Over 13,000 forced migrants from the Donbas and Crimea are officially registered in Kyiv. Almost 2,000 of them live in temporary camps in Vorzel, Irpin and Brovary areas [towns in Kyiv’s suburbs].
Inside the capital, the largest refugee settlement is located in an industrial area in Vydubychy. A dark hangar gives shelter to 190 people from territories that are the most battered by the fights between Russian and Ukrainian artillery – Alchevsk, Luhansk, Artemivsk, Krasny Luch, and Donetsk.
…A black Hyundai Tucson pulls up by the curb near the exit from the Vydubychy subway station. A window rolls down, and a sturdy man in sunglasses looks out.
“Our camp is difficult to find for those who don’t go to our church. Get in, I’ll give you a ride.”
Pastor Ihor is a migrant from Alchevsk. He has been in Kyiv for almost two months now, and is the coordinator of this refugee camp.
“Most of the time, we have almost 200 people. The number keeps changing. Some find work and rent a place in the city. Some move to relatives in smaller towns. Right now, we have 10 disabled people and 60 children [among the residents]. There is no smoking, drinking, or debauchery in our camp. ‘Lights-out’ is at 11 pm,” the pastor tells us.
Ihor says that the protestant church that manages the land plot [where the camp is located] is taking care of the refugees’ upkeep. Also, that volunteers are a great help.
“They bring food and clothes. Toys for children, too. The state gives nothing. Without this [the volunteers’] help, it would’ve been difficult.”
Tall metal gates open before us. A security guard steps out of the gatehouse to greet us. The car turns to a broad concrete square and stops.
A few young men are playing tennis next to a long zinc-plated hangar. Nearby, preschoolers are riding tricycles. There is a large swing. The refugees’ clean laundry is drying on long stretches of rope. The hangar itself serves as bedroom for the refugees.
Opposite the hangar is a large tarpaulin tent. It is both the “kitchen” and the “living-room.” A pile of clothes sits in the corner – a donation from one of the large second-hand shops. Refrigerators and cabinets with dry goods line the walls. The air inside the tent is stuffy.
A dozen children are running around the “kitchen.” They came to get dessert – white bread with blackcurrant jam. Candy is a rarity around here.
“Huh? Came to write about us? Let me tell you about us,” says an unshaven man in a dark turtleneck, sitting at one of the tables.
“Please do. Where did you come from?”
“Alchevsk. My wife’s been in Kyiv for two months now, I sent her off to be safe. She has a big mouth, she’d always start arguments with separs [separatists]. After another such episode, I told her, ‘Lina, we have three foster kids. Pack up and go to Kyiv.’ She then kept calling me to come join her. I only left when bombing got heavy. When Grad[missiles] are flying, it’s so scary that all your internal organs freeze.”
My new acquaintance is called Andriy. In peace times, he used to work as a driver on intercity routes.
“I’ve been in Kyiv for two weeks, looking for a job. I went to Autolux [an intercity bus operator], a very pleasant man talked to me there. He said he’d happily hire me for a permanent position, but there’s no point if I only want to work for a month or two. So I keep browsing the job ads.”
He suddenly stops talking, leaves, and returns a few minutes later, with two cups of instant coffee.
“Help yourself. Coffee makes for better conversation.”
Andriy tells me that in early April, when the first separatists appeared in Alchevsk, the majority of people in the city wanted to be with Russia.
“That’s because our government is only good at promising things. Everyone’s so sick of this. Small wages, tiny pensions, and the prices keep rising, too. It’s like a desperate cry… And then some kid comes and tells us, ‘In Russia, our lives are great, everything is beautiful, and we earn a lot.’ That’s why over half of the people in Alchevsk were for Russia, at first. The only people who were for Ukraine were those who knew what Russia really is like.”
“What good did they see about Russia?”
“Who the hell knows? That’s why I used to poke fun at many of them. I’d tell them – go to some place near Penza, somewhere out in the sticks, and see if life is so good there. People don’t understand the core of it all, they just want to have nice lives.
“In our town, many started using their head once Cossacks and Chechens started appearing. Only after seeing strange people with AKs, some people started changing their mind. Then, when the ‘guests’ started getting rude, things got worse.
“Sometimes, a separatist would walk into a store to get a kilogram of pelmeni [meat dumplings], and leave without paying. Or a group of such ‘tourists’ would drive up to a shop near a highway, wave their guns and say, ‘give us this, give us that, we’ll pay later.’
“That was when many in Alchevsk understood that Ukraine, whatever it’s like, is better than the Russian Vasya.
“A thing happened to me too, once. I went to get some gas. A guy was standing at the gas station – in a balaclava and gloves, and with a sawn-off. I joked something in his direction, on my way past, and he gave me such a look that I got scared, so I just jumped into my car and drove off.”
