One of the hidden aspects of the crisis in Ukraine is the growing number of refugees internally displaced and fleeing to Russia. This is a growing crisis that has mostly been ignored by the western press besides a few notable exceptions. Fighting and lawlessness in the Donetsk and Lugansk is driving people from their homes. As Alec Luhn states in a report for the Guardian:
Appalling conditions in rebel-held towns have caused thousands to flee. The exodus from Slavyansk gathered pace when Ukrainian army shelling intensified at the end of May, with most residents going to the nearby city of Svyatogorsk were they are dependent on the goodwill of locals for housing and food. About 15,000 to 20,000 refugees from Slavyansk have arrived in the city since the end of May, according to mayor Alexander Dzyuba.
Svyatogorsk monastery – one of the holiest Russian Orthodox sites in eastern Ukraine – has been housing as many as 500 Slavyansk inhabitants each day, said one monk. The displaced people receive one meal a day and live in tight quarters. Women and children live three to a room in the female section, while men live seven to a room with only a few feet between each bed. Laundry and clothing hung from lines above the cots.
Several old recreational compounds in the area have also been taking in displaced people. Volunteers hand out limited portions of donated food, much of it from residents in the eastern city of Kharkiv and from the company Bravo, at the Cafe Pyramid, said volunteer Yelena Laskova.
Given the continual dispersal of people, hard and fast numbers are difficult. In late May, the UNHCR estimated that there were 17,500 internally displaced persons in Ukraine, 11,000 of which were from Crimea. About a third of them are children.
There seems to be little official assistance for these people from the Ukrainian government. A report in the New Republic on internally displaced Ukrainians says:
Here in Kiev, the thousands of refugees who have fled eastern Ukraine are invisible. It’s impossible to spot them on the streets: They don’t live in UN tents, or stand in lines for subsidized meals. They look just like everybody else. Legally, they do not exist—after all, it should be impossible to be a refugee in one’s own country.
. . .
The Ukrainian parliament has taken some steps to ensure that refugees have access to basic social services and shelter. For instance, a new law regarding the rights of displaced persons helped thousands of refugees from Crimea—the vast majority of whom are Crimean Tatars—settle in other parts of Ukraine.
But those who have fled eastern Ukraine can’t turn to the government for help. If the Rada were to vote on a bill helping displaced persons from within Ukraine’s borders, it might be taken as a sign that Kiev has lost control over eastern Ukraine once and for all. So refugees from the east must count on friends or strangers for help.
Many are finding their way across the border into Russia. The Russian government counts almost 30,000 registered refugees in Russia scattered among ten regions along the nation’s western borderlands and Crimea. So far the Russian government has set up 60 displacement centers. “Of this number,” states a report in Moskovskii komsomolets, “16346 people are housed by relatives or friends, the remaining 12773, who don’t have housing, remain in open Ministry of Emergency Situations’ (MChS) temporary accommodation centers. Among them are 5381 children.” The unofficial numbers are undoubtedly higher.
Giving some recognition to the crisis, Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe chief Lamberto Zannier visited one refugee camp in Rostov-na-Donu in mid-June. This is the response he got from the crowd:
Here are some voices from refugees a Slon correspondent recorded in Rostov:
Evgenii Sheremet, Slavyansk
. . .
My wife is really afraid, but I didn’t want to leave. What finally made us? We took our oldest child to the clinic for a medical examination. When we finished we were no more than 50 meters away and at that moment a shell fell, punched a hole in the wall, and the windows were blown out.
The city is destroyed. They say that Semenovka, which is a suburban district, doesn’t exist anymore. Shells fall everywhere, and people are injured by them. One woman came home from work, a shell hit a residential section, and the woman was killed by shrapnel. Another man [was killed] right next door to his house. I saw these myself. Another woman [died] after a fragment was buried under her shoulder blade; she walked for fifteen meters leaving a trail of blood.
. . .
We’ll probably stay in Russia and get citizenship. There’s nothing to return to; we’ve told all of this to journalists. Our government is killing us, peaceful people. Under Yanukovych we lived poorly, but there was stability. There was work. Salaries, of course, were small. You could pay for electricity and gas, and a little leftover for food and clothing.
Oksana Smorodinova, Slavyansk
We decided to leave when they bombed our school, kindergarten and hospital. I witnessed it—a big hole in the hospital, glass flew everywhere.
What does the move look like? Women, who record where you want to go, sit in several places in town. They called me offering options: Slavyanogorsk, Kharkov, and Odessa. The executive committee of the Communist Party also gave suggestions. Normalcy is reached in the end.
We were against the Maidan because it wanted to cut us of Russia. How do you cut the ties of every other family here? They say that Yanukovych was corrupt and stole. Well what about what the current government has stolen? They are no less wealthy. Poroshenko, Tyagibok, Yanseniuk, Tymoshenko—they’re a band of brothers.
. . .
I called home yesterday and they say that they’re bombing Slavyansk from the air. The factory Khimprom a barrel of sulfur exploded. They also say that a plane was shot down over the city. It fell near Krasnyi Liman. There’s no cell service or electricity.
Natalia Ozhogina, Lugansk
We live on the outskirts of the city in the village of Mirnyi. On June 2 we were woken at four in the morning by the noise. The fighting and explosions were constant—kaboom-boom! It would become silent for five minutes and they would begin anew. At six in the morning a plane flew overhead and the roar was frightening. My 11 year-old jumped up and ran around the room crying, “Mama don’t phone anywhere, they will find us and bomb us!”
All of this occurred several hundred meters from us. We went down to the cellar and sat there all morning, and the fighting didn’t stop. Then my mother went out to the street and said that she saw twenty armed separatists. The battle was coming closer. We called our coordinator who organized the dispatch of people from town and he said, “Go to the center!” We went there and everything was quiet.
They notified us that they were sending us to Russia, but didn’t say where. The separatists said, “The National Guard has surrounded the city but where looking for a safe passage.” They put us in a dormitory for the night and psychologists from the Red Cross examined the children.
We quickly left the following day. The bus trip to the border was accompanied by armed separatists.
. . .
We has a sea of people at the referendum, I’ve never seen that with earlier elections. At first we wanted to simply hold a referendum and see later where it will take us. Then we advocated for the federalization of Ukraine. Many worried about splitting the country. The [country] doesn’t exist. For me personally the integrity of the state no longer has value. I’m in favor of our Novorossiia to become permanent and further develop. This turning point occurred when war came to us.
These experiences make the recent ceasefire and potential negotiations to end the conflict so significant. Only an end to the fighting can stem the tide of refugees and allow people to pick up the remains of their lives.