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Russian men continue to escape conscription in large numbers to Turkey

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Russian men of fighting age keep streaming into Turkey. It's a sign of the dissatisfaction with Russia's call-up of more men to fight in the war in Ukraine to stem battlefield losses. The exodus can be felt acutely in Antalya, a Mediterranean city in southern Turkey with a long history of Russian tourism - now turning into something else. NPR's Fatma Tanis went there and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

FATMA TANIS, BYLINE: Between the Mediterranean Sea and the steep mountains surrounding Antalya is a small park known to locals as Matryoshka Park, for the large sculpture of the Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls, half of which are missing after vandals destroyed them when Russia invaded Ukraine.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: This area is known to attract Russian tourists, and now, those who are escaping the country. Russian is the main language heard in the streets and is on signs all around.

I meet two young men in their mid-20s, wandering around the park in backpacks. They don't give their names, fearing retribution from the Russian government. They've come here over a week ago from Kazan, in the semi-autonomous region of Tatarstan in southwest Russia. One of them tells me why.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: It's dangerous for any male.

TANIS: Dangerous for any male because, as ethnic minorities, they've heard that Russia's new conscription of troops falls heavily on people like them. They know many friends who got rounded up despite, as his friend says...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is a war of our government. This is not a war of Russian people. And this is disgusting situation for all of us.

TANIS: Even though they left the country immediately after the announcement of the mobilization almost two weeks ago, they both are still feeling lost in Turkey without family and no future plans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Need to solve problems about how to live in Antalya or in other countries.

TANIS: There are other complications, too. With the influx of Russians since the war started, residency laws are getting tighter, making it harder to live and work here. Another issue - money. After recent pressure from the West, Turkish banks suspended the Russian version of MasterCard and Visa, which makes it harder for them to get currency or even pay the tab at restaurants. But one thing is certain for these men.

Do you think you can ever go back to Russia?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: No, I suppose I don't want to go back to Russia.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Non-English language spoken).

TANIS: Meanwhile, at Antalya's airport, Russians continue to fly in. Many are tourists, but there are also a lot of men who've come alone, fleeing conscription. The governor of the province has said up to 19,000 Russians are coming in every day. He said some come as tourists but then decide to stay. And flights to Russia now are going back half as empty as they came.

One 34-year-old man from Moscow steps out of the terminal with just a backpack. He doesn't want to give his name, but says he bought a ticket a few days after the mobilization, spending several thousand dollars and leaving in a rush.

Did you have to leave your job?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Well, technically, I did not leave yet, so they don't know that I went here. Tomorrow when we have Skype call, I'm going to surprise them.

TANIS: Like all the other men of fighting age who've tried to leave, he was questioned by authorities at the airport in Moscow.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: I saw a couple of people who got diverted from the floor and took to some separate room. Somehow, I have the feeling they were not allowed to leave.

TANIS: Unlike many others I spoke with who don't think they can go back to Russia ever again, this man says he will if Russia loses the war.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Because we have to rebuild. We have to vote for new people who will choose a different way. And hopefully - I don't know - maybe when I am old.

TANIS: The one choice he could make now, he says, is to leave and not be forced to kill people in a war he doesn't believe in.

Fatma Tanis, NPR News, Antalya, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.