Andriy tells that some Alchevsk people are very frightened of the Ukrainian National Guard, to this day.
“To those, I said right away – how can they [the National Guard] rape and pillage, if there isn’t any of them in our town? And they say, ‘But the third cousin of my kuma told me that in her village…’ – and so on.”
I ask the refugee whether he likes Kyiv. He says that his family wanted to move here permanently, at first, but after seeing the prices here, decided to go home when the war is over.
“The standard of living in Kyiv is high, and the salaries do not correspond to the standard of living. If I start from scratch when I’m over forty years old, I can buy a small house at the edge of the city, and a beat-up Moskvych – in about a hundred years. Back in Alchevsk, I have a nice house.
“Of course, if I had a place here, I would stay. But it makes no sense to rent.”
The refugee’s story is interrupted by his wife – Lina, a slender blonde, surrounded by children. In the life without war, she was a primary school teacher.
“My wife. … Married for 27 years.”
Lina shakes my hand and starts talking right away. She said that she went to a camp in Crimea when she was young, and the commune there was just like the one in the hangar today.
“Back then, it was romantic. Today, it’s a bit inconvenient. But there are people from different walks of life here – there are workers, and a professor, and a black football player from Sophia, the Donetsk football club.”
In April, when the first separatists appeared in Alchevsk, Lina organized multiple pro-Ukraine events. Together with other activists, she went to the central marketplace to campaign against the separatists’ “referendum,” handed out fliers, and hung up Ukrainian paraphernalia around the town.
“I told them – my dears, they’re all lying to you. Some gave me the evil eye, and some looked like they would eat me alive. My husband would tell me to quiet down, afraid that I’d get killed, mother of three or not…”
Andriy joins the conversation,
“I had real reasons to worry. My former friends, who were for Russia, started telling me, ‘we and the militia will get all the way to Kyiv, and kill your wife.’ And when she finally decided to leave, she told the terrorists, as a goodbye, that the Ukrainian army would kick them all out. I shipped her off to Kyiv that very night, in a hurry…”
The woman smiles.
“Well, I definitely won over one of them. My best childhood friend joined the separatists. He and I once met at an event, and he told me, straight to my face, ‘If our side wins, I’ll kill you.’ But it happened so that our troops near Sloviansk killed him, instead.”
Lina has plenty of plans for the post-war future. She wishes to return to teaching school, and she is in the process of getting a second graduate degree in a university in Luhansk.
After this, the couple leave to do different work – Andriy is doing household workmanship, and the woman minds the children. Next to another kitchen tent, a group of women is slicing up cabbage and potato. A few more are picking apart boiled chickens. Lunch is going to be borsch and pasta.
“Maryna, this is Oleksiy. Back home, the separatists sentenced him to death,” Andriy tells me as he walks past, side by side with a tall young man donning a t-shirt with the Ukrainian coat of arms.
Oleksiy comes from Krasnodon, a town that borders the Izvaryne border checkpoint. We sit down on a step, and he tells me how he ended up here in the hangar. Before the war, Oleksiy got married and started a small business of his own. Today, he receives refugees from the Donbas in the camp.
On June 19, the young man and his friends were captured by the local separatists, and local groups of the Vkontakte social network still call him a traitor.
On the morning of that day, Oleksiy and his friends were filming short videos about the movement of Russian military equipment from the Izvaryne checkpoint, by request of one of the popular Ukrainian TV channels. The guys found out that the insurgents were shooting mortar guns at the edge of town, grabbed their cameras and went to film. A bus driver saw them working, and sold them out to the separatists.
“A group of people with AKs quickly appeared. They put us on the ground, tied us up and threw us into the car. Then they took us to a basement. There was no water or toilet there. Only two mattresses, and another guy they caught earlier.
“We spent two days in captivity. During that time, new people were brought in all the time. Among them, there were even those who used to man the separatists’ checkpoints, but then fell out of favor – so they were sent for ‘re-education.’”
Oleksiy recalls a retired police officer who joined the separatists. He was the one abusing the prisoners the most – yelling all the time, putting people down on their knees, putting the barrel of his AK to their heads. In short, doing everything he could to show that he was the boss.
“We were saved by accident. The militia instituted a curfew. They would patrol Krasnodon and pick up drunk men [who were outside after curfew]. One such man ended up in our basement. He had a cell phone on him. We used it to call our friends, and they got in touch with influential people who arranged for our release. We left our home town right away.”
Oleksiy worries about his friends who stayed in Krasnodon, and paint pro-Ukrainian graffiti over pro-Russian ones, at night. The young man says that some pro-separatist taxi driver can sell the activists out, and they will be easily shot on the spot.
