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Tiny border crossing is ‘last chance’ for Ukrainians fleeing Russian-occupied territory

A single, one-way checkpoint remains open to Ukrainian people returning to their homeland on foot

As a teenager in the dying days of the Soviet Union, Timur Shutenko travelled from the port city of Mariupol to communist Cuba via an eye-opening stopover in Ireland, which gave him a first glimpse of the capitalist West. Later he lived in the United States, completing a master’s degree and PhD in physics at Princeton University.

Shutenko (48) has been on the move again since Moscow’s army bombarded and occupied Mariupol two years ago, leaving behind his destroyed flat and then starting a journey through Russia that led to what is now its only official crossing point with Ukraine. Last month he walked through it, coming home carrying a single bag of belongings.

Hundreds of thousands of people fled eastern Ukraine after Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, and risky evacuations from some occupied areas continued through that year, until crossing the front line to Kyiv-controlled territory finally became impossible.

That forced those who wanted to flee occupation to embark on a long and daunting journey east into Russia itself, before heading for the Baltic States and then re-entering Ukraine via its western borders with Poland and other European Union countries.


About a year ago, however, word began to spread on social media that even though the entire 2,000km Ukraine-Russia border was officially sealed, a single, one-way checkpoint did remain open to Ukrainians returning to their homeland on foot. Ukraine confirmed the anomaly some months later.

A few dozen people now walk each day between Kolotilovka in Russia and Pokrovka in Ukraine, following a 2km gravel track through no-man’s land between small border stations where they are questioned by security officers of the warring sides. It is a tiring and stressful end to an arduous voyage, particularly for the elderly and the disabled and on the frequent occasions when artillery fire shatters the rural quiet.

“I searched online and found there was this one place to cross the border,” says Shutenko, who wrote a letter to the management of the refugee centre where he was staying in the Ryazan region south of Moscow, informing them of his decision to leave.

“Then I got a train to Moscow, then to the city of Belgorod, then a bus to a little provincial town and then a taxi to the village on the border,” he says.

About 20 other Ukrainians were waiting to cross at the same time, all of whom faced an interview with officers of Russia’s FSB security service before being allowed to carry on. Shutenko was questioned for about 15 minutes.

“They said that of course I’m an American spy or I’m planning some Ukrainian espionage. At the end, they asked whether I knew I was going to a very bad country where I would either be shot or put straight into a front-line unit, and that either way I would die soon. Then they said they would give me one last chance to stay in Russia,” he recalls.

“‘Thanks. Am I free to go to now?’ I replied. ‘Yes, you’re free to go,’ they said.”

As Shutenko walked away from the FSB checkpoint in the direction of Ukraine, he also left behind almost two years of life under Russian control.

Russia besieged Mariupol in late February 2022, subjecting the Azov Sea port to indiscriminate shelling from land, sea and air, as regular troops and militias from Chechnya and the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) seized parts of the city.

The start of Russia’s attack was captured powerfully in the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Days in Mariupol, but it continued relentlessly until May, when Ukrainian troops finally abandoned their last stronghold in the vast Azovstal steelworks.

After only a few days of full-scale war, almost everywhere in the city of 600,000 people lost electricity, gas and water supplies and phone and internet connections.

This situation makes a barbarian out of you. You are, in a way, happy when a bomb hits a neighbouring building and not yours. Then you realise, of course, that there are people in that building too

—  Timur Shutenko

“People were trapped in their buildings and didn’t know what was going on or where to go. It was dangerous just to step outside to try to find food or water, because there was shooting and bombing literally right outside your door,” Shutenko says.

“You could look out of your window and see a tank battle. A Chechen tank, a DNR tank and a Ukrainian tank playing something like hide-and-seek among residential buildings, just a few metres from a school.”

Shutenko’s district around Prospect Peremohy (Victory Avenue) came under intense fire and his apartment was badly damaged, so he moved to a friend’s flat.

“One day, five DNR men with automatic rifles searched the flat and stole all the valuable items kept there by the owners. And they took the money I had, about $200, and then spent a couple of hours drilling into a safe, where they found $2,000,” he says.

Ukrainian officials have estimated that more than 20,000 civilians died in Russia’s attack on Mariupol. Shutenko thinks the real figure could be much higher.

