CHISINAU, Moldova – Vova Klever, a young and successful fashion photographer from the Ukrainian capital Kiev, did not see herself in this war.
“Violence is not my weapon,” he said.
So shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, Mr. Klever snuck out and broke Ukraine’s law forbidding military-aged men from leaving the country.
Mr Klever’s mistake, which would have devastating consequences, was to write to a friend that he was being smuggled out and going to London.
The friend betrayed his trust and posted their conversation on social media. It went viral and Ukrainians all over the internet exploded with anger and resentment.
“You are a walking dead person,” a Twitter post said. “I will find you in every corner of the world.”
The idea that people – especially men – are leaving war-torn Ukraine for a safe and comfortable life abroad has created a moral dilemma among Ukrainians that focuses on one of the most basic decisions people can make: fight or flee. .
Thousands of Ukrainian military-age men have left the country to avoid participating in the war, according to data from regional law enforcement officers and interviews with people inside and outside Ukraine. Smuggling circles in Moldova and possibly other European countries are doing good business. Some people have paid up to $15,000 for a secret overnight ride from Ukraine, Moldovan officials said.
The draft dodgers are the big exception. That makes it all the more complicated for them – morally, socially and practically. Ukrainian society has been mobilized for war against a much larger enemy, and countless Ukrainians with no military experience have volunteered to fight. In order to maximize its armed forces, the Ukrainian government has taken the extreme step of banning men aged 18 to 60 from leaving, with few exceptions.
All this has forced the Ukrainian men who do not want to serve to take illegal routes to Hungary, Moldova and Poland and other neighboring countries. Even among those who believed they had fled for the right reasons, some said they felt guilty and ashamed.
“I don’t think I can be a good soldier in this war right now,” said a Ukrainian computer programmer named Volodymyr, who left shortly after the war broke out and refused to reveal his last name, fearing repercussions for avoiding military service .
“Look at me,” Volodymyr said, drinking a beer in a Warsaw pub. “I wear glasses. I’m 46. I don’t look like a classic fighter, a Rambo who can fight against Russian troops.”
He took another sip and stared into his glass.
“Yes, I’m ashamed,” he said. “I ran from this war, and it’s probably my crime.”
Ukrainian politicians have threatened to jail conscripts and confiscate their homes. But within Ukrainian society, feelings are more divided.
The vast majority of refugees are women and children, who have encountered little resistance. But that is not the case for young men. if cities are still ravaged by Russian bombs, many Ukrainians are ruthless towards the conscientious objectors.
This is what exploded the young photographer.
In mid-March, Olga Lepina, who has worked as a model and modeling agency, said that Mr Klever had sent her husband a message that he had arrived in London.
Her husband wrote back: “Wow! How?”
“Through Hungary with the smugglers for $5k,” Mr Klever replied, according to screenshots of Ms Lepina’s conversation. “But that’s just between us, shush!”
Mrs. Lepina said that she and Mr. Klever had been friends for years. She even went to his wedding. She had also left for France with her husband, who is not a Ukrainian citizen. But as war approached, she said, Mr. Klever became intensely patriotic and a bit of an online bully. When she found out that he had avoided service, she was so outraged that she posted screenshots of the conversation on Instagram.
“For me it was hypocrisy to leave the country and pay money for this,” she explained. “I just decided to take it to the public. He should be responsible for his words.”
Mr Klever, who is in his twenties, was bombarded with hateful messages, including death threats. Some Ukrainians hated him using his wealth to get out, calling it “cheating.”
In response to questions by email, Mr Klever did not deny that he skipped his shift, saying he was partially sighted and had “been through a lot lately”.
“You can’t even imagine the hate,” he said.
Mr Klever gave conflicting statements about exactly how he left the country and declined to provide details. But for many other Ukrainian men, Moldova has become the favorite hatch.
Moldova shares a border of nearly 800 miles with western Ukraine. And unlike Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia, Moldova is not part of the European Union, meaning it has significantly fewer resources to control its borders. It is one of Europe’s poorest countries and has been a hub of human trafficking and organized crime.
Within days of the war breaking out, Moldovan officials said, Moldovan mobs placed advertisements on Telegram, a popular messaging service in Eastern Europe, offering to arrange cars, even minibuses, to evict conscientious objectors.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Law enforcement officers said the usual method for the smugglers and Ukrainians was to pick a meeting point along Moldova’s “green border,” the term used for the unfenced border areas, and meet late at night.
On a recent night, a group of Moldovan border guards trudged across a flat, endless wheat field, their boots sinking in the mud, in search of draft evaders. There was no border post, just the dim lights of a Ukrainian village and the sound of dogs barking in the darkness.
Here you can just walk in and out of Ukraine.
Moldovan officials said they had broken up more than 20 smuggling gangs, including a few well-known criminal enterprises, since late February. In turn, they detained 1,091 people who crossed the border illegally. They were all Ukrainian men, officials said.
Once caught, these men have a choice. If they do not want to be returned, they can apply for asylum in Moldova and cannot be deported.
But if they don’t apply for asylum, they could be turned over to Ukrainian authorities, who, according to Moldovan officials, pressured them to return the men. The vast majority of those who entered illegally, about 1,000, have applied for asylum and fewer than 100 have been returned, Moldovan officials said. Two thousand other Ukrainian men who entered Moldova legally have also applied for asylum.
Volodymyr Danuliv is one of them. He refuses to fight in the war, although it is not the prospect of dying that worries him, he said. It’s the killing.
“I can’t shoot Russian people,” said Mr. Danuliv, 50.
He explained that his siblings were married to Russians, and two of his cousins served in the Russian army – in Ukraine.
“How can I fight in this war?” he asked. “Maybe I’ll kill my own family.”
Myroslav Hai, an official at the military reserve of Ukraine, admitted: “There are people who evade the mobilization, but their share compared to volunteers is not that big.” Other Ukrainian officials said men who are ideologically or religiously against war can serve in other ways, such as as cooks or drivers.
But none of the more than a dozen men interviewed for this article seemed interested. mr. Danuliv, a businessman from Western Ukraine, said he did not want to participate in the war. When asked if he was afraid of being banned or shamed, he shook his head.
‘I didn’t kill anyone. That’s what’s important to me,” he said. “I don’t care what people say.”
What happens when the war ends? How much resentment will arise towards those who left? These are questions that Ukrainians, men and women, are beginning to ask.
When Mrs. Lepina disgraced Mr. Klever, she herself was no longer in Ukraine. She had also left for France. Every day, she said, she struggles with guilt.
“People are suffering in Ukraine and I want to be there to help them, to support them,” she said. “But at the same time I’m safe and I want to be here.”
“It’s a very ambiguous, complicated feeling,” she said.
And she knows she will be judged.
“Of course there will be those who divide Ukrainian citizens between those who have left and those who have stayed,” she said. “I’m ready for that.”
Siergiej Greczuszkin contributed from Warsaw and Daria Mychkovska from Przemysl, Poland.