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Families Describe Fleeing War-Torn Ukraine for Russian Camps

Refugee camps in Russia welcome Ukrainians fleeing the violence in Ukraine, where Kiev is bombing its own citizens.

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“Our potatoes do not need your pernicious Colorado beetles.” – Ukrainian refugees on life in a temporary accommodation camp in Russia and how they perceive Ukraine

As part of a media tour to the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine in April 2015, a group of international journalists visited a camp of Ukrainian refugees who had fled from Lugansk and Donetsk. The camp is located in Rostov oblast in southwestern Russia, near the Ukrainian border. Halyna Mokrushyna, a participant in the tour group, reports on the exchanges she had with the people living in the camp. This is the second of her articles on the media tour in which she participated.

Also see: Bearing Witness in Donetsk: Ukraine’s Euromaidan Revolution and the War in Donbas

The Temporary Accommodation Point (TAP), as it is called in Russian (Punkt Vremennogo Razmeshchenia), at the “Pioneer” refugee camp in the Primorka village of Neklinovsky district of Rostovska oblast in Russia, is now home for around 350 refugees from Lugansk and Donetsk regions of Ukraine. In Soviet times, it was a summer camp for children (pioneers). It still looks like it: There is a solidly built canteen, dormitories, arbors, benches, ping-pong tables, a sports-ground and metallic triangular sails painted in the colors of the Russian Federation – white, blue and red. The camp is beautifully located on the northwestern shore of the Sea of Azov, 58 km to the west of the large Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. A metallic stairwell descends from the camp to the seashore.

Helicopters of the Federal Fishing Agency patrol the area regularly. But they had to interrupt their patrolling in June of 2014, when the first bus with Ukrainian refugees from Donetsk and Lugansk arrived. They were fleeing from the so-called antiterrorist operation of the Ukrainian army, which launched an offensive against Lugansk and Donetsk in April, when these regions did not accept the nationalist, anti-Russian regime that came to power in Kiev, in February 2014, through a coup d’état. Refugees were mostly women with their children. The children had been deeply traumatized by the sounds of shells and bombs, which the Ukrainian army was indiscriminately directing against the towns and cities where they lived. When the children first heard the fishery agency helicopters, they would scream and take shelter under the ping-pong tables. The administrators of the refugee camp asked the fishery agency to stop patrolling the seashore for a month so as not to traumatize the kids. The agency agreed.

We heard this from the doctor, Yuriy, who provides health care to children of the camp. Yuriy is a pediatrician, originally from Lugansk. He moved to Russia in 2007, because, as he told us, he understood back then (in the aftermath of the pro-Western “Orange Revolution”) that things were going to get worse in Ukraine. In Nekninovskiy district, his practice as a pediatrician covers two residential areas with around 1,800 children. In addition, he takes care of two refugee camps – Pioneer and Sale -without being paid for it. Yuriy has an office in the camp and a treatment room. He says that when he first came here in early June 2014, he panicked – nothing was ready, they had to prepare everything from scratch.

The administrator of the camp, Svetlana, took this difficult job in charge. She was the one who found Yuriy, approached him and said: “The camp needs a pediatrician. There is no way you will get rid of me.” And so Yuriy came to Pioneer camp.

The Ukrainian state stopped paying any social assistance or pensions in June of 2014 to residents of the “occupied territories of Lugansk and Donetsk regions.”

Svetlana is the owner of the camp. She and her husband bought it from the Russian state with the intention of transforming it into a summer vacation station for kids (the camp was not in use). They were getting ready to receive the first vacationers in June 2014. But on June 4, they got a phone call from the local state authorities asking them to receive Ukrainian refugees instead. The first bus arrived the next day, during the night of June 5 to 6.

Svetlana became the administrator of the camp. She left her apartment in Rostov and moved with her daughter, a dog and a cat to the camp. She now lives there permanently. She oversees the smooth running of the facility, making sure that people living in the camp have everything they need. She is not paid to do the job she does. The Russian state pays for the lodging fees and food of residents. When a piece of infrastructure is broken, Svetlana and her husband pay for the repairs, and the state reimburses them.

Refugees living in the camp receive occasional financial assistance from the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR). They do not get any support from Ukraine. The Ukrainian state stopped paying any social assistance or pensions in June of 2014 to residents of the “occupied territories of Lugansk and Donetsk regions,” that is DPR and LPR.

Almost all of the refugees in the camp are women, with their children and elderly parents. Around 1,500 people have gone through the camp since it began receiving refugees. It works as a transition point for those who have the means and health to find a job and move on with their lives in Russia.

Refugees were directed to the camp through coordinators in Donetsk and Lugansk. They came here by bus. Once in the camp, they are visited by a representative of the Federal Migration Service of the Russian Federation. The representative brings the forms that a person needs to fill in order to apply for the official status of a temporary refugee. This status is granted for one year. It allows the person who receives it to work in Russia without obtaining a special permit. It also comes with free medical insurance. The application, as well as the status itself, is free of charge.

