A transgender woman who faced escaping Ukraine amid Russia's invasion has revealed the extreme lengths she went to in order to get out.
Like many others, Zi Faámelu, 31, was trapped in her apartment listening to the sounds of bombing around her.
As well as fearing for her life, the social media influencer was also fighting to prove she's a woman.
Zi's passport still classifies her as 'male' and, under martial law, all men ages 18 to 60 were required to join the army.
“I don’t want to shoot people, I don’t want to kill anyone,” Zi told Rolling Stone. “I’d rather die.”
Transgender people can find it difficult crossing country borders if legal documents don’t match their identities, while in Ukraine they are also required to have a psychiatric validation diagnosis of either transsexualism or gender dysphasia.
Validation usually consists of two weeks of tests and consultations with a psychiatrist.
“Transgender activists in Ukraine were fighting for years to make the procedure [to] transition much easier,” says Lenny Emson, the director of KyivPride.
Despite being well known in Ukraine, Zi was unable to get her passport changed in time.
Her claim to local fame came by featuring on the main vocal reality show in Ukraine, Star Factory, in 2008.
In 2010, she appeared on Star Factory Finale and then, in 2018, she came out as transgender on The Voice Ukraine.
She reckons that being well known made it even more difficult to escape.
After a friend agreed to drive her to the Romanian border in hopes of getting out, the influencer says she was stopped because officials at the border recognised her.
“They said, ‘You think you will go through? You will go back',” Zi said.
Another friend in Germany then opted to organise a driver to take her to another checkpoint.
“This driver took me to another Romanian checkpoint in another city. We slept there for a night, and the next day we went to that second checkpoint.”
As Zi and the driver were both stopped at the police border, they handed over their passports and €3,000 in an effort to make their way out of the country.
Zi said this is not uncommon. However, the officials didn't take the bribe and her worst fears of joining the men's army seemed to be coming to fruition, as she was sent to a military enforcement office.
Incredibly, that same night, the driver got back into the car and turned to Zi to say: “Can you swim? It is the only option, to swim across the Sighetu border, through the Danube River, illegally. So you will be a refugee, but you will be breaking the law.”
The pair drove to a forest near the border and, after wrapping her phone and passports in plastic, Zi jumped, all the while hearing the loud voices of soldiers screaming her name.
“I ran for my life. I jumped from the edge, like three meters down to the ground full of stones,” she says.
Zi says she hid in bushes before getting into the waters.
“I felt like a criminal, but I’m not a criminal, I’m a refugee,” she says.
In what sounds like a movie plot, Zi managed to keep swimming until police found her and took her to safety.
Zi is now safe in Germany, where she has been since 10 March.
If you would like to donate to the Red Cross Emergency Appeal, which will help provide food, medicines and basic medical supplies, shelter and water to those in Ukraine, click here for more information
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