“Pristanište Is a No-War Territory”
“Pristanište Is a No-War Territory”
How do Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians who end up in Montenegro get help? What are the relations between them? The cofounder of the Pristanište Foundation, Svetlana, and administrator Andrey share their experiences

— What did you do before the invasion, why are you in Montenegro, and why are you helping others who have left?

Svetlana: I came to Montenegro a year and a half ago: my husband’s brother is involved in educational projects here, and there was a request to launch the first international school in Montenegro. Before that, I used to live in Moscow, working on civic education and then I became an anti-war activist. We [other activists and I] coordinated campaigns in support of political prisoners, and for securing the release of [Ukrainian filmmaker] Oleg Sentsov as part of a prisoner exchange. Being involved in this, I quickly realized last year that [Russia] was going to push a new round of aggression very soon. I bought a ticket to Moscow, landed there on February 20, and went out picketing against the war in Ukraine on February 23. Eventually, I ended up at the police station, and on the 24th a full-scale invasion began. On February 25 I returned to Montenegro. It was clear to me that there would be Ukrainians fleeing the war, and that there would also be people fleeing Russia, because the repression would intensify. And it was clear that there would be a new wave of people fleeing Belarus. Meanwhile, there was no state support for refugees in Montenegro at all. That is why we decided to provide housing for citizens coming from the three countries [Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus]. By March 5, we had rented several buildings, just to provide people with at least some accommodation, and had brought food. People who were coming had many questions, and we started looking for different ways to help them. Then there were children, so there was a need for school, kindergarten, children’s programs, etc.

Andrey: I am from Melitopol, Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia region. The city was actually occupied from day one by Russian troops and is now under this yoke. Until February 24, I had an ordinary life: I worked, I had things I did for leisure, I never planned to go anywhere. An ordinary life, I guess, like everyone else’s. And on February 24, I realized that that was over.

From the beginning, there was no illusion that Russia had come to save us. Save us from whom? I lived in Ukraine for 37 years, which is not so long, but I traveled around the country, talked to people both in Russian and in Ukrainian, I never had any problems. And then someone came to my city, came to “liberate” me from work, from a normal life, from my way of living, from friends, from relatives. I talked to these soldiers, and among them there were people who at first were so distrustful that they asked me: “Are you really being oppressed here?” I replied that no one had harmed us and that until they came here, I had felt perfectly fine and safe.

“We chose the name Pristanište, which in Montenegrin means “harbor.” The idea is that for two weeks you can just stop here, in a quiet harbor, in a safe place”

It was unbearable to stay in Melitopol at that time. I could not stand the military, the flags, the slogans like “Russia is here forever!” There was constant pressure, roadblocks, document checks, phone checks, alarms, shootings at night, shelling of the city. On September 27, we packed everything we could fit into the car. My mother, my older sister, my nephew and I simply locked the door behind us and left.

Initially, we drove through Russia to the Netherlands because people I knew were already there. They had left earlier. Many people asked if it wasn’t dangerous to go through Russia. Was it? Well, I had to, so I just drove on. Besides, some good people live there; not everyone is an enemy. And by the way, it was fine. Everyone treated us nicely. I did not feel any hostility from ordinary citizens.

But when I entered Crimea, there we saw it all: the so-called “filtration measures,” conversations with border guards, probably with the FSB officers [the Russian Federal Security Service]; phone checks, car searches, long conversations with questions about contacts in the phone book, with questions that made no sense to me. “Aren’t you in the service?” “Do you know anyone serving in the Ukrainian military or Territorial Defense?” “And who is Vasya in the phone book, and who is Andrey, and who is Ivan, and who did they vote for, and who did you vote for?” “And where are you going, why the Netherlands, and what language do they speak there?” “How do you feel about the ‘special military operation’?” That’s the most absurd question I’ve ever heard. How am I supposed to feel about it?

I arrived at the border with Latvia. I saw 200 cars with Ukrainian license plates standing along the highway. I joined the column and asked people in line how long we had to wait. “Well, guys, you’ll have to drive for a week or so, live in the car, take a shower at the Rus cafe, and use the bathroom at the gas station, cook food where you want, go to the neighboring town Sebezh for food and medicine.” And when I realized that I had to stand in traffic for seven days because I am Ukrainian and have a car with Ukrainian license plates, I felt like a third-rate, not even second-rate person, completely powerless.  