She believes that the war in Ukraine was provoked by “big money,” to carve up new assets.

Local employment centers are cooperating with camps, sending them lists of vacancies throughout Russia. They try to match refugees’ qualifications with available job vacancies. The Ministry of Emergency Situations sends a schedule of departure to regions where the labor force is needed. Refugees are relocated to the regional camps where the local administration issues them proper documents and finds them permanent housing as soon as possible. Any refugee who arrives, say, in Rostov, and turns to a police or other state agency for help is redirected to the Ministry of Emergency Situations for assistance.

The majority of people who arrived in Pioneer camp have moved on. Those who remain are there either because they have young children or immobilized elder relatives, or they still harbor a hope to return to their homes in Lugansk and Donetsk. “We hope for peace,” women in the Pioneer camp told us.

Irina has lived in the camp since late November. She is from Dokuchaievsk, a city 35 km from Donetsk, on the highway south to Mariupol, farther along the coastline of the Sea of Azov. Following the beginning of the military operations of the Ukrainian army against rebellious Lugansk and Donetsk in April 2014, Irina and her family spent the 2014 summer in Berdiansk. (1) In September, they returned to Dokuchaievsk. Irina’s younger daughter had to go back to school, and Irina had to resume her duties as an elementary school teacher.

By early September 2014, Dokuchaievsk became part of the DPR. It was on the frontline of the fighting between the DPR insurgency and the Ukrainian army. The city was shelled intensively, so the school year could not begin. Children would stay at home, while teachers would go to school. Shortly after September 1 (the first day of the school year in Ukraine), teachers were sent on unpaid leave. Irina with her daughter and Irina’s sister with her two kids went back to Berdiansk, to their relatives. They stayed for two weeks there and then returned to Dokuchaievsk again.

In the DPR, because of the active shelling of the territory by the Ukrainian army, the school year was postponed until October 1. Irina went back to work. However, it was impossible to work in those conditions, she remembers. They would have a lesson or two, and the shelling would start. They had to take refuge in the basement. Teachers would call parents to come and pick up their kids. Some parents would stay in the school basement waiting until the shelling would be over.

Life like this continued for several weeks, until Irina’s sister gave under pressure and left Dokuchaievsk with her family for the refugee camp in Primorka. Then Irina broke down as well. Together with her husband and the whole family – her 70-year-old parents, 90-year-old grandmother and their daughter – they took as many personal belongings as they could and drove to Primorka.

Ukraine, in its current configuration, reminds Anna of Frankenstein, assembled from different parts, glued together artificially.

The last week before the departure was spent in cold basements or in corridors with thick walls. They would all sleep fully dressed. Irina’s daughter was scared of the shelling and of the basements – they used to live in an apartment on an upper story of a multistory building. Irina says she felt such pity for her daughter that she had to leave. If it was not for her daughter, she would have stayed in Dokuchaievsk.

Irina considers herself lucky. Two days after the arrival at the refugee camp, she found work in a local school. Her husband found work in Taganrog, a Russian city 25 kilometers west of Primorka. Their daughter goes to school. Irina plans to stay in the camp until the end of the school year. And then, in the summer, we will see, she says.

In the camp they have two rooms – one big and one smaller. They also have a shower room. They kept their car.

Dokuchaievsk remains on the firing line. Irina says they are checking the city’s website regularly.

She perceives the current regime in Kiev very negatively. She believes that the war in Ukraine was provoked by “big money,” to carve up new assets. In Irina’s opinion, there were no profound reasons for this conflict. In the school where she taught, there were Ukrainian language classes and Russian language classes. Parents could place their children in any language class they wanted. There was no terror, says Irina.

Anna came to the camp from Lugansk with the first wave of refugees in early June. On June 2, 2014, she was in downtown Lugansk two hours before the infamous Ukrainian warplane launched rockets on the regional administration building and in the park surrounding it. She says she was really scared. On that day, she decided she had to leave. Anna knew that the Lugansk insurgency was organizing evacuation of civilians from the city. Her husband helped her and their two daughters to get on the bus and they left in the morning. By late evening of the same day, they arrived at the Primorka camp.

Since then, she has helped out here. She became a self-appointed warden of the camp, taking upon herself the responsibility of solving all kinds of problems related to the everyday life of the camp. When I was interviewing her, we had to interrupt our conversation several times because she would be called upon to answer some questions or to provide information on something.

Anna says her brain still refuses to accept what is happening in Ukraine. It is a nightmare, an absurdity. In Anna’s words, Donbas has never been part of Ukraine. The entire Southeast of Ukraine – Kharkov, Zaporozhe, Lugansk, Donetsk – was developed by Russian tsars. The real Ukraine is the central part of modern Ukraine – Kiev, Chernihiv. Ukraine, in its current configuration, reminds Anna of Frankenstein, assembled from different parts, glued together artificially. These are the profound reasons of the civil war in Ukraine.

