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.
The UNHCR also said 110,000 Ukrainians have left for Russia this year, although a significant portion of that number is likely work-related migration. Nonetheless, tens of thousands have come as refugees. The emergencies ministry said that 18,650 people were living in temporary housing as of Monday, and 7,000 had already been transferred to cities in southern and central Russia. Private families, municipalities and civic organizations have been housing hundreds, if not thousands, more.
Making it across the border has often been dangerous due to heavy fighting at border points that government troops are trying to take back from rebels. In addition, Ukrainian-controlled crossings in eastern Ukraine were closed last week, and some refugees abandoned their cars so as not to stand in lines at the border stretching for several kilometers. Nikolai Leikin, from a village called Cherepovsky in the Lugansk region, said he and a dozen other young men and women walked miles through open fields to get into Russia because of fighting at the Dolzhansky border crossing, which was retaken by Ukrainian troops last week.
Civic groups, including some with close ties to the rebels, have helped many get out. The Communist Party was organizing buses from Slavyansk to Crimea for women and children, and a rebel group called the Humanitarian Battalion of Novorossiya (“New Russia”) has been helping with transport, housing, aid packages and job hunting. According to director Yekaterina Gubareva, the wife of Donetsk pro-Russian leader Pavel Gubarev, the battalion works with rebels to protect refugee convoys to the border and hires transportation to take them from there.
“People who are active and civil organizations say they’re ready to house refugees and give them work.… People come to us with offers,” Gubareva said. She added that some refugees were working in Russia as seasonal laborers picking fruit and vegetables, but insisted that their pay was decent.
The point of arrival for those who make it through the border are tent camps operated by the emergencies ministry, such as the one outside Novoshakhtinsk where Leikin and his friends were first taken. An average of 200 to 250 people have been staying in the half a dozen huge blue and orange tents in the camp each night since it was established on June 20, according to camp director Vladimir Skomorokhov. The number spikes with fighting across the border: On Friday, sixty-eight people were staying in the camp, but that grew to 410 on Monday after fighting over the weekend, including shelling in Lugansk that killed at least one civilian.
Other tents hold a cafeteria, a medical center, a federal migration service center, a chapel and a play area for the many children. According to the camp doctor, volunteers are constantly bringing donations of medicine, toys, clothes and food, as most refugees came with only light bags.
On a recent evening, those staying at the camp gathered for a dinner of boiled buckwheat, chicken and carrots, followed by tea with cookies. Emergencies ministry employees played volleyball with residents over a makeshift net, and no one seemed bothered by a single distant explosion heard from the direction of the border. After all, much heavier shelling there had woken the camp up at 5 am the day before. Nearly a third of those at the camp were kids.
Lena Moshkanova, her daughter Rita Rischenko, granddaughters Varvara and Maria and their black-and-white kitten fled Slavyansk on June 17. Worried about the safety of the children, the family also feared going hungry since social payments to Slavyansk were cut off by Kiev last month, including Moshkanova and Rischenko’s benefits as a pensioner and single mother.
A few days before they left, Moshkanova had come under heavy fire from Ukrainian forces on her way to meet Rischenko and the girls. She was driving up to the crossroads at Semyonovka, a town just outside Slavyansk that has been largely destroyed by government shelling, when she saw a “line of fire” as explosions came down the street. She jumped out of the car and ran inside an abandoned tire shop. “They were firing, I was praying, yelling out ‘God help me,’” she said. A second attempt to cross ended the same way, and Moshkanova finally made it on her fourth try.
The question on everyone’s minds is whether to start a new life in Russia or wait to return home. Moshkavova and Rischenko planned to remain and apply for Russian citizenship. They were waiting up late on Friday for a bus to the Moscow region, where they were to board a transport plane to Khabarovsk in the far east of Russia. Refugees said state corporations there had promised mining jobs and housing, and 220 of them were planning to go. According to a migration service official at the camp, the majority of those arriving apply for year-long temporary asylum, but many also hope to eventually return to Ukraine.
“Our brain understands that we have to leave to save our children, but our heart is still in Donbass,” Moshkanova said.
At a children’s summer camp on the Azov Sea at Dmitriadovsky, a group of women who left their husbands behind in the Lugansk region agreed that “visiting is good, but being at home is better.” The Neklinovsky district of the city of Taganrog has organized housing for 795 refugees, including 387 children, in three camps where they typically stay six to seven people to a room. A local charity called Good Deed is paying the camp to put up the refugees for now, but the local authorities are trying to help them find work and housing with families in the Krasnodar region and elsewhere, according to local official Alexander Tretyakov.
Yulia Klimova, the mother of a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old, hopes to return to Sverdlovsk in the Lugansk region. “If there won’t be a road back, then we’ll stay in Russia and look for work. We are brothers with Russia,” she said.
“Your head is empty it, you just sit and think what to do next,” said Yelena, who came with her husband and six children to the Rostov dormitory on June 17 after nearby shelling broke the windows of their home near Metallist outside Lugansk. “If we go back, they will kill us. If we go somewhere else, we won’t know what to do. To ask for help constantly is not a way out.”
But Dmitry has already found work as an economist at a factory, pending his temporary asylum application, and is trying to bring other friends and relatives to Russia. “I call constantly and try to convince them to come,” he said. “Many don’t want to leave, if they’re living in homes that haven’t been hit by a shell yet.”