But there is some fortune in all of this. In the evening, a local guy, Vova, arrived, brought a samovar, chopped some wood, served boiling water, and shared with us some gruel and soup cooked by his wife. We talked, and it turned out that he came to visit us after work. He came to help us instead of staying with his family. He did his best to support us. It struck me then. His generosity deeply touched me. He helped us, and I wanted to help others too. And that’s how my volunteer work began. Taya, my girlfriend now, was one of those who helped Ukrainians in Russia at that time. We first met over the phone; she was my coordinator, and I was the link between the local volunteers and the people in the column.

After five days at the Russian border, they took me to the checkpoint and held me for seven more hours: they searched my car, and interrogated me again, asking the same questions. Finally, I left Russia, drove another 500 meters, and entered Latvia. The border guards in Latvia were very kind: they quickly checked my documents, showed me where to park, and asked me to wait for 15 minutes. That was it. “Welcome, guys, welcome,” was their attitude. I took my loved ones to the Netherlands as planned.

Well, then the relationship with Taya began, we had to meet somewhere, but the Netherlands was not a country that Russian citizens could enter without a visa. We agreed to meet in Montenegro. Afterward, Taja accidentally heard about the Pristanište Foundation, which assists people from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

Pristanište is a volunteer-based project”

At first, we decided to stay at the foundation to look around a little. Soon one of the administrators there asked if I wanted to try myself in her role. She was about to leave and offered that I could take her place. And I thought: why not if I can be helpful to someone? To join this movement for a while will also be a help to Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians. So I started to work for Pristanište.

On the one hand, the situation is overwhelming, tragic, painful, absurd and incomprehensible. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have met Taya if it weren’t for all this. I wouldn’t have met other people: both from Russia and Ukraine. If a person speaks Ukrainian, I talk in Ukrainian and enjoy speaking my native language here, away from home, although most of my life, I have communicated in Russian. I understand that I will stay in Montenegro for a long time and need to integrate somehow.

— And who comes to Montenegro? Most refugees go to other places, as Montenegro doesn’t provide any official support for Ukrainians, much less for others.

Svetlana: These are different kinds of people. As for Ukrainians, there are several scenarios. First, there are people who have nothing left, and they need help in the beginning, but they look forward to start living on their own — to find a job, to rent an apartment. And we help them with that. Second, there are Ukrainians who have never been outside of the country before; there are many elderly people among them in need of support, but they cannot really navigate in the Western context, it is hard for them. And Montenegro seems more familiar to them: Montenegrin language is relatively similar to Ukrainian, and besides, we organize language classes.

“People from Ukraine, Russia, Russian-occupied territories, and Ukrainian-controlled territories live in neighboring rooms. And there is no tension”

As for Russians, they do not have much choice [because they need a visa]. Montenegro is a visa-free country for them, and a Russian citizen can stay there for a long time: once a month he or she has to cross the border and leave with a possibility to go back to the country right away. In case of political refugees, pursued by the Russian authorities, they can stay in Montenegro as in a transit hub. They come here and stay waiting for their documents to get ready in order to get to a country that accepts them.

For our foundation, we chose the name Pristanište, which in Montenegrin means “harbor.” The idea is that for two weeks you can just stop here, in a quiet harbor, in a safe place, in a friendly environment, so you can think about what to do next.

— How is your foundation organized? Who is involved in it, and what exactly do you do?

Svetlana: Pristanište is a volunteer-based project. We’ve had about 500 people in total who have been helping out throughout this year. Some help once, others do it on a regular basis, and volunteers help in a variety of ways. First, there are volunteers who connect to refugee families directly. It’s a tutoring system — this person serves as a bridge between the foundation and the people who are getting assistance; and a volunteer gets to know these people, becomes their friend, and accompanies them. Volunteers can be a community of drivers who help us with transfers and transportation; they can be our psychologists, or people responsible for social media marketing and design — we need their help because we organize various events. And all of them are volunteers.

