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Russian evacuees from Syria arrive in Moscow

They describe the fear that drove them from a country they'd grown to love, along with the uncertainty they now face.

January 23, 2013|By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times
  • A Russian-Syrian couple and their children arrive in Moscow as part of a Russian airlift to help citizens leave war-torn Syria.
A Russian-Syrian couple and their children arrive in Moscow as part of a… (Sergei L. Loiko / Los Angeles…)

MOSCOW — Russian evacuees from war-torn Syria, mostly worried-looking women and children, emerged from two government airplanes Wednesday into the predawn chill of the Moscow winter.

Several of the evacuees spoke of the mounting hardships in their adopted country, and of an uncertain fate in a motherland they have not known for years.

Many of them left Russia a decade or more ago after marrying Syrian men who had come to Russia to study or work. Now their families were escaping danger in a Syria they had come to love.

Their fear had been fanned by declarations by armed fighters opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad that Russians were legitimate targets because of Moscow's support for Assad during the nearly 2-year-old uprising against his rule. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the fighting.

"Being Russian became a risk for the family," said Natalia, 59, a native of St. Petersburg who had lived in Syria for 35 years and was among those who arrived Wednesday at Moscow's Domodedovo airport. "There was sporadic shooting all the time and then the shelling and bombing began."

Natalia, who declined to give her last name, said she returned to Russia "as a bum with no place to live or go to, really."

With roads to the airport in Damascus, the Syrian capital, vulnerable to attack, the evacuees were taken by bus to neighboring Lebanon. Syrian soldiers guarded the buses along the route, a highway crowded with people fleeing the chaos. The evacuees then flew from Beirut to Moscow on planes provided by the Russian government.

The evacuees consisted of 30 women, 27 children and 20 men, mostly Syrian husbands of Russian women.

The evacuation prompted speculation that the Kremlin thought the end was near for the Syrian government, Moscow's longtime ally. But Russian officials denied that and said the airlift was not a prelude to a massive evacuation of the more than 30,000 Russian citizens believed to be living in Syria.

"There are [evacuation] plans, as for any other country, but we are not talking about putting them into any action," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow. "The estimated current situation in Syria doesn't require this."

Most of the evacuees are expected to join relatives or friends in Russia, but about 20 will stay at a facility near Moscow until permanent housing can be arranged, said Col. Yuri Besedin, deputy chief of the Emergency Situations Ministry.

About 8,000 Russians are registered with the Russian Embassy in Syria, but experts say the numbers of unregistered may exceed 25,000.

Natalia, who made the trip with her two children and three grandchildren, said her family had been content in Syria for years. They lived in what had long been a quiet suburb of Damascus, where, she said, she enjoyed respect and affection as the owner of a popular beauty salon. Her daughter also married a Syrian. Then the war came.

Last month, Natalia said, the opposition Free Syrian Army occupied her neighborhood. The electricity was cut off and the gas ran out. As rebel fighters roamed the streets, the family stayed indoors.

"During those nights, the children were crying and trying to hide under the bed, as we were all lying together trying to hold them tight, sleepless. And then one night a shell or bomb hit the ground nearby and all the glass in our house was shattered," she said.

The family fled the house just in time, she said. Another shell heavily damaged the home, and her salon was destroyed in the barrage.

The rebels retreated, but Natalia's family had no place to go. They were offered a small room in a kindergarten, she said. Schools throughout Syria have become makeshift shelters for the multitudes of displaced people.

"I saw people injured and killed in the street," Natalia said.

Her grandson Ribay Ejal, 10, who spoke with a heavy Syrian accent, said he was scared to remain in Syria. "I am happy to be in Russia, but Mom says it is very cold here all the time."

Another evacuee, Yekaterina Sorokina, 39, a mother of four, arrived with her Syrian husband and three of her young children. Her 19-year-old son stayed behind, completing his obligatory service in the army, which has suffered thousands of casualties.

"I hope to God they will let him go, and then he can join us in Russia," Sorokina said. "I pray for him."

Some evacuees, including Sorokina, said they hoped to return to Syria after the fighting ended.

But others, such as Anzhelika Yunes, who arrived with her three young children, said they were unlikely to return.

“I don’t think we will be going back, as it doesn’t look as if the war in Syria will end in the near future,” Yunes said as she opened the airport doors and stepped into the pitch-black and freezing-cold Moscow morning.

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Beirut contributed to this report.

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