“Do you remember when a minibus with coal miners got fired at? What happened was that a minibus was driving past a separatist checkpoint, and didn’t stop when told to. The separatists gave information on it to other checkpoints. None of them had a better idea than to shoot a bus that looked similar, plus shoot a man who was walking past, and fire at two passenger cars. And when they figured out they got the wrong people, they hit the reverse and started shouting that the National Guard did that.”
The refugee admits that in Krasnodon, located 20 km from the Russian border, pro-Russian sentiments are still strong. Widely distributed LNR [Luhansk People’s Republic] fliers claim that the insurgents are winning and will soon go all the way to Kyiv. Or that Girkin-Strelkov’s army kills 700 Ukrainian soldiers every day, and the corpses are buried in ditches.
“This used to work on people for a while, but if you go to a village next to Krasnodon, you’ll find that the majority is pro-Ukrainian. In villages, people watch less TV and spend more of their time in the vegetable patch. In Krasnodon itself, the cries of ‘Russia – hooray!’ got quieter when the separatists started putting anti-aircraft systems and snipers on roofs of residential blocks,” Oleksiy says.
I ask the refugee how the Presidential elections went in their area. Oleksiy tells that in Krasnodon, the elections were haphazard, because members of election committees feared for their lives.
“One guy from our company was preparing to work in the election committee on May 25th. The militia found out about it and took him. They beat him for maybe four hours. He left for Lviv, still covered in blood. From there, then phoned his mother, saying, ‘Mom, I was beaten by the militia, please be careful.’ And the mother tells him, ‘It was the Right Sector that beat you,’ and keeps taking money, clothes and food to the separatists…”
Oleksiy and his wife rented a place in Kyiv, so they will be leaving the camp in a few days. His future plans are not set in stone yet. He might return to Krasnodon, or go to seek his fortune in the USA, where his mother-in-law lives.
The young man laughs that whenever they talk on Skype, the mother-in-law, an ethnic Russian, keeps telling him that Russia is a great country. But if he asks: then why doesn’t she return to Moscow, she drops the conversation.
“I’m 27 years old, I can still start my life from scratch,” the young man sums up.
I go inside the hangar to take a look at the living conditions. The long building is split into two sections – men’s and women’s. Bunk beds are set up in a row; the refugees’ bags are lying next to them. There are two more rooms, partitioned by plywood. Those are home to families with many children. Closer to the exit, there are several gym machines.
In the right corner of the hangar, there are a few laptops. A few dozen children are sitting around them, playing games and watching cartoons.
“I’m nine years old, my name is Dima [Dmitry], I’m from Torez.” “I’m Anechka [Annie], from Luhansk.” “Misha [Mikhail], from Artemivsk.” – the kids introduce themselves. The children made a lot of new friends here, but they miss their homes.
“They use up all of the wi-fi [internet] with their games,” says the young man watching the kids. Sasha [Oleksander] Konoshevych, 26, used to be a gym teacher in a school in Luhansk. In Kyiv, he got a job as a builder, through an acquaintance. Sasha has tattoos of Chinese characters up his arms.
“Everyone is afraid of hiring refugees from Luhansk, because they see potential subversives in them. It’s either ‘work at the end of the month,’ or probation.”
Sasha has two older sisters in Kharkiv. The rest of his relatives went to Anapa, Russia. He says that to them, it made no difference where to move. People, he says, go to places where they are offered a roof over their heads, and some opportunities. The young man says that many people wish to leave Luhansk, but are held back by the fact that transportation between the cities in the oblast [region] is ruined. Many people are unable to buy a ticket out of Luhansk, having no access to their pensions and wages, due to blocked treasury accounts.
“Which is why most hide in basements. In maternity hospitals back there, women give birth in the basement, because being on the first and second floors is dangerous. The doctors take them to the basement, deliver the baby, and then immediately explain to them how to hold the baby safely, and where to run in case of shooting.”
The gym teacher worries that the 1st of September [beginning of the school year] will find schools in Luhansk ruined, while large numbers of students are transferring to schools in Krivyi Rih, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv.
“In our school alone, 160 students quit. In another school, N14, the entrance is blocked because of a missile hit, so it’s unusable.”
Sasha complains about a lot of damage in Luhansk, and blames both the Russian and the Ukrainian sides of the conflict for that.
“I live two [bus] stops away from a residential house. It was empty, but it got bombed. The bus terminal, the parking, and private stores next to them, they’re all destroyed. They say that Ukrainian troops tried to hit the military enlistment office, where, supposedly, the terrorists had a base. But the enlistment office building is still standing, and no terrorists died.”
The refugee thinks that the biggest fight for Donbas will take place in his home city, Luhansk.