As for fundraising, the foundation was established with funding from the founders, many of whom were born in Russia, and feel responsible. Later, we started raising public funds, reaching to those interested in our special events. These funds cover one third of the required amount, which is quite a lot. And, of course, the most precious donations come from those refugees we’ve hosted before: our former tenants have donated to us 5,000 euros in total. As soon as they are able to get back on their feet, they return with a small donation that we really cherish.

Andrey: It is my responsibility to find available accommodations if there are requests for it. I have to ensure the room is free and cleaned and provide people with a standard grocery kit when they arrive.

— How is the foundation structured? How do you make decisions?

Andrey: Everything is user-friendly, and the paperwork to register people is rather easy. To make decisions you need to talk with someone, but there is no red tape, you don’t have to write any memos.

Svetlana: It is a horizontal structure based on self-organization. I count as the general manager of the foundation, but in fact I’m its first volunteer.  

Andrey: Our volunteers, or tutors, who have been here since the beginning of this senseless aggression, can help with registration, with documents, and with finding a job. Besides, we offer psychological help.

On March 5, the foundation celebrated its one-year anniversary. What has been done so far? 

Svetlana: So far 700 people have gone through the housing provided by our foundation, 30 families at a time. They have an opportunity to stay in an individual apartment but there is also a common area for socializing. 2,000 people have received assistance of a different kind (those who did not need housing). In addition, we’ve been organizing workshops for children to keep them busy and let their parents have the time to look for a job. There are also various activities for adults, which include film screenings, reading club, art history class, English, and math.

“It’s nice when after being forced to start a new life you also like this life, and you want to live it”

— And what happens to children who need to continue their education?

Svetlana: We have organized a special program for kids, which is one of the most difficult programs to carry on. Initially, I thought it would be easy for us to raise money for it because it’s for kids, but it turned out that people tend to treat education for refugees as an excessive benefit. There are times when we pay for children’s classes. If kids used to play, say, soccer in Mariupol, it’s good if they continue playing soccer here too, carrying on a familiar activity they like. Sometimes we cover their expenses for private schools. Generally, it is possible for a refugee kid to get to a Montenegrin public school, but for high school students it is very difficult: they are already reeling in shock, and now have to fit in the Montenegrin school, where nothing makes any sense for them.

Andrey: There is a public space in one of the houses rented by the foundation where our guests can meet freely, sit and chat. We also organize events there regularly. For example, there are math courses for children and adults, Montenegrin language courses, and English courses. Now there is art history for children. We have a partner pottery studio where adults and children can make their own stuff. Gleb, a 10-year-old boy I know, has made a fantastic cup. There is a storage room for things that other people bring, and all our residents can take what they need. If you need something, you come and take it.

— Do Russians and Ukrainians share the same houses? Is there any tension between them?

Andrey: No, there is no problem. People from Ukraine, Russia, Russian-occupied territories, and Ukrainian-controlled territories live in neighboring rooms. And there is no tension.

Sveta is so gracious that she invited everyone to her place for the New Year’s party. Of course, I am from Ukraine, Taya is from Russia, and we live in the same room. There are folks from Russia and Ukraine, men and women. About 30 people came to Sveta’s to celebrate. We watched Zelensky’s address, not Putin’s, for sure. The address moved everyone. It was heartwarming. Here everyone is on the same page. And fortunately, people are not exposed to the monstrous Russian propaganda. Here everyone understands how tragic and difficult the situation is. 

Svetlana: Let me tell you why we have Russians and Ukrainians living together. The first couple to reach us was from Kharkiv. They were Diana, a Ukrainian citizen, and Sasha, from Russia, who by that time had already been listed [by Russian authorities] as a foreign agent. They used to live in Kharkiv before. At first [before encountering this Russo-Ukrainian couple], we were discussing what would be the most appropriate way to organize the housing: one house for Ukrainian families and another house for others? But fortunately that division wasn’t needed, and, as we can see, that’s a good thing. Now people from different countries talk and find mutual support in each other.

“Russians and Ukrainians are in completely different situations — one thing is a threat of imprisonment, quite another thing is a shell above your head. We don’t equalize their grief”

— What language do you use to communicate with your guests?

