Ukrainian Men Cross Border River to Avoid Military Draft; Romania Allows Temporary Residence, Transit to Other Nations

Kaname Muto / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Romanian border police watch for Ukrainian men trying to illegally cross the border from the opposite side of a river in Sighetu-Marmatiei, Romania, on Feb. 9.

LVIV, Ukraine — A growing number of Ukrainian men are illegally crossing into neighboring countries to avoid the draft. Border police in Romania, which shares a river border with Ukraine, are patrolling the area around the clock.

The main mission of the Romanian border police is to rescue Ukrainian men who swim across. Romania does not treat illegal migrants as criminals and allows them to move on to other European countries.

8,600 enter Romania

Ukrainian houses could be seen beyond the Tisza River in Sighetu-Marmatiei, northern Romania, in early February. An air raid warning siren was heard across the northern shore of the river, which is about 60 meters wide.

In winter, the river is several meters deep due to snowmelt and rain, and the current is faster. Nevertheless, men have swum across almost every night.

Illegal entry into the country is thought to be easy here, because strict measures such as erecting fences are not taken.

According to border police, about 8,600 Ukrainian men have illegally entered Romania since the start of Russia’s aggression. The number was negligible before the war.

When thermography cameras detect the movement of human bodies, border police units are informed and rush to the site.

Vlad Marchis, a 24-year-old assistant inspector who has monitored the border since before the war, said his mindset about the job had changed.

“Before, I tried to capture tobacco smugglers. But now, I want to rescue people who need help as soon as possible.”

The Romanian government prioritizes the protection of Ukrainian nationals. If they apply for temporary protection in Romania, their illegal entry into the country is not treated as a criminal offense.

Romania is a member of the European Union, so the protected Ukrainians can transit to other European countries.

“Some of them feel relieved after arriving here safely, while others cry, saying they had to abandon their home country,” Marchis said.

Information flying around

Immediately after the start of Russia’s aggression, many young Ukrainians volunteered to join the military, driven by righteous anger. However, according to Britain’s BBC, tens of thousands of Ukrainian men who are subject to the military draft have fled overseas.

The average age of Ukrainian soldiers is now above 40. Ukraine’s national congress, the Verkhovna Rada, is preparing a bill to lower the minimum draft age from 27 to 25.

A 47-year-old man who identified himself only as Vasilii said he had saved “40 to 50 illegal migrants.” Vasilii once lived near the border on the Ukrainian side and has dual Ukrainian-Romanian citizenship.

After he evacuated to Romania, at a time when it was legal to cross national borders, many acquaintances asked him how to illegally enter the country so they could evade conscription.

Many of the Ukrainians feared at that time that they might be sent back after crossing the border. So, Vasilii collected information about the system of temporary protection and how they would be treated after crossing the border, and dispensed advice accordingly.

All the people who successfully crossed the border are now in other European countries.

A total of 1.3 million people have registered for an information-sharing channel on the Telegram message app that Vasilii participates in.

Information about successful border crossings and crackdowns inside Ukraine on people trying to flee have been frequently posted on the channel.

Vasilii said, “Now everybody knows a lot about the subject.”

Choosing to fight

Kaname Muto / The Yomiuri Shimbun
Oleh Laba, center, departs for military training in Liviv, Ukraine, on Jan. 30.

However, there are also people who are choosing to fight as the Ukrainian military struggles to push back against the Russians.

Oleh Laba, 29, who ran a nightclub in Liviv in western Ukraine, hugged his wife Anastasiya, 25, on the platform of a train station late on the evening of Jan. 30. His wife had tears in her eyes, but he told her with a smile not to worry.

Anastasiya had shaved off Oleh’s long hair. He had been assigned to an air force unit and was going to participate in military training.

Laba has a chronic ailment of the spine, but had assisted the military since the start of the Russian aggression. He opened his club to evacuees and used it as a base for volunteers who produced petrol bombs.

He also organized events to raise funds for the military, and personally transported goods and drones to the frontlines of fierce battles. Initially, a single event could collect about 160,000 hryvnia (about ¥630,000). But people’s interest waned as the war dragged on.

In the second year of the war, donations fell to one-third, and the range of activities that Laba could do has been limited.

He suffered from a feeling of helplessness, thinking that he could not contribute to his home country at all. At last, he decided, “What is needed most is for me to go to the battlefield.”

As if he was telling himself, Laba said: “Honestly speaking, I’m scared. I also know the war situation is not good. But that’s the reason I have to go now.”