For a year and a half, Galina Artiomenko had been raising funds to help Ukrainians displaced in Russia because of the February 2022 offensive. Then, suddenly, in mid-July, her bank cards and those of two other volunteers were blocked.

“According to the bank, our collections pursued dubious objectives,” says Ms. Artiomenko, disappointed, who says she can justify “every ruble spent” and is careful not to express a political position.

This blockage shows that its humanitarian commitment is the subject of suspicion, in a country where repression is in full swing and targets those criticizing the assault on Ukraine.

With other volunteers in Saint Petersburg (northwest), Galina broadcasts appeals for donations on the Internet, then with the money raised buys clothes, medicine and food products for those whom the hostilities have forced to join the Russian territory.

She regularly welcomes Ukrainians arriving at the Saint Petersburg train station, helping them find accommodation, work, or undertaking the administrative procedures to join the European Union from Russia.

“There are many good people, thousands of people who help (Ukrainians) but they prefer not to talk about it, for security reasons. Even if no law prohibits helping people who have fallen into misfortune,” points out Ms. Artiomenko.

Because in a context of exacerbated repression, many volunteers refuse to speak about the conflict and their help to refugees, for fear of attracting the attention of the authorities who regularly arrest anonymous people accused of collaborating with Kiev or denigrating the Russian army.

According to Lioudmila, a 43-year-old volunteer who prefers to remain anonymous, many of these Russians are “pacifists” who cannot openly express their positions and ease their conscience by helping the victims.

“We cannot stand idly by, we must help those who are in a worse situation than us and who are suffering; we can do this without risk,” underlines Lioudmila.

“It’s the only way we have left to exist,” says volunteer Galina Artiomenko. “That’s all we can still do.”

According to a UN count, dating from the end of December 2022, nearly 1.3 million Ukrainians were displaced on Russian territory. Russia estimates them at more than 5 million, a figure disputed by NGOs.

Some of these displaced people are in transit, particularly in the Saint Petersburg region, which borders the EU. Others say they want to stay in the country.

kyiv, for its part, accuses the Kremlin of having deported Ukrainians to Russia and of pushing them to obtain Russian passports. In March, the International Criminal Court issued a historic arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his children’s officer Maria Lvova-Belova, for the “war crime of illegal deportation” of children.

Moscow denies this and assures that the displaced people came voluntarily or were evacuated to safety.

On the ground, in Russia, solidarity networks helping refugees, like the one in which Galina Artiomenko participates, have been operating actively since the start of the offensive.

AFP caught up with Ms Artiomenko during one of her many busy days. She has just bought some household products which she is dropping off at a collection point for basic necessities for these Ukrainians.

Here, on wooden racks, there are shoes, clothes, food products, household appliances. The place, called “Goumsklad” and open every day, welcomes up to ten beneficiary families every day.

Then Galina goes to buy glasses in a store in the city center for a Ukrainian couple, Elena and Igor, who have come from Bakhmout, a town in eastern Ukraine that Moscow has claimed to have conquered since the spring, even though Fighting is still ongoing, a battle that has lasted for over a year.

The NGO, based in Moscow, is a larger structure and has more resources. It currently receives up to 50 people per day, after record numbers in 2022, according to volunteer Yulia Makeïeva, 49.

For her, the emotional factor is the hardest to manage when faced with the suffering of refugees. “To maintain energy and hope, I try to keep a distance, otherwise I can’t work, I can only cry,” she says.

That day, in her NGO, Yulia and her husband Alexandre, who came from the Ukrainian city of Kupiansk almost a year ago with their children aged 7 and 3, begin to sob as soon as they talk about their survival under the bombings. This area of ​​eastern Ukraine was liberated by Ukrainian forces in September 2022, after six months of occupation, but Russia is leading a new offensive in the region.

“I just want peace,” slips Ioulia.

17/09/2023 11:16:23 – Saint Petersburg (AFP) – © 2023 AFP