Svetlana: In our houses [those the foundation provides], one can hear both Ukrainian and Russian spoken, and everyone understands each other.

— Would you like to share a story which struck you most?

Svetlana: Behind every person there is an incredible story.

One of them goes like this. Three friends from Kharkov left the city right before a shell hit the yard they shared. They left together, but on the way one of them was lost. The two others lost contact with her, and it was unclear whether she found a way to leave Ukraine at all. While still on the road, the two decided to go to Pristanište because they somehow heard about our foundation. They got to us but were worried where their third friend, Tatyana, was, where had she gone? And the next day they managed to get in touch with her, asking: “Where are you? Were you able to leave Ukraine? We were!” She answered, “So was I!” “And where are you now? We’re in Montenegro”. And she replied: “So am I!” “We’re in Pristanište, and where  are you?” “And I’m here in Pristanište!” The three of them ended up here staying in one of our houses, can you imagine? It was a meeting where we all just cried tears of joy. Because she was alive and because they finally found each other. And then they went on their way together.

Another story. We’ve been hosting Inna and her daughter Sasha; she’s twelve years old and has a serious movement disorder. And we are the only foundation in Montenegro that accepts people with disabilities. Before the invasion, Inna used to live in the Odessa region, in a small house. The house was soon left without power, and we, remotely, helped them leave the country: there was a need for a bus, after all. For twelve years, Inna spent every minute of her time by her daughter. Sasha’s father rejected his daughter from the very beginning. But here, at our place, Inna has made a hundred friends, and she has free time, she’s had a chance to go to a concert, to a party, to simply go out. She goes outside with Sasha to have a walk, and we all help her with a wheelchair. It’s nice when after being forced to start a new life you also like this life, and you want to live it.

— How do you see the post-war future for Russia and Russian-Ukrainian relations?

Andrey: It’s a complicated issue, and I feel very strongly about it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of grief, many lives broken, and homes destroyed. Too many people have no place to return to, and this, of course, has a massive impact on all of us.

“It is possible to resist war, and not to let it in everywhere”

First, my firm belief was, is and will be in the future of Ukraine: Ukraine will win, Ukraine will hold out, and Ukraine will not be broken by anything, in any way, under any circumstances.

As for relations with Russia, I wish it were the way we are communicating here now. Too bad, it probably won’t be that way. Maybe if the people who are now claiming that the special operation is going according to plan and that Russia is fighting for the right cause realize the horror of this situation, the atrocity of their words, then perhaps after some time, some long time, we will be able to talk about some degree of peaceful coexistence. If the Russians have enough courage to understand and ask for forgiveness, and if the Ukrainians have enough strength to try to forgive, things could work out. Still, I understand those Ukrainians who will not forgive and will not make that contact. And in the coming years, there will probably be no direct friendly relations, no “brotherly peoples” even after the war. 

Many people are surprised at me, at my position. How can I comfortably communicate in Russian, or how can I speak without aggression toward folks from Russia? It’s not the language that separates us. It’s our actions. If someone can help in this situation, they help, and it doesn’t matter what language they speak, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Georgian or English.

Svetlana: In general the mission of our foundation is to build a community. It is obvious that one must have a roof over one’s head, food, clothing — these are the basics. But what we are doing intentionally is creating a friendly community, where people can talk to each other. We don’t avoid painful questions. Every night we have people talking openly about the experiences they’ve had either in Russia, or in Ukraine. And these experiences tell us that this war will come to an end. And after it ends, people will likely stay in touch with each other. They need to talk. And I’m sure that there will be various programs aimed at building a dialogue between people. We’ve been already creating an environment for this dialogue to take place.

But we don’t equalize their grief, we don’t equalize their misfortunes. Russians and Ukrainians are in completely different situations — one thing is a threat of imprisonment, quite another thing is a shell above your head. But we all understand that these horrible things come from the same source, and people have a need to unite. It is possible to resist war, and not to let it in everywhere. Somewhere there should be a borderline, a boundary that war cannot cross. Pristanište is a no-war territory.