“This situation makes a barbarian out of you. You are, in a way, happy when a bomb hits a neighbouring building and not yours. Then you realise, of course, that there are people in that building too,” he says.

“We thought of Mariupol as a European-level city ... Then, suddenly, people had to gather wood and make fire to cook in their yards because the power system had been destroyed. We went back to the Middle Ages in a few weeks or months.”

Shutenko left Mariupol in September 2022 and chose, like many others, to head east into Russia rather than risk a journey through the front line to reach Kyiv-held territory. Russian friends helped find him accommodation in the southern Stavropol region, before he moved to refugee centres in the city of Taganrog and then in Ryazan.

Wherever he was, interrogations were frequent, with questions revolving around what he may be plotting for Kyiv or spying on for Washington. One FSB officer asked him to reconnect with his old scientific friends in the US and glean their secrets for Moscow.

Shutenko’s wit has survived his ordeal, and he remembers thinking: “Most of my contacts with the US are broken and I left the country along time ago. Should I just write to them, out of the blue, and say, ‘Hi, remember me, what are you working on these days?’”

Many Ukrainians in occupied territory have taken Russian passports to access employment, benefits, healthcare, higher education and other services, and to avoid harassment and worse from an invasion force that acts with impunity.

Shutenko refused to take one, which excluded him from anything other than odd jobs in Russia and put him at loggerheads with officials and the “significant portion” of Ukrainians in the Ryazan refugee centre who were “nationalistically pro-Russian.”

I said if there’s somewhere you can use me (in the war effort), maybe using my education, then put me there, he says

—  Timur Shutenko

“I think half the Russians I met support the war. They believe that truth or God or whatever is on their side,” he says. “And this was one of main reasons for me to come back to Ukraine. Long-term, I could not survive in a society where half the people thought it was right to destroy Mariupol, Kharkiv, Kyiv and so on.”

Not that he received a warm welcome from Ukraine’s SBU security service when its officers questioned him at the border and again in Sumy, the nearest city.

They said Shutenko was probably a Russian spy or at least a Kremlin sympathiser because he did not flee occupied Mariupol immediately, then left for Russia instead of free Ukraine, and – like many easterners – he speaks better Russian than Ukrainian.

“I said if there’s somewhere you can use me (in the war effort), maybe using my education, then put me there,” he says. “If I was sent to the infantry, I know I’d be killed on the first or second day, but if there’s something else then I am ready. It’s up to them.”

Shutenko’s mind and education have already taken him far. As a 16-year-old in 1991, just months before the Soviet Union collapsed, he flew to Havana for the International Physics Olympiad in which schoolchildren from dozens of nations competed over theoretical problems and experimental tasks. He won a gold medal and the overall first prize.

On the way to and from Cuba, Shutenko had a stopover at Shannon. It was his first time in the West, and he remembers a “very green land” and an airport terminal which “seemed glittering and top-notch to a boy from the crappy, crumbling Soviet Union.”

Three years later he was a research assistant at Rice University in Houston, working in the lab of Richard Smalley, who would win the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Then he completed his master’s and a PhD in physics at Princeton, worked for top management consulting firm McKinsey in Atlanta and spent a year at the prestigious California Institute of Technology, or Caltech.

Shutenko, who speaks fluent English, is too modest to volunteer details of his achievements in Cuba or the US, and acknowledges them only reluctantly: “That was all a long time ago, when I was young and had some brains and was very lucky,” he says.

Before Russia’s full invasion, Shutenko was a maths and physics tutor in Mariupol. Now he is jobless in Sumy, looking for work as a teacher or lecturer.

“The people arriving here need to begin their lives again. It’s as if they are now at zero,” says Kateryna Arisoy, a founder of the Pluriton aid group that helps people at the border and then transports them to a shelter in Sumy, where they can sleep, eat, shower and get medical supplies, clothes and advice on what to do next.

“Their whole life is in the bags that they carry. And if – as many do – they bring a cat or a dog, or cats and dogs, then you know they’ve chosen to bring their pets instead of belongings.”

Imagine constant, round-the-clock bombing, never knowing if you’ll be hit

—  Kateryna Arisoy

Arisoy’s own small white dog trots around the centre as a minibus delivers new arrivals to Sumy after a 90-minute drive from the border. Volunteers give them food and drinks, take down their details and show them to their beds. United Nations staff also speak to them and take testimony of Russian abuses including possible war crimes. Accounts of abductions, beatings, torture and other abuses in occupied territory are common.

