Rostov-on-Don—Dmitry spent ten years working on the four-room lavender house his parents left him near Stanitsa Luganskaya in eastern Ukraine, installing gas and running water. Rather than going out on the weekends or buying a car, his hobby was home renovation, the 30-year-old said. But he dropped everything and fled to Russia after shelling—he said by government forces—over the weekend of June 13 destroyed the roof and windows of his house. YouTube videos uploaded by locals on that day showed bombed-out homes and burnt-out cars from what they said was a bombardment by Kiev’s troops.
“It was hard to go and leave my house behind,” said Dmitry, who declined to give his last name. “But my fear for my life beat out my love for my home.”
Since then, Dmitry has been staying in a dormitory of the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don with more than 100 other refugees, just a small portion of the tens of thousands who have fled Ukraine in the wake of ongoing fighting between government forces and pro-Russian rebels in the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. (Some have also escaped to Kiev and other parts of Ukraine, but the largest flow of people is by all accounts to Russia.) Although the rebel stronghold of Slavyansk fell to Kiev’s “anti-terrorist operation,” civilian casualties have been mounting in Lugansk as fighting has intensified there.
Russia has played a role in the escalating conflict in the Donbass coal-mining region in eastern Ukraine: Russian fighters, at least some of them volunteers, have been arriving in Ukraine in the dozens, and Russian state-owned media were exacerbating anti-Kiev sentiments there long before the start of the rebellion. But Moscow has also taken steps to alleviate the human suffering, in particular offering humanitarian aid to be delivered to eastern Ukraine, ostensibly on Kiev’s terms. The proposal was turned down.
Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government has fallen short of its promises to help the civilian casualties of the conflict. President Petro Poroshenko’s call in June for a humanitarian corridor to take people out of the Slavyansk was never realized during the siege of the city, several residents have said. (Ukraine’s interior minister announced that a humanitarian corridor had been opened on Sunday, the day after rebels withdrew and Slavyansk was retaken by government forces.) The Ukrainian government has no central policy to address the refugee crisis, and most assistance comes from private citizens, the regional representative for the UN high commissioner for refugees in Kiev said last month.
Now the Russian emergencies ministry and volunteers are housing and feeding refugees from eastern Ukraine, transferring them to other cities and helping them register for temporary asylum and find work. Some of the refugees have been sent to Russia’s underpopulated Far East, and other regions such as Krasnodar have said they have work vacancies they would like to see filled. Those fleeing see Russia as their savior: In the words of Alexander, a coal miner from Lugansk, “Putin is the best tsar.”
Well over 400 people have been reported killed in eastern Ukraine since the conflict began in April, and at least dozens of civilians have been killed, according to video evidence and reports from local authorities. The violence fueled a humanitarian crisis in Slavyansk, where most residents have spent over a month without water or electricity, and drove people out of cities like Donetsk, Kramatorsk and Lugansk. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres has reported that at least 42,000 people have been internally displaced.