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“Pristanište Is a No-War Territory”
“Pristanište Is a No-War Territory”
How do Ukrainians, Belarusians and Russians who end up in Montenegro get help? What are the relations between them? The cofounder of the Pristanište Foundation, Svetlana, and administrator Andrey share their experiences

— What did you do before the invasion, why are you in Montenegro, and why are you helping others who have left?

Svetlana: I came to Montenegro a year and a half ago: my husband’s brother is involved in educational projects here, and there was a request to launch the first international school in Montenegro. Before that, I used to live in Moscow, working on civic education and then I became an anti-war activist. We [other activists and I] coordinated campaigns in support of political prisoners, and for securing the release of [Ukrainian filmmaker] Oleg Sentsov as part of a prisoner exchange. Being involved in this, I quickly realized last year that [Russia] was going to push a new round of aggression very soon. I bought a ticket to Moscow, landed there on February 20, and went out picketing against the war in Ukraine on February 23. Eventually, I ended up at the police station, and on the 24th a full-scale invasion began. On February 25 I returned to Montenegro. It was clear to me that there would be Ukrainians fleeing the war, and that there would also be people fleeing Russia, because the repression would intensify. And it was clear that there would be a new wave of people fleeing Belarus. Meanwhile, there was no state support for refugees in Montenegro at all. That is why we decided to provide housing for citizens coming from the three countries [Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus]. By March 5, we had rented several buildings, just to provide people with at least some accommodation, and had brought food. People who were coming had many questions, and we started looking for different ways to help them. Then there were children, so there was a need for school, kindergarten, children’s programs, etc.

Andrey: I am from Melitopol, Ukraine, Zaporizhzhia region. The city was actually occupied from day one by Russian troops and is now under this yoke. Until February 24, I had an ordinary life: I worked, I had things I did for leisure, I never planned to go anywhere. An ordinary life, I guess, like everyone else’s. And on February 24, I realized that that was over.

From the beginning, there was no illusion that Russia had come to save us. Save us from whom? I lived in Ukraine for 37 years, which is not so long, but I traveled around the country, talked to people both in Russian and in Ukrainian, I never had any problems. And then someone came to my city, came to “liberate” me from work, from a normal life, from my way of living, from friends, from relatives. I talked to these soldiers, and among them there were people who at first were so distrustful that they asked me: “Are you really being oppressed here?” I replied that no one had harmed us and that until they came here, I had felt perfectly fine and safe.

“We chose the name Pristanište, which in Montenegrin means “harbor.” The idea is that for two weeks you can just stop here, in a quiet harbor, in a safe place”

It was unbearable to stay in Melitopol at that time. I could not stand the military, the flags, the slogans like “Russia is here forever!” There was constant pressure, roadblocks, document checks, phone checks, alarms, shootings at night, shelling of the city. On September 27, we packed everything we could fit into the car. My mother, my older sister, my nephew and I simply locked the door behind us and left.

Initially, we drove through Russia to the Netherlands because people I knew were already there. They had left earlier. Many people asked if it wasn’t dangerous to go through Russia. Was it? Well, I had to, so I just drove on. Besides, some good people live there; not everyone is an enemy. And by the way, it was fine. Everyone treated us nicely. I did not feel any hostility from ordinary citizens.

But when I entered Crimea, there we saw it all: the so-called “filtration measures,” conversations with border guards, probably with the FSB officers [the Russian Federal Security Service]; phone checks, car searches, long conversations with questions about contacts in the phone book, with questions that made no sense to me. “Aren’t you in the service?” “Do you know anyone serving in the Ukrainian military or Territorial Defense?” “And who is Vasya in the phone book, and who is Andrey, and who is Ivan, and who did they vote for, and who did you vote for?” “And where are you going, why the Netherlands, and what language do they speak there?” “How do you feel about the ‘special military operation’?” That’s the most absurd question I’ve ever heard. How am I supposed to feel about it?

I arrived at the border with Latvia. I saw 200 cars with Ukrainian license plates standing along the highway. I joined the column and asked people in line how long we had to wait. “Well, guys, you’ll have to drive for a week or so, live in the car, take a shower at the Rus cafe, and use the bathroom at the gas station, cook food where you want, go to the neighboring town Sebezh for food and medicine.” And when I realized that I had to stand in traffic for seven days because I am Ukrainian and have a car with Ukrainian license plates, I felt like a third-rate, not even second-rate person, completely powerless.  

