Queues build up at Mongolian border

Monday, Sep 26, 2022

Altanbulag, Mongolia: Long lines of vehicles were seen at a border crossing between Mongolia and Russia on Sunday as people fled the Kremlin’s call-up of hundreds of thousands of reservists for the war in Ukraine.

The head of a checkpoint in the town of Altanbulag told AFP that more than 3,000 Russians had entered Mongolia via the crossing since Wednesday, most of them men. Queues of people holding Russian passports were also seen outside the immigration counter for the border crossing, according to an AFP reporter there.

"From September 21, the number of Russian citizens entering Mongolia has increased," checkpoint head Major G. Byambasuren told AFP. "As of 12:00 (noon) today, more than 3,000 Russian citizens have entered Mongolia."

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday announced Russia’s first military call-up of fighting-age men since World War II. It is designed to fill Russia’s army with hundreds of thousands of men after a string of setbacks that appears to have altered the tide in the seven-month Ukraine war.

Byambasuren said about 2,500 of the Russians crossing the border were men while more than 500 were women and children. "Most of them are single young people who crossed the border with their parents," he added.

Russian nationals can visit Mongolia and stay without a visa for 30 days, and extend their stay by another 30 days if needed, Byambasuren said. Authorities on Saturday detained more than 700 people at protests across Russia against the partial military mobilisation, according to an independent monitoring group.

Police monitor OVD-Info counted at least 726 people detained at rallies in 32 cities, nearly half of them in Moscow. A stream of Russians were also seen flocking by air to Istanbul on Saturday where several expressed relief at escaping but also concern for the safety of loved ones left behind.

Meanwhile, just a few kilometres from the frontline, a shattered village school in the southern Mykolaiv region is a stark sign of the war damage inflicted by Russia on Ukrainian education.

Small desks are topped with a layer of rubble and dust, while the front of the building, facing enemy lines, has been gutted from repeated shelling. At the back, a collapsed roof and wall expose the school gymnasium to the elements. Charred car wrecks squat beside the battered, abandoned playground.

The Russian army has passed through the village twice since the war began and left the school intact both times, Sergiy, head of the village municipality, told AFP.

But once Ukrainian troops took up position there "the Russians realised their mistake and bombed everything," the 51-year-old said by telephone from Mykolaiv city where he now lives.

In the heavily-shelled village most roofs have now been blown off. Only 25 residents still live there out of a population of some 1,700, he said. By day, the streets are deserted -- the silence broken only by the nearby roar of artillery.

Ukraine launched a counter-offensive three weeks ago, but its results are still difficult to assess in the region. On Thursday, the village received a missile strike that gouged a five-metre-deep crater in a vacant plot -- a "Russian gift", according to Lieutenant Andriy Grushelsky.

"The bomb must have weighed at least a ton. Thank God, it fell 20 metres from our camp, otherwise I wouldn’t be talking to you today," he told AFP. But the "quite beautiful" village school was less fortunate, he said.

According to UNESCO, citing Ukrainian Ministry of Education figures, almost 300 schools have been destroyed since the invasion began, and over 2,550 damaged. Sergiy fondly remembers the building where 190 children studied from kindergarten to high-school.

His wife ran its computer lab, while his eldest child was a graduate, and his youngest a pupil -- until Russia invaded seven months ago. "We invested so much time and effort to make the school the best it could be. The classes were magnificent. Even our canteen was better than elsewhere," he said.