Domestic Refugees in Ukraine Waiting Out the War

The war in eastern Ukraine has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, forcing them to flee from the constant shelling. Many of them have since found shelter, but they are yearning to return to their old lives.

Children in the "Hope" refugee camp in Kharkiv
Anastasia Vlasova

Children in the "Hope" refugee camp in Kharkiv

By  and Anastasia Vlasova (Fotos)


Over a dozen gray metal containers, interlaced with paths and power lines, sit on the outskirts of Kharkiv. The sound of children's laughter rises from a playground in the fenced-in compound. "Transit Modular Housing Nadiya," reads a sign on one of the containers. Nadiya means "hope" in Ukrainian.

At capacity, the facility provides temporary shelter to 400 internally displaced people (IDPs), all of whom escaped the conflict-ravaged region of Donbass and settled in Kharkiv, a city of 1.5 million citizens located just 200 kilometers from the front lines. They are among the at least 1.8 million people who, according to Ukraine's Ministry of Social Affairs, were driven from their homes by the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.

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Some of the displaced applied for asylum in the European Union, fled abroad or moved to Russia. But a huge number of them sought shelter elsewhere in Ukraine, making the country's domestic refugee crisis one of the largest seen in Europe since the Yugoslav wars from 1991 to 2001. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the number of internally displaced people in Ukraine places the country in the top 10 worldwide.

Olena Churina and her nine children are among those living at the "Hope" shelter. Her story is similar to those of many of her fellow Ukrainians: The family fled their home to escape the constant shelling, expecting to be back within weeks. But despite the Minsk II ceasefire deal, signed by Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in February 2015, the shelling still hasn't stopped -- and the internally displaced have been away from their homes since summer 2014.

Churina fled from the village of Hlafirivka, located in the Luhansk Oblast some 6o kilometers from the border with Russia. Today, her hometown, as is the case for everyone living in the "Hope" shelter, is occupied by pro-Russian separatists. Moreover, her house is likely damaged beyond repair or looted -- and Churina, with her husband having decided to return to Luhansk to live with his father, is raising her nine children, aged two to 19, all by herself.

When the conflict began in April 2014, she had hoped it wouldn't be long before things quieted down again. But they didn't. The constant explosions meant that soon, any loud noise was enough to terrify her children. After five months of waiting, she decided to leave.

"We had Ukrainian troops on one side and Russians on the other," she recalls. "And we were in the middle."

The family owned a three-room home in the village along with some land for farming, a garden and two cows. For the last year in the shelter, though, the family of 10 has been crammed into a space measuring just 24 square meters (260 square feet). "I ask them: 'Do you want to go back?'" she says, referring to her children. "They tell me: 'No, there is a war.'"

The "Hope" shelter in Kharkiv is one of seven similar projects financed by the German government and built by the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ). In total, Berlin has invested 19 million euros in the hostels, which provide home to some 2,300 internally displaced persons in Ukraine.

"Hope" consists of 10 metal containers for apartment housing and three additional dormitory containers divided into dozens of cubicles. There are also several administration modules. All the buildings are supplied with water and electrical heating.

Churina's family occupies one of the apartment containers, which is equipped with one bathroom, a tiny kitchen and a single room; at night, the 10-person family squeezes into seven bunk beds. Still, having hot water from the tap was a step up: Back in Hlafirivka they had no running water in the house at all.

The shelter compound is secured with a fence and equipped with round-the-clock surveillance cameras so she doesn't have to worry about her children walking to the playground alone. The camp has three full-time staff members in addition to volunteers from the Red Cross and the UN Refugee Agency, who visit the shelter and entertain the children. A pediatrician visits the hostel twice a week and consultations are free of charge.

Initially, the housing was meant to be temporary, says Bärbel Schwaiger, head of development at GIZ. But the majority of those who have moved into the shelters have now been living there for well over a year and have nowhere else to go. They get married here, give birth and celebrate important events, all united by a similar wartime past. "When we began, the primary goal was to provide people with roofs over their heads for the coming winter," Schwaiger recalls. In countries where weather conditions are less severe, housing shortages can often be resolved with the help of tents, she says. In Ukraine, though, mid- and long-term solutions should be implemented as soon as possible, she adds.

Once the shelters were completed, the local government and the State Emergency Service were responsible for allocating domestic refugees to the facility. Certain categories of people, however, were given preference. Thus, the majority of residents are single women, large families and people with disabilities. Being a mother of nine helped Churina get a spot.

The boarding isn't entirely free, with adults required to pay 350 hryvnia (12 euros) and children 175 hryvnia (6 euros) per month to cover utilities. That money comes out of the 900 hryvnia (around 30 euros) she receives in government assistance for displaced persons in addition to further assistance she gets as a single mother of several children.

Although "Hope" inhabitants complain about excessive heat during summer, the absence of air conditioning, the tight space and the high utility fees, there are plenty of people who would like a spot in the modular housing. The manager of "Hope," Svitlana Chuprina, says that around 1,500 IDPs are still waiting for a vacant room in Kharkiv.

Plus, it's far better than being back home. Churina's family had to suffer through frequent shelling before they left Hlafirivka and, at one point, the electricity was cut off and didn't come back for three months. Much of the time, they were forced to take shelter in the cellar, only coming out to cook over an open fire in the yard or to feed the cows.

The cellar, though, was too small for the entire family. If some of her children were in the house when the shelling started, they would stay upstairs and hunker down under their beds. Down below, Churina would place her youngest child, a son she gave birth to after the war started, on a piece of cloth and shelter him with her body. "I would get claustrophobic. It was hard to breathe because of all of the children and I was afraid that the cellar might collapse and someone would have to dig us out," she says.