But there is some fortune in all of this. In the evening, a local guy, Vova, arrived, brought a samovar, chopped some wood, served boiling water, and shared with us some gruel and soup cooked by his wife. We talked, and it turned out that he came to visit us after work. He came to help us instead of staying with his family. He did his best to support us. It struck me then. His generosity deeply touched me. He helped us, and I wanted to help others too. And that’s how my volunteer work began. Taya, my girlfriend now, was one of those who helped Ukrainians in Russia at that time. We first met over the phone; she was my coordinator, and I was the link between the local volunteers and the people in the column.

After five days at the Russian border, they took me to the checkpoint and held me for seven more hours: they searched my car, and interrogated me again, asking the same questions. Finally, I left Russia, drove another 500 meters, and entered Latvia. The border guards in Latvia were very kind: they quickly checked my documents, showed me where to park, and asked me to wait for 15 minutes. That was it. “Welcome, guys, welcome,” was their attitude. I took my loved ones to the Netherlands as planned.

Well, then the relationship with Taya began, we had to meet somewhere, but the Netherlands was not a country that Russian citizens could enter without a visa. We agreed to meet in Montenegro. Afterward, Taja accidentally heard about the Pristanište Foundation, which assists people from Ukraine, Russia and Belarus.

Pristanište is a volunteer-based project”

At first, we decided to stay at the foundation to look around a little. Soon one of the administrators there asked if I wanted to try myself in her role. She was about to leave and offered that I could take her place. And I thought: why not if I can be helpful to someone? To join this movement for a while will also be a help to Ukrainians, Russians, and Belarusians. So I started to work for Pristanište.

On the one hand, the situation is overwhelming, tragic, painful, absurd and incomprehensible. On the other hand, I wouldn’t have met Taya if it weren’t for all this. I wouldn’t have met other people: both from Russia and Ukraine. If a person speaks Ukrainian, I talk in Ukrainian and enjoy speaking my native language here, away from home, although most of my life, I have communicated in Russian. I understand that I will stay in Montenegro for a long time and need to integrate somehow.

— And who comes to Montenegro? Most refugees go to other places, as Montenegro doesn’t provide any official support for Ukrainians, much less for others.

Svetlana: These are different kinds of people. As for Ukrainians, there are several scenarios. First, there are people who have nothing left, and they need help in the beginning, but they look forward to start living on their own — to find a job, to rent an apartment. And we help them with that. Second, there are Ukrainians who have never been outside of the country before; there are many elderly people among them in need of support, but they cannot really navigate in the Western context, it is hard for them. And Montenegro seems more familiar to them: Montenegrin language is relatively similar to Ukrainian, and besides, we organize language classes.

“People from Ukraine, Russia, Russian-occupied territories, and Ukrainian-controlled territories live in neighboring rooms. And there is no tension”

As for Russians, they do not have much choice [because they need a visa]. Montenegro is a visa-free country for them, and a Russian citizen can stay there for a long time: once a month he or she has to cross the border and leave with a possibility to go back to the country right away. In case of political refugees, pursued by the Russian authorities, they can stay in Montenegro as in a transit hub. They come here and stay waiting for their documents to get ready in order to get to a country that accepts them.

For our foundation, we chose the name Pristanište, which in Montenegrin means “harbor.” The idea is that for two weeks you can just stop here, in a quiet harbor, in a safe place, in a friendly environment, so you can think about what to do next.

— How is your foundation organized? Who is involved in it, and what exactly do you do?

Svetlana: Pristanište is a volunteer-based project. We’ve had about 500 people in total who have been helping out throughout this year. Some help once, others do it on a regular basis, and volunteers help in a variety of ways. First, there are volunteers who connect to refugee families directly. It’s a tutoring system — this person serves as a bridge between the foundation and the people who are getting assistance; and a volunteer gets to know these people, becomes their friend, and accompanies them. Volunteers can be a community of drivers who help us with transfers and transportation; they can be our psychologists, or people responsible for social media marketing and design — we need their help because we organize various events. And all of them are volunteers.

