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Ukrainian woman in Russia says she fears protesting attack: "No one wants to be beaten in the streets"

Ukrainians in Russia say protest is risky
Ukrainians in Russia say they face persecution if they speak out against invasion 03:12

Ukrainians living in Russia have watched from afar as President Vladimir Putin unleashes an attack on their homeland, the place where many of their families and friends still live. CBS News spoke with one Ukrainian woman living in Moscow who fears what could happen to her family amid the attacks, as well as what could happen should she protest the government's actions.

"This is the worst case scenario," the woman, who will be referred to as Sara, told CBS News. "...I couldn't imagine this happening to us, and I don't know how to react now. ...This is not right." 

The 32-year-old agreed to speak to CBS News via Skype on the condition that her name not be used, as she fears speaking out against her government's actions could jeopardize her safety.

Sara initially moved to Russia 12 years ago to pursue a higher education, but she found a job, made friends and met her husband. She and her husband currently live in Moscow, but many of her family members, including her mom and grandmother, are still in Ukraine's capital of Kyiv.

Russian invasion of Ukraine could cause refugee crisis in Europe 05:30

CBS News first spoke with Sara on Wednesday, less than 12 hours before Putin's attack on the country began. She was concerned that her mother would be able to leave, citing a sister who lives abroad, but her 87-year-old grandmother, who is sick and does not have a passport, would be stuck.

"If something happens, like rapidly, suddenly, I'm afraid there will not be any option to quickly evacuate them," she said. "They will stay there." 

When CBS News spoke to Sara again on Thursday, she said her family is "okay," but they heard the explosions that rattled their city, and many others in Ukraine, for nearly 24 hours. 

Now, Sara said, she's feeling desperate. She wants to help — to speak out against Putin's actions — but fears what would happen if she did. 

"It's horrible. It's very try and to openly discuss something. If you are heard or seen, or whatever, the lightest option is they give you some fine, some very big fine for some thousands of dollars," Sara said. "Anything could happen. ... No one wants to be beaten in the streets." 

Ukrainian Americans rally against Russian invasion 01:22

Her fears are not unfounded. On Thursday, thousands of people in Russia turned out to protests against their country's attack on Ukraine. Nearly 1,750 people were detained in 54 Russian cities, according to the Associated Press, including nearly 1,000 in Moscow alone.

And it's not just those who protest in the streets. Some people who spoke out against the government on social media were arrested, she said.

Protests in Russia have spawned petitions for the government to put an end to the war. One petition started by human rights advocate Lev Ponomavyov has gotten more than 330,000 signatures within a day, according to the AP. 

The outcry started days before the attack. Earlier this week, Sara said a group of elderly people peacefully protesting in Moscow were arrested by police. 

"They were protesting with just some papers, like stop invading Ukraine or leave Ukraine alone. … It was horrible. And I don't understand how it's possible to take a person who's like 70 years old and just take him by force," she said. "...That's why people are just afraid to go outside to actually protest." 

Police officers detain a demonstrator during a protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in Moscow on February 24, 2022. Alexander Nemenov/AFP via Getty Images

Russian officials are attempting to limit the public's opposition, with the Investigative Committee issuing a warning on Thursday afternoon that unauthorized protests are illegal.

"We remind that calls for participation and direct participation in events that are not authorized in accordance with the established procedure entail serious legal consequences," the agency said in a notice on its website. "...All such offenses, as before, will receive an adequate legal evaluation, and the persons who committed illegal actions will face appropriate punishment."

Russia is also giving its citizens false information about what's happening in Ukraine, Sara alleges.

"Here on the TV, on the official channels, they keep saying this is not invasion, this is like Russia is just freeing the territories of another country, which is just very freaking insane to me," she said. "They keep saying that the people who stayed in Dnetsk and Lugansk districts want to join Russia, but as far as I know, from the other side...lots of people do not want."

She said she's frustrated that the Russian government isn't listening to the protesters.

"This is like screaming in the room and nobody hears you, nobody pays attention to you," she said. "...People here in Russia are mostly not for this, they are against it. They are protesting, but protesting silently." 

"I'm praying, hoping that maybe someone will hear us," she added. 

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