The only thing Churina was able to bring with her when they finally fled Hlafirivka were six bags full of children's clothing. "It's so painful to see how you slowly accumulate your belongings and now there is nothing left -- and no hope," she says.

Not only is her house likely to be destroyed, but there's no way back because of hostile relations with her neighbors. She was among 15 to 20 families who left, but her's is the only one that hasn't returned to the village. She has been branded a traitor as a result, she says. "But peace above our heads is more important. I want to see my kids laughing not crying."

Here, her children take part in various activities led by volunteers, including English lessons, games, visits to the circus and other outings. The kids go to a local school and play with other IDPs. "It is much easier for the children to develop here, because rural life is rural life. Here, they can have a lot of fun," she says. One of her daughters even went for a month to an American family, while the rest enjoy the local entertainment.

Churina says she is slowly beginning to overcome the terror she experienced in the war zone, as are her children, who make regular visits to psychologists. It helps, she adds, to not think about what they should do next. "We seize the day here."

Ayshat Natarova, 56, a former resident of Stanytsya Luhanska, clearly recalls the shells flying over her house. She even still keeps a bomb fragment that ended up on the pillow of a bed after crashing through a window. "Luckily, no one was lying there at the time," she says, showing the heavy shard of metal.

Her house had been freshly renovated just before it happened. She remembers the shells exploding in her yard with shrapnel piercing one side of her house. What wasn't destroyed by the shelling was stolen by looters, she adds.

Before the war, Natarova had worked some 30 kilometers away in the city of Luhansk. Now, the journey that she made every day is impossible, with the front line running through her hometown. While Luhansk remains occupied, Stanytsya Luhanska has been tapped as the first city where heavy weaponry is to be withdrawn in accordance with the Minsk II ceasefire deal. Both Ukrainian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists are supposed to move back one kilometer from the front line, creating a two-kilometer-wide buffer zone in Stanytsya Luhanska.

Most inhabitants of the "Hope" shelter rely on government assistance, but Natarova doesn't like sitting idly. Instead, she has found a job as a housekeeper in the shelter. "I am a mop chief," she jokes. In Kharkiv, the family is slowly recovering from their traumatic war-zone experience. Natarova say that it was even an ordeal for her two-year-old granddaughter, even though she is too young to remember much. Initially, when the child heard a loud noise, she would immediately try to hide.

Now, though, children play together on the playground, produce colorful drawings and laugh -- and that is the most important thing for Natarova. "I am satisfied with everything, because if children feel good, I feel good too."

Mariya Bulda, now living some 300 kilometers from her native Donetsk, feels like she is in a foreign country. In Donetsk, she owned a four-room house on the outskirts of the city -- but now, she and her husband share a tiny container with five other members of the family.

The part of town where the Bulda family lived was more than likely wiped out. Their house was close to the airport, which served as the Ukrainian army's last Donetsk outpost until pro-Russian forces took it over completely in January 2015.

They weren't able to take anything with them when they fled Donetsk. The elderly couple ran from their cellar during shelling and got on the closest bus heading for the bus station. Today, everything they are wearing was donated by locals.

Tears flow as the family recalls their former life. Yevhen and Mariya worked in a factory for 50 years and both survived World War II. Now, they dream of returning to their hometown, at least in time for their own funerals.

But their grandchildren are still able to distract them from their brooding as they run around and grab Yevhen's hand to drag him with them to the playground. Seeing them, he smiles, and adds that in total, he has 10 great-grandchildren.

From a small town in Luhansk Oblast, Nataliya Avdyuha was eight months pregnant with her second child when the constant shelling forced her to leave the city. At the time she fled in July 2014, Luhansk was occupied by pro-Russian separatists, who had declared their own government and were fighting with Ukrainian government forces.

"We didn't want to leave. We kept thinking it was about to stop," she says of the violence. With delivery approaching, volunteers took her to the closest city. Afterwards, her newborn in her arms, she and her family moved to Kharkiv, a 100-kilometer journey that took more than a day because of the mined roads.

Avdyuha and her family could not afford to rent an apartment in Kharkiv. Plus, domestic refugees are often considered to be unreliable tenants since they have no stable income -- so she had to pay rent three months in advance. Ultimately, she applied for a spot in the shelter and moved in when it opened in January 2015.

Her first impression was not a positive one. "When we arrived, everything was gray -- and there were these power poles and boxes," Avdyuha recalls. Later, though, the boxes turned into apartments and dormitories. Today, she lives into a 24-square-meter flat with her husband and three children - the most recent baby was born after they moved into the container. Her husband has a job putting up advertising posters in the city.

The family currently has no plans to return to Luhansk. "It is sad and difficult there. You have to support that government even if you love Ukraine," she says, referring to the pro-Russian separatist rule in the city. "Otherwise, they will track you down."

Unlike the others, Iryna Olyunina -- from the town of Horlivka in Donetsk Oblast -- lives in a 12-square-meter room in dormitory container. She shares a kitchen with 12 other families but has her own bathroom.

She fled Donbas on the last train, with 14 people crammed into a single compartment, although she didn't realize at the time that train service would be cut off. A half-year later, she was living in the shelter. "It was pure happiness to get here, like heaven on earth," she says.

Olyunina is one of the lucky ones. Her apartment on the outskirts of Horlivka has been untouched by the violence and relatives even stop by to water her plants. Olyunina, though, is afraid of returning to Donbas. "It is much quieter to live in a hostel. Back home, you had to turn up your television to drown out the shelling," she says. Her hometown currently straddles the front lines.

In her new life, Olyunina is slowly realizing a dream of her youth - designing fashion. Ever since she was 20, she has wanted to start a fashion studio and create her own line of clothing. Recently, volunteers gave her a sewing machine and now, Olyunina works as a dressmaker at "Hope."

"We live and are happy here, satisfied with everything," she says.

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