Hard to stay, hard to leave: Ukrainians on the struggle to evacuate Donetsk region
openDemocracy talks to those who’ve fled the front lines, about why many are reluctant to leave
After Russian forces captured the whole of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region in July, the Ukrainian government started pushing for inhabitants of the neighbouring Donetsk region to leave for safer territory.
People living near the frontlines and across the region were ordered to evacuate from early August in anticipation of a hard winter with it becoming impossible to warm people’s homes due to destruction of critical infrastructure.
In the first six months of full-scale war, 75% of Donetsk residents – more than 1.2 million people – were evacuated. But 350,000 residents stayed behind, in Ukrainian-controlled areas.
Many stayed despite the war getting closer, especially older and poorer people, as well as those with disabilities or without relatives in a safer part of Ukraine.
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During the battle for the strategically important eastern cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk in June and July, many residents chose to remain in their homes or in shelters by the frontline. They endured heavy bombing for weeks on end. As a result, the Ukrainian government introduced a centrally organised programme to help with evacuation. Although the government said evacuation was mandatory, no one who wanted to stay was forced to leave their home.
Ukrainians who have chosen not to evacuate are now planning to use firewood to heat their homes. Some have moved from apartment blocks into empty homes and dachas (seasonal second homes) with wood-burning boilers. Others have bought electric heaters.
As electricity provision in older Soviet-era residential buildings can be in a parlous state, the local authorities are hoping to evacuate at least 115,000 more residents, leaving no more than 235,000 people in the Ukrainian-controlled parts of Donetsk over the winter.
openDemocracy spoke to people from the Donetsk region, who left for central Ukraine in summer. They told us why it was hard to evacuate and what life as internally displaced people (IDPs) is like.
‘Our whole life was there’
In Oleksandriya, a city in central Ukraine, Olha Kulbayeva, 36, and her husband and two children share a single room, which used to be the nap room of a kindergarten.
In April, their home city of Kramatorsk suffered a Russian strike on its railway station, which killed 60 civilians. That month, Kulbayeva had travelled to nearby Kostiantynivka to give birth because her city’s maternity hospital had closed. At the time, she didn’t want to evacuate.
“We had faith that everything would be fine and we would not be hurt,” she said. She was convinced the Russian army would not reach Kramatorsk, but her brother, who had joined the Ukrainian army in the spring, insisted the war was not nearing an end.
Kulbayeva and her family of four finally left Kramatorsk in early August, when they felt the Russian air strikes getting closer, more intense and more frequent – with “shelling every night”.
Life in Kramatorsk was getting more difficult in other ways, too. The city had been without gas since May, after a Russian strike on the city’s main pipeline. The family had bought an electric stove for cooking, in hopes that the situation would stabilise over the summer. But then the Ukrainian authorities said there would be no heating or any water during the cold season. “How could we live there with small children? We had to leave,” Kulbayeva said.
Her parents decided to stay behind, as did those of her husband Oleksandr, and Kulbayeva worries about them.
“My mother told me: ‘As long as my house is standing, I won't leave.’ She is 70, you know how attached to their house [old people] can be, how hard it is for them to leave it. But I have hope that she will change her mind when it gets very cold,” Kulbayeva said.
“The most important thing is that [the war] ends,” she told me. “We don’t want to [live under Russian rule], we can’t forgive them. As long as Kramatorsk remains in Ukraine, even if it’s in ruins, we’ll return. We grew up there, our whole life was there,” Kulbayeva says, cradling her five-month-old daughter Kseniya in her arms.
‘How could I have kept her warm?’
Today, in Donetsk, the frontline between Russian and Ukrainian forces moves little, running along the cities of Bakhmut and Avdiyivka.
Meanwhile in the Kherson region, Russian forces are being pushed towards Crimea by Ukrainian troops, and the Ukrainian army is still successfully holding the defence near cities that neighbour the occupied Luhansk region.
Towns close to the fighting – such as Kramatorsk, Kostiantynivka and Druzhkivka – are under constant fire. They are slowly but steadily being destroyed, especially when it comes to infrastructure.
Even if the shelling were to stop or Ukrainian forces managed to regain more territory in Donetsk, it would still be a long time before these areas became inhabitable again.
It was this knowledge, fearing the prospect of a cold winter, that finally convinced Serhiy Ivaniushchenko to leave Kramatorsk in July, along with his paralysed 84-year-old mother, Halyna.
“Given my mother's condition, how could I have kept her warm during the winter, maybe with my own body?” said Ivaniushchenko, who worked at the heavy manufacturing Novokramatorsk plant in the city.
The plant closed a few days after the Russian invasion and Ivaniushchenko has been receiving two-thirds of his monthly salary ever since. This is how he can afford to live with his mother in Kropyvnytskyi, a large town in central Ukraine, which has become a hub for evacuees from Donetsk. If, as has been suggested, the plant is commandeered by the state to make heavy military equipment, Ivaniushchenko might lose his job.
But for now, he and his mother live in a temporary shelter set up in a rehabilitation centre for disabled children. Ivaniushchenko, who has been struggling to find an apartment, is worried that when the centre returns to its original function, the two will be asked to leave.
Ivaniushchenko didn’t leave Kramatorsk until July because he thought the situation wasn’t serious enough to risk evacuating his mother. She had a stroke in 2009, has diabetes and dementia, has a fractured pelvis and elbow and has been bedridden since November.
He was terrified of trying to leave with someone so vulnerable, without knowing where they were headed. The pair were helped by Vostok-SOS, a volunteer initiative that is helping to evacuate people, including the disabled, from the conflict zone.
Vostok-SOS volunteer Vladyslav Arseniy says this fear of leaving home, facing the unknown and being abandoned, is very common among those he helps. Arseniy and his colleagues evacuate around 50 people a week, most of them elderly and disabled. Roughly 10% of those who seek help change their mind when he knocks on their door, Arseniy says, with many refusing to leave. Some change their mind over and over. He knows of at least three cases where the people he’s helped to evacuate have returned home.
“People don’t want to leave their homes, they want to protect them from looting. When someone says they would rather stay somewhere familiar than evacuate into the unknown, we try to tell them that many people have evacuated safely,” Arseniy said.
“Some say they are too old to evacuate and some come back home because they are used to living independently and find it hard to adjust to cohabitation in shelters.”
Lyubov Bozhko, 29, a single mother of two young girls, evacuated from Druzhkivka, a city in the Donetsk region, to Kropyvnytskyi in central Ukraine in August. Her main worry right now is finding a job to support her family.
“It's very hard to lie in your bed and to hear rockets flying overhead and sounds of artillery nearby,” she said. “You don't really worry about your life. The lives of your children are more precious than anything else. That’s why we evacuated.”
There was little work to be found in Druzhkivka once it came under attack, Bozhko said, making it “very difficult to survive there”.
But in Kropyvnytskyi, she still struggled to find a job.“I worked as a meat cutter at a meat processing plant in Druzhkivka, I’m not afraid of hard physical work,” Bozkho explained.
“Once I called about an ad for a job in a shop, but they told me that they didn’t hire IDPs. They said: ‘You’re not reliable, you’re temporary [workers]’.”
Bozhko recently managed to find work in a butcher’s shop and is starting to think of making a life in Kropyvnytskyi. If all goes well, she says, she won’t go back to Druzhkivka.
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