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RUSSIA: Escaping forced conscription in Russian-occupied Donetsk

Escaping forced conscription in Russian-occupied Donetsk

By Alexander Khrebet


The Kyiv Independent (04.08.2022) – https://bit.ly/3oTLeNd – Stepan didn’t see daylight for nearly four months. 


Since mid-February, even before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began, many men of conscription age in Russian-occupied Donetsk, the largest city in Ukraine’s Donbas region, went into hiding, fearing what might happen if they stepped outside.


Many of those who dared to walk out were grabbed by local Kremlin-controlled militants and forcibly sent to the front lines to fight against Ukraine. Most of them were sent without any training, equipment, or combat experience. 


According to residents who spoke to the Kyiv Independent, the city’s streets began to empty about a week before Russia launched its full-scale invasion on Feb. 24. By then, Russian-led militants had already announced a large-scale, forced conscription campaign targeting men between the ages of 18 and 55 in the eastern Ukrainian region they had occupied since 2014.


People started to look for ways to leave the already depopulated city. Several different schemes to smuggle people out emerged just days after men were forced to pick up arms. All of them dangerous and costly.


Stepan, a former resident of Donetsk, told the Kyiv Independent he was able to leave after his friends recommended an expensive, yet reliable, guide.


“I fled because it became unrealistic and dangerous to live in Donetsk. You can’t go outside because of forced conscription. There is no water, no work,” he said. 


Stepan is among the lucky few to have left. Thousands of other men, living in regions occupied by Russian-controlled militants since 2014, have not been so fortunate.


Cannon fodder


The streets of once-busy Donetsk now look empty. In 2014, hundreds of thousands fled Donetsk as Russia took hold of the once prosperous city with a pre-war population of one million. In 2022, a new exodus is taking place as men are fleeing forced conscription.

When local militants began forcibly drafting men from the occupied region in mid-February, some men voluntarily showed up at military registration offices after receiving a notice, believing it was just a formality. It wasn’t.


Once the full-scale invasion of Ukraine started on Feb. 24, Russia used the newly conscripted men from occupied Donbas as cannon fodder in their offensive in eastern Ukraine. 


As people stopped showing up at the registration offices, militants began grabbing people right off the streets and bringing them in. Men of conscription age virtually disappeared from the streets, keeping out of sight by staying at home.


“I never went outside. Others were less lucky. People I knew were snatched straight from work or school. Almost immediately they were sent to the (war’s) hot spots,” Stepan said.


Many, including Stepan, began looking for a way out of occupied territories.


Getting out


With the battles raging west of Donetsk, the only way out is going east through Russia. Most of the time getting out requires knowing someone who can escort you through the border. 


Stepan says the first time you call “the guide,” you need to say you’re looking for transportation documents. He says the guide he called was nervous and was afraid of discussing the details on the phone.


“You found me, so you’ve been told (how it works),” the guide told Stepan. 


The guide scheduled the day of the trip. When the day came, he called in the morning and told Stepan the departure time. The car arrived straight at the entrance to Stepan’s residential building so that Stepan wouldn’t be seen outside.


The militants at the border were in on the scheme and let them pass. Stepan paid a total of 60,000 rubles, equivalent to around $900.


At the Russian border, he was interrogated by the Federal Security Service for several hours. He had to fill out a detailed form about who he was and give up all his social media passwords before eventually being let into the country.


Stepan is now safe in Sweden.


The Kyiv Independent spoke to two other men, Maksym and Yaroslav, who left Donetsk through a similar arrangement. (Editor’s note: The names have been changed to protect their identity.)


“If you leave by car, the guide drives. Often these guides are militants dressed as civilians,” Maksym, who left in June for Rostov, told the Kyiv Independent.


If several people gather for the trip, the cars line up in a column and make their way to the border. The guide’s car usually has a special pass on the windshield.


With the pass, the car won’t be stopped at checkpoints on the way to the border.


According to Maksym, some people leave on their own, bypassing checkpoints through fields. He said that in most cases if a person attempting to flee is stopped at a checkpoint, they can pay a bribe on the spot and get out. 


Success depends on your wallet, communication skills, and the mood of the militant, Maksym said.


Maksym added that initially, the price to be smuggled out in a packed truck was as low as 20,000 rubles ($370) per person. As the war raged on, the prices increased.


From the early days, it was possible to also obtain a “reservation” at work, which said that the employer requires you to continue your duties at work. This exemption allowed many people to escape mobilization and leave the occupied territories early on.


But after the mass departure of people with the work exemption, those obtaining a “reservation” were no longer allowed into Russia.


As the war progresses, the window to escape the region narrows as the prices skyrocket, militants at checkpoints become stricter, and the middlemen known as guides, get arrested.


“In one of the first attempts to leave, I called a guide and a woman answered telling me that the person was in jail,” Stepan recalls.


Another way to escape conscription is to be labeled unfit for service. That is also becoming more expensive to do.


Yaroslav, who left Donetsk in July and was able to move to Portugal, told the Kyiv Independent that he paid $350 in January to have his documents stamped with an “unfit for service” mark.


