‘Time to wake up and start doing something’: How refugees live in Donbass

‘Time to wake up and start doing something’: How refugees live in Donbass

Nadezhda Kevorkova is a war correspondent who has covered the events of the Arab Spring, military and religious conflicts around the world, and the anti-globalization movement.

Get short URL Published time: December 19, 2014 15:41

Over the past six months, the war has turned about 1 million people in Donbass into refugees, which is about a sixth of the entire population. Some went to other parts of Ukraine while others went to Russia.

But there are those who have no place to go to. They don’t have means or funds to move and their houses have either been destroyed or are located in the areas that are regularly targeted by artillery.

Their fate reflects what happened to the people of the collapsed Soviet Union, the mindset of a bygone era, their inability to adjust to a new reality and understand what happened to them.

Subconsciously, you compare them with other refugees. For example, third-generation Palestinian refugees who were born in camps have a clear understanding of their mission and their struggle. Every Palestinian clearly understands that they are not just Muslims or Palestinians; they are people on the cutting edge of history. This is why they are so organized, so active, so supportive of each other. Or take Syrian refugees for example. After three years of war, they are politically motivated. They know their country will never be the good old poor yet peaceful Syria again. You can see people among Syrian refugees who are neighbors and yet their ideas and views are completely opposite. You can meet some supporters of the Free Syrian Army in one tent and then find some ISIS sympathizers in the next one, and then you go to a third one and there you find people who adore Putin and who dream about going back to the Caucasus from which their Circassian ancestors came a century-and-a-half ago. Both Palestinians and Syrian fervently support their partisans, their fighters. With their children, they do their best to give them good education so they can get a good job.

Donbass refugees have nothing of that. At this point, they merely try to survive. They don’t have time for ideas. If they are believers, they trust in God, but there are few people like that. Those who still believe in the Soviet Union and communism cling on to their dream of resurrecting the past. Most of them just hope that problems will just somehow go away. Most of them are unable to support militiamen financially or morally. And militiamen are well aware of that – even though many fighters say they remember how locals brought them potatoes or soup. But most of them remember how locals grab and carry off whatever the militia can seize from the Ukrainian army, from weapons to food. Unlike Palestinians or Syrians, Ukrainian refugees did not become a home front. They just hope that one day the authorities will appear and take care of their problems, just like in the Soviet time the Soviet authorities used to take care of people’s problems.

‘People are in stupor’
Oksana, the superintendent of a former college dormitory, is also a refugee. She appointed herself superintendent when she realized that unless she assumes command over her companions nobody else will.

In the summer, when college students went home, militiamen told refugees they could “temporarily” move into the dormitory.

“Nothing is as permanent as something temporary. We have 550 people living here. We have room for another 100. Some people look for a way to move in with their relatives. Those staying here are the ones that have no place to go,” Oksana says.

After graduating from a commerce college, Oksana worked as a sales manager. When the war broke out, she was happy to do any work she could get, because she has three kids she needs to provide for. One of her sons is vision-impaired, and another one has broken fingers. Neither one would be any good in the militia. They take turns guarding whatever remains from their house. Oksana’s 13-year-old daughter is constantly with her. She goes to school.

“I don’t get it! Half of the refugees don’t want their children to go to school, even though we’ve arranged everything very nicely. We have a kindergarten and a school right across the street. But no, parents say they want their children to stay home all the time. So their kids just run around the building the whole day without any oversight whatsoever,” Oksana says. She understands people do that because of bombardments, because they are afraid to let go of their children. In some cases, people still hope that “all this nightmare” will somehow go away, and people will be able to go back home, and their children will return to their schools.

“People are in stupor. They should wake up and start doing something, because right now the only thing they are willing to do is wait in the line to get another ration of humanitarian aid,” Oksana says dejectedly.

‘Akhmetov doesn’t think I qualify for aid’
Ivan Shembikov, 63, worked as a railway shunter and then as a guard. He received his flat from a military plant. The plant was the target of the shelling once it began, and the houses near it were destroyed in the process. That’s how he lost his home. Now he can’t get the management to give him back his papers. Without them, he won’t receive humanitarian aid.

The Foundation of Rinat Akhmetov, the leading Donetsk oligarch, demands he show a photograph of the destroyed building, but if he goes there to take pictures, he will be killed.

“I came here, to this dorm, on August 12. But Akhmetov doesn’t think I qualify for aid. They say I relocated, like I just decided to move. To qualify, you need to be 65 or older and bring a picture of the destroyed building you lived in. But I can’t do that because of the shelling,” Ivan says.

There are a lot of people like him, elderly without homes, among the refugees.

Anna, 65, worked at the boiler facility and her husband Yuri, 68, was a driver. They have two grown up children, who left and went to Ukraine – a fact Anna and Yuri try not to advertise. They lived in Peski, near Donetsk airport. Since May 28 the shelling had them hiding in the basement. When the militiamen left Peski, they went to Donetsk with them. They haven’t been getting their pension since June and are forced to survive on their rations.