“Because when smaller towns get liberated, the remaining separatists run to Luhansk. [Those are] not just men with guns, but with modern equipment. Especially since a lot gets brought over the border.”
Several disabled people are moving around the hangar in wheelchairs. I notice an elderly woman in a bright dress, missing both legs above the knees. Anna Petrivna, 70, came here from Luhansk on July, 10. She is virtually the only Ukrainian-speaking person in the camp.
The old lady says that two of her older sisters stayed behind in occupied Luhansk. One was taken to Russia by her grandson. Another hides in the basement when her area gets bombed.
“She’s so weak she can barely get to the bathroom. Whenever she doesn’t pick up her phone, I think she must’ve been killed. All three of us were born during the war. Who could’ve thought we would see it again when we’re old?”
Anna Petrivna bought the last train ticket to Kyiv, in the ticket window for the disabled.
“There were loads of people at the train station that day. A plane flew over the building, and the speaker in the hall announced, ‘Due to an emergency situation, we ask everyone to go down to the shelter.’ While everyone ran to some basement somewhere, I was alone in the middle of a hallway. Where could I have gone, in my wheelchair? But, fortunately, it blew over that time, we got on the train and went to Kyiv.”
Anna Petrivna wants to return home, but fears she will have no home to return to when the war is over. While she was still in Luhansk, she saw many buildings in the downtown get ruined, including the Gorky Library, and many restaurants and cafes.
“It was such a beautiful city, and now it will have to be rebuilt. Luhansk is much larger than Sloviansk, the rayon [district] center. What I’m scared of the most is that it won’t be over by autumn.”
The refugee admits that right now, she is all for a united and undivided Ukraine, while she did not embrace the Maidan revolution at first.
“Many of us thought – what for? We thought – everything was stable, so what if they [the government] are stealing, at least there’s no war.
“But what happened next showed that we were wrong, too. Even if someone didn’t approve [of the revolution] at first, they now think that we need peace, that Ukraine shouldn’t be divided…”
The old lady stops talking and covers her eyes. She cries, clutching her handbag. She says that she spent almost all of her savings while staying in the capital.
In the kitchen, it is lunchtime. I meet a group of young people playing Uno. Two sisters,Veronica and Inna, also came from Luhansk, with their mother. Veronica is a high school graduate, planning to either stay in Kyiv or go to Lviv. The girls’ father stayed in the occupied city. He owns a local transport company.
The girls are preening and asking where is the best place to go to the beach, and where to buy food at Kontraktova square.
Their friend across the table has a birthday today.
“We need Fanta, and some snacks. We are Protestant, so we don’t drink beer or wine.”
The birthday boy, Sergiy, is from Volnovakha. He has been in the camp for over a month. Sergiy jokes that he came here after they closed the McDonald’s in Donetsk.
“I work [in McDonald’s] at Lukyanivka [area of Kyiv]. They hired me without a hitch when they found out I have experience and come from the occupied territory.”
The young man fled his home town to avoid being forced to join the ranks of the DNR [Donetsk People’s Republic] insurgents. He plans to stay in Kyiv to continue studying for his engineering degree.
In his home town Volnovakha, most people have been for a united Ukraine from the start. Today, when the situation in the town is controlled by the Ukrainian military, the locals feel safe. The separatists are either gone or afraid to hand out DNR banners anywhere.
The young people take their food and go to sit in a gazebo nearby. They ask me if I was at Maidan, and where they can find an easy, but well-paying job in Kyiv. Between answering these questions, I try to tell them about their peers, who fought for their home Donbas, and now lie wounded in hospitals. The company reacts faintly to that information.
“We just want the war to be over, and to come back home. At first, we [as a country] just wanted to be independent, and now it turns out that we’re enemies with Russia.”
But they speak a lot about Berkut [former riot police], which, supposedly, was saving the day at Maidan, but was disgraced, and now got sent to the war to “wash their sins off with blood.”
A group of young men approach the table, laughing and cracking dirty jokes. They just returned from the city, where they have a temporary job renovating apartments. This group of friends includes a fresh refugee.
Yuriy came from Alchevsk yesterday. He says he wants to find work and move out of the camp, into better living conditions. He has six months of work experience with a travel agency.
“I’m afraid my experience won’t be enough for Kyiv. But I’ll be looking for vacancies on the Internet.”
On my way out, I meet a young female refugee from Luhansk, pregnant and very far along. She is due to give birth in late August.
Sasha, the gym teacher, says that this woman is luckier than the new mothers remaining in occupied Luhansk.
“Her baby will see the sun through a hospital window, not a basement under bombardment…”
By Maryna Danylyuk, for
Translated and edited by Voices of Ukraine