Home News In western Ukraine, draft evaders run and swim to avoid war

In western Ukraine, draft evaders run and swim to avoid war

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The raging river can be dangerous, the banks are steep, slick and muddy, and the riverbed is filled with jagged hidden boulders.

However, Ukrainian border guards often find their prey – those trying to evade military service – swimming in dangerous conditions trying to cross the Tisza River on the border with Romania.

Lieutenant Vladislav Tunkoshtan recently detained a man on the shore as he prepared to cross the river in the hope of being reunited with his wife and children, whom he had not seen for two years since they fled to another European country. It’s their turn.

Thousands of Ukrainian men are choosing to risk swimming rather than face the dangers of soldiers on the eastern front, underscoring the challenges facing President Volodymyr Zelensky He seeks to mobilize new troops After more than two years of brutal and bloody positional warfare with Russia.

“We can’t judge these people,” said Lt. Don Koshtan. “But if everyone leaves, who will defend Ukraine?”

As Russia has seized the initiative on the battlefield in recent months, Ukraine’s ability to defend itself depends on replenishing its weapons arsenal, which relies heavily on its allies, and mobilizing domestic forces.

But getting more men to enlist is particularly difficult and fraught with politics.After months of delays and debate, Ukraine’s parliament A law expanding the draft was passed on Thursday Eliminate some medical and other exemptions, increase soldiers’ pay, and strengthen penalties for draft evasion.Mr Zelensky signed a separate law Lower the draft ageincreased from 27 to 25.

Generals say the shortage of soldiers in Ukraine has become acute. Speaking in parliament on Thursday, Gen. Yuri Sodor, commander of Ukraine’s eastern forces, said Russians outnumbered Ukrainians by more than seven to one in some areas of the front line.

This is the first public assessment of the balance of power in the east by a senior Ukrainian military commander. General Sodor told members of Ukraine’s parliament that one soldier was needed for every 10 yards of trench work along the 600-mile front.

Many Ukrainians who rushed to join the army at the beginning of the war have continued to fight since, with only two weeks of leave each year. Soldiers were drafted into the army until the end of hostilities, but there was no specific date for their release from service. Soldiers said that with casualty rates so high, enlisting was like getting a one-way ticket to the front.

As battlefield prospects dim in Ukraine, military service evasion continues to increase.

In the hills and valleys of Ukraine’s western border region, men from other parts of the country have been trying to avoid conscription by seeking refugee status in European countries.

Romanian authorities say more than 6,000 people have turned up along the Tessa River since the Russian invasion. Not everyone can do it. Lieutenant Lesia Fedorova, spokesperson for the Mukachevo Border Guard Force, said that the bodies of 22 men had washed ashore on both sides of the river.

Officials said more people likely drowned, but their bodies have not yet been found. The deaths earned the river its grim nickname: the River of Death, even though it was hundreds of miles from the violence on the front lines.

Men also sneak across the border via mountain roads or attempt to exit from crossing points with forged documents.

The exodus has changed the nature of smuggling in Ukraine’s Carpathian mountains, which borders four EU countries: Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania. Border guards and local officials say the smuggling operation, which once centered on counterfeit cigarettes, has shifted almost entirely to the business of guiding deserters.

Border agents said they detained men trying to cross the border illegally and could not specify in any particular case whether a man was evading military service, a decision that would be decided by the courts. But the trend of men crossing boundaries is obvious.

Lieutenant Fedorova said that last year, the Mukachevo border detachment dismantled 56 criminal gangs that helped Ukrainian men illegally leave the country during the war. She said the price of transit help rose from $2,000 per person shortly after the invasion to $10,000 today. By comparison, it only costs $200 to smuggle a backpack of cigarettes.

Checkpoints were set up on highways near the border to check vehicles for people who might be trying to leave the country. Along the border, guards installed additional infrared cameras and sensors triggered by footsteps, Lieutenant Fedorova said.

The flow of deserters to the West reflects how much the specter of war hangs over the lives of Ukrainian men, who are legally required to stay in the country.

Most show up when called for military service, rather than running away, said Sgt. Mykhailo Pavlov is the commander of the recruitment office in the western city of Uzhhorod. A combat veteran, he was wounded before serving as a recruiting officer.

He said he would talk to the players he picked, describe the front line and reassure them they could improve their chances if they trained well.

“Everyone is afraid of death, but we try to get them to look at it from a different perspective,” he said – from a survival perspective. He also spoke frankly about the random risks of shelling.

Still, efforts to avoid conscription can be carefully crafted. On a recent morning, minutes after draft officials began patrolling to check documents, posts on the Telegram social networking site began tracking their movements, alerting those who wanted to avoid the draft.

“Petofi Square,” a post on the channel called “Uzhhorod Radar” warned, warning that the channel follows recruiting officials as they walk through Petofi Sander Square. In Kiev, a similar website, “Kyiv Weather,” posted the risks of recruiting officers patrolling neighborhoods, such as sunny days, cloudy days and rainy days.

Vitaly Semon, 30, a welder, nervously pulled his passport from his pocket and described his two exemptions, one because of a back ailment and the other as an elderly father. caregiver. His documents have been checked. “This is our reality now,” he said of document inspections.

In nearby villages close to the border, cars from other parts of Ukraine frequently ply the streets and highways as people look for opportunities to leave the country, said Koval Fedil, the village chief of Tornivtsi. The last few houses of the village of Tornivci overlook the fence. Along the border with Slovakia.

He said that before the Russian invasion, cigarette smuggling – to avoid high EU taxes – permeated every aspect of village life, financing some luxury homes and new cars in the driveway.

“It’s profitable for everyone,” he said. Drones carrying cigarette packs circled over villages and flew toward the Slovak border, sometimes crashing into streets. Some smugglers use catapults to throw cigarettes over border fences.

But as a business, it’s all but gone because it’s more profitable to move players who dodge the draft. Smugglers have begun hiring Roma guides to guide people out of Ukraine, Fedil said.

Andriy Benyak, who is Roma, said in an interview that he was arrested while guiding two Ukrainian men to a loosely secured area on the border between Ukraine and Slovakia. He said he had been trying to make money to buy food for his children. He spent a week in jail and paid a fine.

Border guards said the speed of the water and the width of the river were difficult to measure on the banks of the Tessa at night, when most people try to cross. Last year, guards began posting videos online of rescues and recovery of bodies to discourage men from taking risky swims.

In one video, a man is seen standing precariously in the whirlpool, shouting for help. “Don’t slip, don’t slip,” the guards yelled. Hold on, wait! “

In this case, he lost control and was swept away before rescuers could arrive. No bodies were found, officials said.

Lieutenant Fedorova said the man apparently tried to avoid the risk of dying in the war, but “he died in the river anyway.” Speaking of draft evaders, she said, “They saw the river as an opportunity to survive because so many soldiers died on the front lines.”

Maria Valennikova Reporting from Mukachevo, Ukraine, also contributed.

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