Returnees to Ukraine also receive one-time cash assistance of 10,800 hryvnia (€255) from the International Organisation for Migration, and are given 3,600 hryvnia (€85) from the government and free travel if they continue on from Sumy along one of four designated “evacuation routes” to the bigger cities of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Poltava or Dnipro.

Valery Kshevskiy from Oleshky, a town on the occupied eastern bank of the Dnipro river in the southeastern Kherson region, is heading for the western city of Ternopil with the disabled mother of a friend who could not have made the difficult journey alone. The woman’s son escaped earlier to Ternopil, but until now she had refused to leave her home.

They set off from Oleshky two weeks ago, and with help from Russian volunteers travelled south into Crimea – which the Kremlin annexed in 2014 – and then north to Voronezh, west to Belgorod and then to the tiny border crossing.

“I told her I’d decided to leave and she said she’d go with me,” Kshevskiy (65) says of his travelling companion, who is resting on one of the 200 beds available in the centre.

“Imagine constant, round-the-clock bombing, never knowing if you’ll be hit. You wake up and the building next door is on fire. Missiles, shelling, drones. You go to the market and there are explosions, you see buildings ruined and cars burned,” he says of life in Oleshky, which has been on the front line since Ukraine liberated Kherson city and the surrounding western bank of the Dnipro in late 2022.

“When (Ukraine) retook Kherson we waited and waited for them to reach us too, but we couldn’t wait any longer,” says Kshevskiy, who worked as a hospital porter.

When they crossed the border the previous day, Russian FSB officers checked their phones and documents and asked them questions, including their opinion of an invasion that the Kremlin officially calls a “special military operation” or SVO.

“They asked me about my attitude towards the SVO – is it positive, negative or neutral,” he says.

“I wanted to give them a talking-to, to tell them I was born in the Soviet Union when we were one people, and no one could possibly have believed that this could happen. But they told me just to stick to the questions, so I answered ‘neutral’. What else could I say? They might have stopped me leaving if I’d told the truth.”

Alexei (70), who declined to give his surname, has just arrived in Sumy after travelling to the border from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, a city controlled by Russia and its DNR proxy militia since 2014.

“I’ve seen so many different people in charge of Donetsk – the Soviets, Ukraine, now this DNR and the Russians. I can tell you that Donetsk is ruined. There’s theft and looting and destruction everywhere. They’re killing the city, it’s hopeless now” he says.

“And I’ve had it up to here with the constant Russian propaganda that you hear everywhere there,” says Alexei , who is moving with his wife to Kyiv.

I don’t feel that anywhere in Ukraine is fully safe or stable. And this corridor is like this. No one knows what could happen

—  Kateryna Arisoy

In one year, Pluriton has helped more than 20,000 Ukrainians from occupied territory return home via Sumy region, and Arisoy understands their plight.

She is from Bakhmut, a small city 85km from Donetsk that Russian forces almost obliterated during months of intense shelling before finally occupying last May.

“As more time passes my hope of one day returning to Bakhmut is going. No one lives there now, only Russian military. There is nothing left. You can’t even say they captured Bakhmut, because they captured only ruins.”

She says the border crossing in Sumy is a “last chance” for people fleeing occupied territory. It also serves as a so-called humanitarian corridor for exchanges of prisoners and soldiers’ bodies, but no one knows how long it will stay open – especially as shelling and skirmishes intensify in the area and local villages are evacuated.

“I don’t feel that anywhere in Ukraine is fully safe or stable. And this corridor is like this. No one knows what could happen.”

Shutenko’s future is also unclear. He has no close relatives in Ukraine and – despite his remarkable CV – he is having difficulty finding a teaching job in the middle of the academic year, when funding for everything in the country, including education, is tight.

“My plan for now is to stay in Sumy. It seems like a nice city. Local people say it’s terrible to be so near the Russian border and to hear shelling sometimes, but for me, coming from Mariupol, what’s really bad is when they demolish your home, there are tanks in the courtyard and neighbouring buildings are on fire,” he says.

“It’s like Kateryna says – we’ve been reduced to zero. You had something, then you lost everything and now what? You can’t mourn over what you’ve lost, because that’s not going to help. You just have to start all over again.”