As for fundraising, the foundation was established with funding from the founders, many of whom were born in Russia, and feel responsible. Later, we started raising public funds, reaching to those interested in our special events. These funds cover one third of the required amount, which is quite a lot. And, of course, the most precious donations come from those refugees we’ve hosted before: our former tenants have donated to us 5,000 euros in total. As soon as they are able to get back on their feet, they return with a small donation that we really cherish.

Andrey: It is my responsibility to find available accommodations if there are requests for it. I have to ensure the room is free and cleaned and provide people with a standard grocery kit when they arrive.

— How is the foundation structured? How do you make decisions?

Andrey: Everything is user-friendly, and the paperwork to register people is rather easy. To make decisions you need to talk with someone, but there is no red tape, you don’t have to write any memos.

Svetlana: It is a horizontal structure based on self-organization. I count as the general manager of the foundation, but in fact I’m its first volunteer.  

Andrey: Our volunteers, or tutors, who have been here since the beginning of this senseless aggression, can help with registration, with documents, and with finding a job. Besides, we offer psychological help.

On March 5, the foundation celebrated its one-year anniversary. What has been done so far? 

Svetlana: So far 700 people have gone through the housing provided by our foundation, 30 families at a time. They have an opportunity to stay in an individual apartment but there is also a common area for socializing. 2,000 people have received assistance of a different kind (those who did not need housing). In addition, we’ve been organizing workshops for children to keep them busy and let their parents have the time to look for a job. There are also various activities for adults, which include film screenings, reading club, art history class, English, and math.

“It’s nice when after being forced to start a new life you also like this life, and you want to live it”

— And what happens to children who need to continue their education?

Svetlana: We have organized a special program for kids, which is one of the most difficult programs to carry on. Initially, I thought it would be easy for us to raise money for it because it’s for kids, but it turned out that people tend to treat education for refugees as an excessive benefit. There are times when we pay for children’s classes. If kids used to play, say, soccer in Mariupol, it’s good if they continue playing soccer here too, carrying on a familiar activity they like. Sometimes we cover their expenses for private schools. Generally, it is possible for a refugee kid to get to a Montenegrin public school, but for high school students it is very difficult: they are already reeling in shock, and now have to fit in the Montenegrin school, where nothing makes any sense for them.

Andrey: There is a public space in one of the houses rented by the foundation where our guests can meet freely, sit and chat. We also organize events there regularly. For example, there are math courses for children and adults, Montenegrin language courses, and English courses. Now there is art history for children. We have a partner pottery studio where adults and children can make their own stuff. Gleb, a 10-year-old boy I know, has made a fantastic cup. There is a storage room for things that other people bring, and all our residents can take what they need. If you need something, you come and take it.

— Do Russians and Ukrainians share the same houses? Is there any tension between them?

Andrey: No, there is no problem. People from Ukraine, Russia, Russian-occupied territories, and Ukrainian-controlled territories live in neighboring rooms. And there is no tension.

Sveta is so gracious that she invited everyone to her place for the New Year’s party. Of course, I am from Ukraine, Taya is from Russia, and we live in the same room. There are folks from Russia and Ukraine, men and women. About 30 people came to Sveta’s to celebrate. We watched Zelensky’s address, not Putin’s, for sure. The address moved everyone. It was heartwarming. Here everyone is on the same page. And fortunately, people are not exposed to the monstrous Russian propaganda. Here everyone understands how tragic and difficult the situation is. 

Svetlana: Let me tell you why we have Russians and Ukrainians living together. The first couple to reach us was from Kharkiv. They were Diana, a Ukrainian citizen, and Sasha, from Russia, who by that time had already been listed [by Russian authorities] as a foreign agent. They used to live in Kharkiv before. At first [before encountering this Russo-Ukrainian couple], we were discussing what would be the most appropriate way to organize the housing: one house for Ukrainian families and another house for others? But fortunately that division wasn’t needed, and, as we can see, that’s a good thing. Now people from different countries talk and find mutual support in each other.

“Russians and Ukrainians are in completely different situations — one thing is a threat of imprisonment, quite another thing is a shell above your head. We don’t equalize their grief”

— What language do you use to communicate with your guests?