340th in line
Svetlana Drozdova is a therapist. Her parents’ house was razed to the ground on June 27. It was sheer luck that no one was killed. Whatever they could salvage they put in the basement, but one day some drunks broke in and stole it. Now Svetlana is living in the dorm with her parents and her sister. Her parents don’t receive their pensions, but a couple of times they managed to get humanitarian aid from the Akhmetov Foundation.

The parcels, given out every two weeks, contain grain, canned food, oil and flour.

“We spent half a day queuing – we were 340th in line,” Svetlana says.

Twice a refugee
Svetlana, 57, is an Abkhazian with Georgian citizenship. She fled to Donetsk 25 years ago to escape the war in Abkhazia. Her husband is Georgian, but has Ukrainian citizenship. He was a coal miner, but the mine is now flooded. Svetlana worked as a cook and then as a cleaner. She receives her pension from Ukraine, even though she doesn’t have citizenship. Her house was destroyed in the shelling.

Svetlana’s 25-year-old daughter went to Turkey to earn money and now lives with her cousin, who got married to a Turk.

“Our daughter lived through the shelling of the railway tracks, and we sent her to Istanbul at the earliest opportunity,” Svetlana says.

Svetlana is trapped in a vicious circle: for an Abkhazian with Georgian citizenship, it’s difficult to get a foreign passport, as she can’t go to Georgia because she’s Abkhazian. Getting one in Ukraine with Georgian documents is also impossible.

“Well, they feed us in the canteen, and the volunteers helped me and my husband gets the necessary medicine. We wouldn’t have survived on our own,” she says.

‘We need our own Hugo Chavez’
Olga and her husband are lucky: their house near Donetsk airport is damaged but not destroyed. Moreover, she was able to take pictures of the damage; otherwise she would not get any aid. Also, they both have jobs, though in the present-day Donbass only the luckiest do. Olga is a PC operator, while her husband is a construction electrician.

They sent their children to their grandparents, who live in Zaporozhye, because there’s no war in that part of Ukraine.

Olga is rather belligerent. She says: “Our militiamen must go all the way to Lvov, because Kiev will never recognize us. So we must go on the offensive.”

She is very unhappy with international organizations, which, she believes, must interfere, investigate and come to their own conclusions.

“We pay our membership fees to the OSCE, the UN, and the Red Cross, so they must conduct their investigations and find out who is actually responsible for the nightly shelling of our cities.”

She is absolutely sure that the more Kiev violates the ceasefire terms, the more volunteers join the militia.

She may be right, but many people noticed that since the summer of 2014 the outgoing queues at the border are much longer that the incoming ones.

“Most people who live here want to have the Soviet Union back,” says Olga. Indeed, many people speak about it, but here, in Donbass, this sounds just as unreal as at the rallies of elderly communists or at the gatherings of young communists, who have “split personalities”, because one part of their being is filled with communist slogans and the other still longs for the benefits of capitalism.

Olga believes that people in Donbass don’t care whether they are recognized. “It doesn’t matter whether they recognize us or not. We have held the elections, so our authorities are legitimate. We don’t need people who obey somebody else’s orders; we need our own Hugo Chavez who can make independent decisions. What good can come from someone like Poroshenko? He may be the fifth President of Ukraine, but he cannot do anything by himself.”

‘I sense in my heart that my husband is alive’
Zhanna Vovk is married to a militiaman.

She received a death notice on August 2nd, saying her husband had been killed in action near the town of Stepanovka. Zhanna was invited to identify his corpse, but couldn’t recognize him.

“I sense in my heart that he is alive,” she says.

Zhanna has five children. Her husband used to be a security guard, while she worked as a railway clerk in the town of Yasinovataya, and then as a high school janitor. The family cannot go home, even though their house has been untouched by warfare.

“There’s [Ukrainian] National Guards stationed in our village. Our neighbors have turned us in; telling them my husband is in the militia. The National Guards came to our house and questioned the locals on our whereabouts,” Zhanna explains.

She did go home in August to get produce out of the vegetable garden. She wanted to call on her house to pick up some papers, but spotted a National Guard post and walked away.

“I changed my mind just in time,” she recalls. “After all, how would I even live there? You can’t even get firewood, since the edge of forest has been laid with land mines. We hope to be able to go home once the militias liberate our village.”

Zhanna’s 16-year-old son serves in a local church. He didn’t get to finish high school, which he hasn’t attended since the start of the school year.

“There is a prayer room here at the dormitory, so we can pray here. I pray together with my children. A priest told us my husband is alive and he will return,” Zhanna says.

She gives me her husband’s name in case my story reaches anyone who knows anything of his present status: Anatoly Vovk, 49.

Zhanna says she’s already had a call from the Ukrainian side. A stranger said her husband was in hospital with a serious wound, but did not specify the hospital.

“My husband’s friend told me their unit had left him under some trees once he got wounded, as they couldn’t carry him under fire. That friend hasn’t been in touch with me for a while, so I don’t know if he’s still alive,” she says. “But I do hope to see my husband alive.”

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