Fleeing home as a queer Ukrainian

The group from Kherson on their arrival in Berlin after a long journey from invaded Ukraine. Photos provided by the author.

Marianna is a queer activist from the south of Ukraine. She is also the head of an LGBTQ+ organization, “For Equal Rights,” which has been working toward equality in her home region.

Marianna spent her entire life in Kherson, up until the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine uprooted her and forced her to become a refugee. She managed to escape her home city right before Russians occupied it, and helped hundreds of queer Ukrainians flee occupation when Kherson was under Russian control.

“I know that if I didn’t flee early on, Russians would be hunting for me,” Marianna says, “They were looking for queer people, torturing and killing many. I am not sure if I’d be alive now if I had stayed under occupation,” she added.

The invasion

Kherson is a large city in southern Ukraine, the capital of the Kherson region, which is close to Crimea. This peninsula has been under Russian occupation since 2014, so in 2022, when Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it quickly moved its troops from Crimea into Kherson.

The city and the whole region have been under Russian occupation for nearly nine months, from early March to November 11, 2022.

Ukrainian troops managed to liberate the city and some towns and villages nearby, but many localities closest to Crimea still remain under Russian control.

“Kherson is being mercilessly bombed around the clock,” Marianna says, “Every day, there are missile attacks, and someone is getting killed.”

Hundreds of thousands of residents left Kherson; some, like Marianna, managed to escape before the occupation, and others fled later when constant attacks made life in the city too dangerous. Many activists fled the city during the occupation when it was nearly impossible to escape. Russian troops blocked the routes and prevented people from leaving, while also searching for resistance fighters and often kidnapping and torturing them.

“On February 24, when all of Ukraine was on fire, I decided to leave,” Marianna says, “I understood that if the city is occupied, I will not be able to help anyone, and most likely, because I am LGBTIQ activist, the Russian military would have been looking for me. Today, I know for a fact that they were searching for me, and I am lucky to be alive.”

Marianna never thought she’d ever become a refugee, although her loved ones have already had such experiences. Marianna’s partner and her son had to flee the war back in 2014 when they escaped their native Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and settled in Kherson. Luhansk is one of the few Ukrainian cities under Russian occupation since 2014.

The escape

“In the early morning of February 24, I organized an urgent call with queer activists around Kherson,” says Marinna, recalling that first day of the full-scale invasion, “I wanted to see how many people were willing to leave the city. Seven activists were ready to go.”

Marianna found a minibus, and by the evening, she and her colleagues headed out for western Ukraine. By the time they reached this part of the country, Russian troops were already encircling Kherson.

“We travelled for three days, thinking that we were going to Uzhhorod,” Marianna says, “Bridges were blown up in front of us, and some buildings were on fire. The road was very busy with cars. It was scary.”

The journey from Kherson to Uzhhorod — a city in the southwest of Ukraine near the Hungarian border — should normally take fewer than 16 hours. However, because of heavy traffic and overall panic across the country, it was hard to get anywhere, and the evacuees were moving slowly.

“Our driver slept for less than four hours in the three days we were traveling,” Marianna recalls, “On our way, we also realized that we didn’t have anywhere to stay in western Ukraine, so I urgently started looking for some options for us.”

Through a friend, Marianna found some temporary housing in the mountains. The house was overpriced and in bad condition but the group was happy to find even that. With thousands of Ukrainians moving westwards, some people slept in cars because all the hotels were booked.

“Instead of Uzhhorod, we chose to stay in this mountainous region for a few days, so we changed our route,” Marianna recalls, “Before getting into the house, we wanted to buy some food because we had no supplies after our journey. In a local store, we found minced meat, snacks, two wilted carrots, and cabbage. There was no more food left.”

When the group arrived and entered the house, they realized that it was not fit to host people at that time because it was so cold and dusty. The phone and internet didn’t work properly, either.

“We had no place to cook, so we decided to cook on an open fire outside,” Marianna remembers, “We found a large cauldron and potatoes, and it took us a few hours to make a soup.  It was the tastiest hot meal I had had in many days.”

Cooking while fleeing the war in the mountains of western Ukraine. Photo provided by Marianna, used with permission.

For a few days, the group observed the situation throughout Ukraine to decide what to do next. They could not stay where they were because they ran out of money and were getting sick in the cold house.

Through her activist links, Marianna connected with volunteers from Berlin who invited them to Germany. After more than 12 hours of waiting in line at the border between Ukraine and Poland, the group finally crossed into the European Union.

“Out of all of us, I was the only one who could speak some English,” Marianna says, “So it was quite scary for us to leave Ukraine and go meet the volunteers we didn’t know before.”

Queer support

In early March, the group reached Berlin.

“Our arrival was like a fog,” the activist says, “We were willing to do anything, any job, just to sustain ourselves, but we were lucky and got a lot of help from Germans.”

While in Berlin, Marianna started working on helping other queer Ukrainians flee occupied territories. She connected with LGBTQ+ Ukrainians stuck in Kherson and started looking for ways to help them get evacuated. Through coordinating with international volunteers and raising funds for evacuations, she helped more than 300 queer people escape the occupation.

In Berlin, Marianna and other queer Ukrainians united in a community to support one another and raise awareness about the situation in Ukraine. They are also collecting money to help Ukrainians back home and organizing events in Germany to keep the momentum going on the Russian war.

Marianna is now working on providing humanitarian aid to queer people in Kherson.

“Before the invasion, we were making a lot of progress for equality and queer representation,” she says, “Russian occupation showed how easy it is to lose all of that.”

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