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Meet Elena, Andrei, Busik and Chuchik from Mariupol!

The onset of the war found us in our native Mariupol, where we lived and worked. The war didn’t really come as a surprise to us – for the last eight years, our town has been sitting right near the front line. I was working for a humanitarian organization, “Pravo na Zahist” (Право на захист), and had connections in the media. Having had access to some information, I was aware that rumors never appear out of thin air. So we tried to be as prepared as humanly possible – we stocked up on essentials, warned our families, packed our “emergency grab bags.” What I think no one was ready for is that the occupying army – in complete disregard of all international legal standards for humanitarian conduct in wartime – would start destroying the city and violently killing innocent civilians.

At the very start of the war, Russian troops cut off all exits from Mariupol, leaving the city in a complete blockade. The humanitarian corridor that opened up was accessible only to those with their own vehicles, which we did not have. Our one chance to leave came at the end of March, when friends decided to risk it and try to drive out in their car. But at that time fighting was raging in the city; our families were living in other neighborhoods; and we had no way of reaching them. It was unthinkable for us to just take off and leave them behind. After we finally made it to their neighborhood and helped them evacuate to a safe place, we started searching for ways to leave the city ourselves.

By that time, the collaborationist government that had seized control of Mariupol had implemented filtration procedures for residents and had almost completely cut off access to parts of Ukraine under its control. We didn’t want to leave till the very last moment and kept hoping for de-occupation. However, our savings and food supplies were dwindling, and working for a criminal government was not an option we would have ever considered. In addition, the occupiers started using rubles as the official currency, thus creating artificial devaluation of the hryvnia (Ukrainian currency).

The only available option for leaving Mariupol was on board a free evacuation bus headed to Russia. How we would get to Europe from there, I could not even imagine, I’d already been seeing news stories about how Russia was deliberately blocking ways to leave the country by creating long lines at checkpoints. Spending the night with our pets at the border did not seem like a good option, and we’d already decided to take Busik the bunny and Chuchik the chinchilla with us. There was no one we could leave them with in Mariupol, and if left behind they would simply freeze during the winter months in a house with no heating.

Friends who had left earlier put us in touch with a team of volunteers. That was how we came to first hear of Rubikus and to apply for help prior to leaving Mariupol. We packed our things, stocked up on food for our furry friends, and arrived as refugees at the temporary housing facility in Taganrog. Turned out we were not the only ones travelling with pets! Ukrainians, amazing people that they are, didn’t leave their four-legged friends behind, even the mongrel cats and dowdy dogs. When forced to leave home, the people of Mariupol took them with. Once we got to know our travel companions, we learned that many of the others on the bus were also being helped by Rubikus. Some of them shared that they’d nearly given up all hope of escaping the occupation – by then, price-gouging by local greedy and corrupt cabbies had surpassed all records.

Following directions from our coordinator, we came to Moscow by train from Rostov; there, volunteers met us at the train station, put us up while we waited for the next bus, and supplied us with food and other essentials. The whole time the team from Rubikus was constantly in touch with us. Not only did they coordinate our journey, they also patiently answered my many questions, helping us settle on a country for temporary refuge. Until the very last moment, I had doubts about where one should go when there is no one expecting you anywhere.

Russia, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland…. Ultimately, we picked Germany. Thanks to a long but very efficient itinerary that Rubikus volunteers put together, we didn’t have to spend a night at any border checkpoint, and the trip ended up being pleasant and comfortable. Every single person travelling on board our bus was given a goody bag with food; volunteer-coordinators also took care of housing and meals during transfers.

What impressed me the most was this dependable chain of help – we were never left on our own, and every step of the way coordinators personally handed us over from one person to the next. All that remained for us to do was to follow clear and direct instructions that we received.

Right now we are safe in Germany, in the town of Freiburg. By lucky coincidence, it turned out that our coordinator Alla lives here as well. She has been helping us settle in and get used to our new surroundings. She even got a gorgeous habitat for Busik and Chuchik, which they are absolutely loving after having spent so much time in a small and cramped travel carrier.

Alla, thank you so much for all your kindness, support, and help! I want to express my gratitude to all the Rubikus volunteers and to everyone who is helping Ukrainians get out of the hell that they found themselves in, brought on by Russian aggression against their country. Thank you for all your help, for saving and resettling thousands of people and animals, rescuing them from the warzone and occupation. A tremendous thank you to you all!

Elena's story is translated into English by Alina Sheyman and edited by Luba Schwartzman Chaffee

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