Conflict & Justice

As violence rages in Ukraine, refugees are finding open arms in Russia


Ukrainian refugees in Rostov.


Andrey Kronberg

NOVOCHERKASSK, Russia — This Soviet-era sanatorium, with its crumbling facade and overgrown courtyard, is nothing to write home about.

But that’s good news for 35-year-old Oksana Scherbina, whose home — the city of Luhansk, Ukraine — is being ravaged by explosions, gunfire and panic. She appreciates the sense of tranquility this secluded if dilapidated resort provides for her and her three children, at least for now.

"It was better to travel to an unknown place than stay behind," she says.

Sherbina is among the thousands who've escaped the violence in eastern Ukraine, where government forces are battling a pro-Russian separatist insurgency, to seek refuge here in the southern Russian region of Rostov.

The violence is continuing despite the calling of a cease-fire this week.

Fleeing what they say are shootouts and bombing by security forces loyal to a nationalist government, many refugees say they've found the people here more than willing to help.

"Russia really answered the call and took us in as if there's no such thing as 'someone else's problems,'" says Svetlana Alexandrovna, a 36-year-old refugee who fled the Ukrainian border town of Chervonopartyzansk with her four-year-old son.

This charming old sanatorium outside Novocherkassk, Russia, now houses refugees from Ukraine. (Dan Peleschuk/GlobalPost)

Russia's Emergencies Ministry says more than 14,000 refugees from Ukraine have filtered through the border, the vast majority into this region, which neighbors the violence-stricken Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, and into emergency shelters.

They've ended up in tent cities, repurposed summer camps and university dormitories, and have relied on an army of volunteers, local officials and good Samaritans for support.

But those are the officially registered refugees. Observers say many more Ukranians may have left as "tourists" or have otherwise ended up under the radar.

The majority of the refugess placed in temporary housing are women with young children. All have their own stories of how they fled. Some, like Svetlana Aleksandrovna, decided to leave before heavy fighting reached their cities.

Others left places like Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, two separatist hotspots that have been ravaged by heavy fighting and the breakdown of municipal services in recent weeks.

Sherbina, who left behind a cosmetics business in Luhansk, said she wasn't able to withdraw enough money from the local bank, which was bled of cash.

"The girls at the bank were reaching into their pockets and giving me their own money," she says.

Many refugees have no relatives in Russia, further complicating their journey.

They say internal displacement wasn’t an option because of the hostility they claim they would face from people in other parts of Ukraine.

"Everywhere else, we're terrorists, we're separatists, we're inhuman," says 28-year-old Snezhana, bemoaning what she describes as the Ukrainian media's depiction of eastern Ukrainians.

The children's playroom in a Rostov-area refugee camp for Ukraine escapees. (Dan Peleschuk/GlobalPost)

Even her family elsewhere in Ukraine doesn't believe the severity of the situation, she adds.

Snezhana — who fled with her husband, Alexei, and her four-month-old son Ilya from the border city of Krasnodon 10 days ago — says they had initially planned on joining her relatives.

But their discussions resulted in heated arguments.

"They simply think we're some kind of idiots," she says.

Now, Snezhana, Alexei and Illya live in a dormitory that belongs to the Southern Federal University in the regional capital Rostov.

Volunteers, activists and officials there are busy supporting nearly 250 refugees from Ukraine, providing them with everything from food to diapers.

A local employment center has set up a mobile office on campus to help find work for those who are able.

While Ukraine's new authorities across the border are busy rebuilding a state free from Russia's domineering grasp, locals involved with support work for refugees here say the Soviet-era slogan "brotherhood of nations" is alive and well, and motivates them to chip in.

"We don't feel as if these people arrived from another country," says Yakov Aslanov, head of the university's student council.

"All of us from former Soviet countries get along normally, understand each other's jokes and speak the same language," he adds. "It's all one cultural space."

Russia: provincial edition. In Rostov. (Dan Peleschuk/GlobalPost)

Still others draw inspiration from the two countries' shared history, particularly the Soviet experience defeating Nazi Germany during World War II.

While nationalists in Ukraine venerate wartime figures who fought what they saw as a Soviet occupation — siding for a time with the Nazis — many other Ukrainians, and certainly most Russians, look to the joint effort with pride.

Anatoliy Kotlyarov, whose volunteer group "Brotherly Help" has offered assistance to around 1,300 refugees since early June, says his family was evacuated from Rostov with the help of strangers during the war.

"I feel that if our neighbors and brothers have fallen on hard times and face such a situation, it would be inhuman not to help them," says Kotlyarov, who is a local member of the Just Russia political party.

Whether and when the refugees decide to return home is unclear. It also remains to be seen just how much the Russian authorities can do for those who choose to stay.

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On Wednesday, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev ordered the allocation of more than $700,000 in refugee relief funds to the Rostov region.

But that’s just a short-term fix.

While many express a desire to return to their homes, few see a future under the new Ukrainian authorities, accused by Russian officials, state-run media and refugees of seeking to persecute eastern Ukrainians.

"There is no Ukraine for them beyond [the capital] Kyiv," sas Svetlana Aleksandrovna.

"They've divided us into first- and second-class citizens."