Today, he says, such a stamp would cost $2,600. 


“Few people can afford to pay this,” said Yaroslav, who had no problem entering Russia with an “unfit for service” stamp.


An explicit war crime


Forced conscription in occupied territories constitutes a war crime according to the Geneva Conventions. It also violates the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.


According to human rights activists, Russia has forcibly mobilized up to 100,000 residents of the occupied territories of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. Many of them have already been killed.


According to the Eastern Human Rights Group, the number of those killed is north of a quarter of those mobilized.


“Forced conscription is sending people to die,” Gunduz Mamedov, former deputy prosecutor general, and expert on international humanitarian law, told the Kyiv Independent.


“In Ukraine, forced conscription can lead to up to 12 years in prison (for people involved in the conscription), and if this leads to the person being killed, it is a life sentence (for the perpetrator),” Mamedov said.


Yet it’s hard to enforce these laws, says Alyona Luneva, director of advocacy at Ukraine’s ZMINA human rights center.


“Ukraine cannot do anything to prevent the forced conscription in the occupied territories,” Luneva told the Kyiv Independent.


“Just like with deportation, Ukraine has no legal mechanisms to prevent forced mobilization in occupation.” 


This is what Stepan now fears the most. Low on cash and options, his father and friends are still stuck in Russian-occupied Donbas, facing the possibility of forced conscription.


Editor’s Note: The names of the people interviewed by the Kyiv Independent for this story have been changed to protect their identity as they have shared sensitive information that could place them and their families in danger. 


Photo credits: Getty Images

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SPAIN: Record 3,000 migrants arrive in Spain’s Ceuta enclave from Morocco

Euronews with AFP (18.05.2021) – https://bit.ly/3ymr1D0 – At least 3,000 migrants reached the Spanish enclave of Ceuta from neighbouring Morocco on Monday, a record in a single day, Spanish authorities said.


1,000 of them are presumed to be minors, according to a Spanish government spokesman.


Authorities say that the crossings began at 2 am in the border area of Ceuta known as Benzú and were then followed by a few dozen people near the eastern beach of Tarajal.


The daylight didn’t stop the crossings, as entire families with children, swam or boarded inflatable boats, said the spokesman.


“It was low tide and in some places, you could practically walk across,” he added.


The migrants were checked by Red Cross medics before being taken to a reception centre.


They were detained when they entered Spain, a police spokesman said earlier on Monday.


Last month, around 100 migrants swam to Ceuta in groups of 20 to 30. Most were deported back to Morocco.


The Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla have the European Union’s only land borders with Africa, making them popular entry points for migrants seeking a better life in Europe.


Migrants try to reach the enclaves either by swimming along the coast or climbing the tall border fences that separate them from Morocco.


The wave of arrivals came at a point of tension between Madrid and Rabat over the presence in Spain of the leader of the Western Sahara independence movement.


Rabat reacted angrily after it emerged that the leader of the Polisario Front, Brahim Ghali, has been treated at a hospital in Spain for COVID-19 since mid-April.


The Polisario Front has long fought for the independence of Western Sahara from Morocco.


Asked by reporters whether Morocco was relaxing controls on departing migrants, Spain’s foreign minister simply said she had no information.



Photo credits: Antonio Sempere/AFP

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DJIBOUTI: At least 20 dead after smugglers throw migrants from boat

Euronews (04.03.2021) – https://bit.ly/3kVLb0v – At least 20 migrants are dead after smugglers threw 80 from a boat off the eastern coast of Africa, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).

The drama unfolded as the migrants were travelling from Djibouti to Yemen, said Mohammed Abdiker, IOM’s East & Horn of Africa regional director.

The migrants were hoping to reach the Gulf countries to find work.

Yvonne Ndege, a regional spokesperson for the IOM, told Euronews that the boat left Oulebi, Djibouti, with 200 migrants on board, including minors, at around 2.00 am local time.

They had been sailing for thirty minutes when smugglers shouted there were too many people on the boat and started throwing people overboard, she added.

Five bodies have been recovered so far.

Survivors are receiving medical treatment at the IOM Migrant Response Centre in Obock, the international agency said.

“Wednesday’s tragedy is further proof that criminals continue to exploit people desperate to improve their lives for profit regardless of the consequences,” said IOM Djibouti Chief of Mission, Stephanie Daviot.

“Smugglers and human traffickers must be prosecuted for their crimes, and new migration pathways established to allow people to pursue work opportunities abroad in a safe, legal and dignified manner,” Daviot added.

Authorities in Djibouti have opened an investigation into the case and the IOM is assisting the survivors to give their account of the events to police, Ndege told Euronews.

“On a daily basis thousands of young Africans, some minors, are trying to reach the Gulf countries via Yemen in search of jobs,” the spokesperson said.

“Many die in this way, are stranded, or become trapped in Yemen,” she continued.

According to the IOM, this is the third such tragedy in less than six months, with more than 70 migrants killed.


Photo credits: IOM

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