Anna has always identified herself as being part of the Slavic people – Russians and Ukrainians both. She says they never divided people by ethnicity, between a “pure” Ukrainian or a “pure” Russian. Her grandmother is from Voronezh region in Russia; her grandfather is from Donbas. Who is she? She does not know.

Anna says that Donbas did not accept the Euromaidan ideas and ideals. Donbas does not need the European Union or NATO. People in Lugansk and Donetsk are happy as it is. European ideals – which were instilled in Euromaidan Ukrainians by Western political and social strategists – are alien to Donbas. They are like the pernicious Colorado beetles, which were brought to Ukraine from North America. They destroy young potato plants by eating up leaves. As Anna puts it, “Our potatoes do not need your Colorado beetles”.

Life under the ousted president, Victor Yanukovych, was not easy, says Anna. Corruption was widespread, but those who wanted to work, worked. And people were not killed on a massive scale.

Donbas has never been a subsidized region, states Anna. According to Ukrainian legislation, Donbas would send the lion’s share of its revenues to Kiev, while keeping only a small part for itself. Kiev now presents various subsidy programs to Donbas as evidence that Donbas is a “depressed” region with an outdated and inefficient economy. However, Kiev is not saying how much Donbas was contributing to the national budget, says Anna.

She believes that Donbas can no longer return to Ukraine. If it ever does, it will be destroyed through various economic programs, even physically. Donbas should become part of a new, independent country of Novorossiya, she says.

According to the latest official statistics, there are 37,630 refugees from Ukraine in Rostov oblast, of which 1,737 are placed in “temporary accommodation points,” such as Pioneer camp. There are eight such camps in Rostov oblast, four of them in Neklinovski district. Two camps were closed earlier this year because the number of refugees decreased. Refugees who were already in Rostov have also moved to other regions of Russia. Since the beginning of 2015, over 6,000 of them did so. (2)

Refugees in the Pioneer camp we visited told us that they have everything they need. Kids go to the local school. The school bus picks them up in the morning, brings them back for dinner and then takes them back to school. When the first refugees arrived in June of 2014, local kids mentored Ukrainian kids. They became friends very quickly, which facilitated the transition of Ukrainian kids into the school. In the camp, kids have their own room to do homework and another room for play. Refugees also receive help from psychologists. In the canteen, meals are served four times a day. The canteen is also used as a concert hall. Women from the camp showed us a stand with photos taken during the celebrations of the New Year, a chess tournament and Easter festivities. People in the camp strive to live a “normal” life like the one they had at home.

Anna regularly phones her relatives and friends in Lugansk, many of whom returned home after several months of exile. They tell her that life in Lugansk is difficult. The Lugansk People’s Republic administrators are doing the best they can, but building a new state from scratch is a lengthy and difficult process. It is hard for all, especially for families with kids. That is why Anna prefers to stay for the time being in the camp, although her parents and husband are in Lugansk. She says it would be difficult for her to be there right now and watch over the children, fearing that rockets might again fall from the sky.

Anna says she left her whole life behind in Lugansk. She hopes one day she will be able to return home and not have to fear for rockets and shells falling from the sky. Irina also keeps in touch with her friends and relatives in Dokuchaievsk. They hope that peace will return to Donbas. They do not hate ordinary Ukrainians; they hate the ultra-nationalist regime in Kiev that brought war to their land.

Donbas did not start the war, Kiev did. The DPR and LPR are slowly but surely building a new state. It is a difficult path for the young republics. Kiev has cut all supply lines to the cities and villages that are on the republics’ territories. Kiev also regularly violates the cease-fire agreement reached in Minsk on February 12. It is in no hurry to honor the other points agreed upon in Minsk, such as working together with the representatives of DPR and LPR on a new constitution for Ukraine, which would provide large autonomy to the regions, amnesty for prisoners involved in the fighting and the lifting of restrictions of movement to and from the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.

In spite of Kiev’s sabotage, the DPR and LPR are emerging as autonomous economic and political entities. A lot of refugees from these regions have already returned home. One day, Irina and Anna hope to follow their path.


1. Berdiansk is a summer resort on the Azov seashore. Many internal refugees from the war zone spent the summer of 2014 here in summer camps, built there in the Soviet era for children and families.

2. As of April 22, 2015, the Federal Migration Service of Russia published the following data on the refugees from Ukraine:

• Since April 2014, 950,147 citizens of Ukraine from Southeastern Ukraine entered the territory of the Russian Federation and remained there;

• There are 432 STA in Russian Federation, in which live 26,964 people, including 8660 children (up to age 18);

• 507,982 people live in the private sector;

• 338,977 persons applied for the temporary refugee status;

• 187,201 people applied for temporary residence.

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