How central Ukraine is reacting to war and its new displaced residents
Ukrainians fleeing war in their hometowns are settling in the city of Cherkasy. Here are their stories
In Cherkasy, a city on the bank of the Dnipro river in central Ukraine, a car with shrapnel damage down one side is parked in a courtyard outside some apartments. The word ‘Children’ is pasted onto the car’s windows – an attempt at deterring Russian troops from shooting at the vehicle, which belongs to a family from Kharkiv. For the past six weeks, Russian forces have shelled that east Ukrainian city into ruins, forcing tens of thousands of residents to leave.
Since 24 February, more than five million Ukrainian citizens have left the country, while a further seven million have been internally displaced. Many have gone to western Ukraine. But when the money begins to run out, people tend to go home – returning to their ruined neighbourhoods and cities. Others start their journeys home but decide to stop in central Ukraine, for example, in Cherkasy region.
“Why do people come to Cherkasy? It’s a question of mindset and a question of convenience,” says Volodymyr Panchenko, who coordinates work with displaced persons for the city’s council. “If you look at the map of Ukraine, then the battles have been in the south, north, east. Cities like Dnipro, Poltava, Kropyvnytskyi and Cherkasy are relatively peaceful. People understand that they can go home from here, or further west. We’re well placed.”
While Cherkasy is relatively safe, the war can still be felt here, in the changes to everyday life. Children play ‘war’, trying to save themselves from ‘Russian soldiers’ as they play the sounds of air-raid sirens on their phones. Adults continue to work, volunteering to aid the Ukrainian armed forces or displaced persons – some 80,000 in the region – in their spare time. Others have joined territorial defence units and patrol their routes. Then, there are the constant air-raid sirens themselves, and the threats of strikes against targets in the region.
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openDemocracy spoke to several new Cherkasy residents, as well as to people volunteering in the city, to find out how life has changed.
Cherkasy regional council deputy, European Solidarity party
Our country was not ready for this number of internally displaced persons and mobilised soldiers. And so we need everything – from berets, ammunition, bulletproof vests and helmets to everyday clothes, food, medicines.
The city’s Humanitarian Centre, teachers and volunteer centres are now responsible for supporting the military and displaced persons in Cherkasy. Educational institutions prepare food for territorial defence.
Volunteer centres are staffed by displaced persons, active residents, wives of soldiers. Foreigners also come to help, some of whom don’t even understand Ukrainian.
At first, we mainly collected aid, which today we distribute to those in need. There were a lot of people who wanted to help, we could hardly cope with the large flow of people who came to do something useful, bringing food, clothes, hygiene products. The organised work of the volunteer centre helped a lot, especially when displaced people began to arrive. The system has been sorted out: there are registration specialists who determine their needs.
Compared to the previous war in the east of Ukraine, the current war is completely different for volunteers. In 2014, everyone respected the volunteer movement, but not everyone understood it. Some of my relatives even said: “What do you need this for? Don’t you have anything else to do?” There was an impression that this was a war waged by the military and volunteers. And today it’s the war of every citizen of Ukraine, because everyone feels what is going on. There has never been such unity, solidarity and mutual assistance.
Here, every day volunteers send humanitarian goods for civilians, then they also send spare parts for equipment, self-made tourniquets, first-aid kits, harnesses to the military.
I personally ran into Russian troops three days ago during a run. When we came under fire, we found someone, a volunteer, and stayed in her cellar. I offered to take her with us afterwards, because the Russians don’t like volunteers. But she said she wasn’t going anywhere. “My man is in the armed forces, I will become a partisan,” she said.
Human rights activist
My family is new in Cherkasy, we are from Chernihiv [300 kilometres to the north, near the border with Belarus]. Although our family of three (me, my wife and my son of school age) spent three weeks in a summer cottage outside [Chernihiv]. In the evening, we would light candles behind curtained windows, and in the afternoon we’d cook food on firewood. We moved away from the city on the first day of the war.
Later, we learned that a bridge had been blown up on the river not far from us, and it became more difficult for the Russian invaders to move and transfer equipment. The rivers became a barrier for the invaders. But seven kilometres from us, Russian artillery was shelling the suburbs of Chernihiv.
At some point, we realised that we could no longer live in the village and crossed the half-collapsed bridge to the other side of the river, where relatives drove us by car to a safe place. Then we went to Kyiv, and then we decided to go to Cherkasy, as we have some friends here.
