeling from having to flee Kabul and unable to speak Ukrainian or Russian, it took her a while to realize that she could have fled one war for another.
“I found out about this war maybe two months ago, but I didn’t think it was a serious thing,” she said. “I didn’t want to hear about it, because it hurt me.”
About 700 Afghan refugees arrived in Ukraine last August, but less than 400 have applied for asylum. According to the UNHCR, Ukraine only grants refugee status to around 100 people a year. Merzaie is long past the three months she can legally stay and is looking – unsuccessfully so far – for a chance to move to Western Europe. If she stays, she fears getting caught up in another conflict.
Fear of an escalation of the conflict hangs over Ukraine. But for those who have suffered forced displacement so recently, it is particularly traumatic.
Merzaie, in the quiet of a borrowed apartment in Kyiv, said she still felt like she was in Kabul, waiting for someone to call her and tell her to run to the airport. At least she doesn’t have to decide what to pack this time.
“I have nothing,” she said. “When I find a country and know that I will be there for many years, when I come to a safe country, then I will buy things.”
Ramazanov also feels there is no security for him and other Crimean Tatars as their home region remains annexed and Russia threatens to invade Ukraine.
“It’s a tragedy that will continue,” he said. “If we don’t stop it, the war in Ukraine won’t just be the war in Ukraine. This is a war that will affect the whole world.