Svetlana: In our houses [those the foundation provides], one can hear both Ukrainian and Russian spoken, and everyone understands each other.

— Would you like to share a story which struck you most?

Svetlana: Behind every person there is an incredible story.

One of them goes like this. Three friends from Kharkov left the city right before a shell hit the yard they shared. They left together, but on the way one of them was lost. The two others lost contact with her, and it was unclear whether she found a way to leave Ukraine at all. While still on the road, the two decided to go to Pristanište because they somehow heard about our foundation. They got to us but were worried where their third friend, Tatyana, was, where had she gone? And the next day they managed to get in touch with her, asking: “Where are you? Were you able to leave Ukraine? We were!” She answered, “So was I!” “And where are you now? We’re in Montenegro”. And she replied: “So am I!” “We’re in Pristanište, and where  are you?” “And I’m here in Pristanište!” The three of them ended up here staying in one of our houses, can you imagine? It was a meeting where we all just cried tears of joy. Because she was alive and because they finally found each other. And then they went on their way together.

Another story. We’ve been hosting Inna and her daughter Sasha; she’s twelve years old and has a serious movement disorder. And we are the only foundation in Montenegro that accepts people with disabilities. Before the invasion, Inna used to live in the Odessa region, in a small house. The house was soon left without power, and we, remotely, helped them leave the country: there was a need for a bus, after all. For twelve years, Inna spent every minute of her time by her daughter. Sasha’s father rejected his daughter from the very beginning. But here, at our place, Inna has made a hundred friends, and she has free time, she’s had a chance to go to a concert, to a party, to simply go out. She goes outside with Sasha to have a walk, and we all help her with a wheelchair. It’s nice when after being forced to start a new life you also like this life, and you want to live it.

— How do you see the post-war future for Russia and Russian-Ukrainian relations?

Andrey: It’s a complicated issue, and I feel very strongly about it. Unfortunately, there is a lot of grief, many lives broken, and homes destroyed. Too many people have no place to return to, and this, of course, has a massive impact on all of us.

“It is possible to resist war, and not to let it in everywhere”

First, my firm belief was, is and will be in the future of Ukraine: Ukraine will win, Ukraine will hold out, and Ukraine will not be broken by anything, in any way, under any circumstances.

As for relations with Russia, I wish it were the way we are communicating here now. Too bad, it probably won’t be that way. Maybe if the people who are now claiming that the special operation is going according to plan and that Russia is fighting for the right cause realize the horror of this situation, the atrocity of their words, then perhaps after some time, some long time, we will be able to talk about some degree of peaceful coexistence. If the Russians have enough courage to understand and ask for forgiveness, and if the Ukrainians have enough strength to try to forgive, things could work out. Still, I understand those Ukrainians who will not forgive and will not make that contact. And in the coming years, there will probably be no direct friendly relations, no “brotherly peoples” even after the war. 

Many people are surprised at me, at my position. How can I comfortably communicate in Russian, or how can I speak without aggression toward folks from Russia? It’s not the language that separates us. It’s our actions. If someone can help in this situation, they help, and it doesn’t matter what language they speak, Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Georgian or English.

Svetlana: In general the mission of our foundation is to build a community. It is obvious that one must have a roof over one’s head, food, clothing — these are the basics. But what we are doing intentionally is creating a friendly community, where people can talk to each other. We don’t avoid painful questions. Every night we have people talking openly about the experiences they’ve had either in Russia, or in Ukraine. And these experiences tell us that this war will come to an end. And after it ends, people will likely stay in touch with each other. They need to talk. And I’m sure that there will be various programs aimed at building a dialogue between people. We’ve been already creating an environment for this dialogue to take place.

But we don’t equalize their grief, we don’t equalize their misfortunes. Russians and Ukrainians are in completely different situations — one thing is a threat of imprisonment, quite another thing is a shell above your head. But we all understand that these horrible things come from the same source, and people have a need to unite. It is possible to resist war, and not to let it in everywhere. Somewhere there should be a borderline, a boundary that war cannot cross. Pristanište is a no-war territory.

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