"I remember the moment I saw people standing with a cup of coffee or tea near some cafe. I was finally able to buy sweets for my son. Before that, we were happy just to buy bread in a neighbouring village"
I am a human rights activist myself. I’m currently trying to work remotely, recording and documenting war crimes. Will we ever return to our apartment in Chernihiv? I don’t know. Even if we win tomorrow, the Chernihiv region wasn’t a leading region before, but the city has changed for the better over the past five years. We built roads, improved our infrastructure. But now, everything has been destroyed by the Russian forces [the mayor of Chernihiv recently stated 70% of the city had been destroyed], and everything needs to be rebuilt.
When we made it from our occupied region to a relatively peaceful one, I remember the moment I saw people standing with a cup of coffee or tea near some cafe. I was finally able to buy sweets for my son. Before that, we were happy just to buy bread in a neighbouring village.
Our region’s agricultural sector is working. All the companies have joined the sowing campaign and it’s now in full swing. Spring barley and wheat are sown here, some already have corn and sunflower. The winter was not very snowy and the moisture in the land was not replenished. Winds and spring frosts have also been a challenge. We had to hurry with the sowing as a result.
And now we hope for rain. We also grow vegetables: cabbage, carrots, beets, onions and pumpkins. Growing vegetables is more expensive, but we decided to keep at it, because, firstly, we have people working for us, and we simply cannot curtail all production. And, secondly, you need vegetables to feed the army. If the war continues, it will not be so easy to bring vegetables from other countries.
I won’t make any predictions about the harvest, but we are in a hurry to complete all the technical steps in order to gather the crop. At the same time, we cannot use agricultural equipment very intensively, because under martial law, prices have also increased and there is a shortage, for example, of fertilisers. There are interruptions in the supply of spare parts and crop protection products. Some technological improvements that were planned in the winter are being held back. That means we shouldn’t hope for a very large harvest. We’re just hoping for an average one.
Another issue is that there is unsold grain in the warehouses. After all, Ukraine consumes only about 10-15% of its grown sunflower, wheat and corn. And because of the war, ships in our ports are blocked. The market is trying to reorient itself towards the railway. But railway transport will not replace the ports. The impossibility of trading with foreign countries means less cash and creates inconveniences for business. How to replace working capital? Perhaps loans, but they need to be repaid. We are currently thinking about how to buy fertilisers and repair our equipment.
Resident of Avdiivka, Donetsk region
I came here with four children (between 13 and 16 years old) from Avdiivka a week ago, to Zolotonosha [a town in Cherkasy region]. We took refuge in the basement of a house, it was safer below ground level. We hoped that if the house was shelled, we would survive. Compared to Mariupol, of course, it was better in Avdiivka. My husband works at one of the most powerful enterprises in the region, the Avdiivka Coke and Chemical plant.
Still, we left via Pokrovsk [city in Donetsk region], then Dnipro, and from there, volunteers sent us to Zolotonosha. We have no relatives here. A volunteer brought us. They settled us in a hostel. Basically, we have everything we need for now. The children aren’t small, so there are no problems with food or diapers. We went through this at the beginning of the war in 2014. We are worried about my husband, but he has to be at the plant, to keep it working, because it has not completely stopped. People there live inside the plant, in a bomb shelter. [On 24 April it was reported that Russian forces fired on the plant].
I remember that in 2014 my family also had to leave Avdiivka when the war began. We went to Sviatohirsk [a town in Donetsk region]. Even then, the war drove us out of our home. And I was worried about our small children. I was constantly looking for baby food and diapers – this is what other mothers are experiencing now.
But then, in 2014, after being away from home for several months, we returned because no one needed us. Avdiivka is our home and we want to be at home. Now I’ve had to leave again, but we are worried about our relatives. If we win tomorrow and the war stops, we will go home right away.
Despite the war, our company stopped for only half a day on 24 February. Every other day we’ve worked, paying taxes and filling the state budget. We are also engaged in volunteering, everyone in the team does what they can.
My wife is a British citizen. The children also have British citizenship. But my family didn’t want to leave without me. And in general, wherever you go, it’s not like being at home. But here we are. And, fortunately, it’s safe here.
Now we help families to go to Britain if they want. People themselves can look for British families, I just connect them and speed up communication with foreign families a little, help them fill out the forms.
If the city of Cherkasy continues to be safe, then we will have a competitive advantage that we will need to use. Jobs need to be created here, and that will require meeting business halfway, reducing taxes.
Working with people who are displaced is a different issue. Every person is human capital, and people come here with different skills.
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