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Russian men are flying to Turkey to avoid military service in Ukraine


There are long car lines at Russian border crossings. Airplane flights out of the country are sold out or skyrocketing in price. This is after the Kremlin announced this week that Russia will be partially mobilizing hundreds of thousands of reservists to bolster their forces in Ukraine. NPR's Fatma Tanis is in Istanbul, where flights from Russia have been arriving with men trying to avoid military service. She spoke with some of them and joins us now.

Fatma, thanks so much for being with us.

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: You were at Istanbul's main airport yesterday, and what was the scene like?

TANIS: Right. So first, I should note that Turkey is one of few countries that doesn't require a visa for Russians. Since they can't go to European Union countries or the U.S. easily, lots of Russians have been coming here. There are multiple flights every day from Russian cities to Istanbul and other places in Turkey. And nearly all of them have been booked solid for the next few weeks. Tickets were sold for upwards of $3,000, even.

At the airport, I found Russians coming in the arrivals terminal. Most of them were men, and many didn't want to talk because they're afraid of Russian government tracking them. One of them actually asked if I had a secret camera around as I was trying to interview him. But one thing really stood out. Most of the men had very little luggage, and that's because they had to convince Russian authorities that they were just leaving the country for a short trip, not to evade conscription.

SIMON: So they have to act like they're not leaving to avoid the war. Were you able to speak with some of these men, and what did they tell you about how they got out?

TANIS: Yes, they said it wasn't easy. After they heard the announcement, they rushed to find tickets, paid a lot of money, packed quickly. Then at the airports in Russia, they described crowds, long waits as men who tried to leave were being interrogated by police. And because they were concerned about government retribution, they didn't want to use their names when talking to me. But here's one 35-year-old man from Moscow describing the questioning he faced.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Police interrogated us. There was some question about, for example, when did you buy this ticket? What's the purpose? And the second line, they asked, did you service in the military? When? And did you receive the post that you need to go?

TANIS: He said nearly all of the people on his flight were men between the ages of 20 to 50, and he knows many more back in Russia who are desperately trying to leave, but it's very hard to find tickets now.

SIMON: Fatma, did you get a sense of how they felt about the war, not just their own welfare, but the war generally?

TANIS: I did. So the ones I spoke with said they were anti-war, and they believed that a full-on draft is coming soon. But they said that not only can you get in trouble for saying that publicly, it's caused divisions between friends and relatives. And people have been arrested for protesting the mobilization in Russia. There are even reports that they're getting drafted while in police custody to be sent in Ukraine. One man told me that for Russians who are anti-war today, there are only two choices - to leave the country or go to jail.

SIMON: What do they plan to do now that they're out of Russia?

TANIS: They have limited options. You know, they moved quickly to leave and were limited to taking out just $10,000 in cash. It's difficult to use the Russian payment system abroad because of sanctions. But while in Turkey, most said they'll try to get a residence permit, look for apartments and jobs so they can bring their families out of Russia, too. Some of them already have friends here. There's a Russian anti-war community already here that can help. They've been coming in large numbers since the invasion began in the spring.

SIMON: NPR's Fatma Tanis in Istanbul. Thanks so much.

TANIS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.

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