Donbas Evacuees Arriving in Russia "Who Are We Supposed to Fight Against? Our Relatives?"

Tens of thousands of people, most of them women and children, have left the separatist areas in eastern Ukraine. They hope to be able to return as soon as possible.
By Christina Hebel in Avilo-Uspenka and Taganrog, Russia
Women and children arriving in Avilo-Uspenka from the Donetsk region

Women and children arriving in Avilo-Uspenka from the Donetsk region

Foto: DER SPIEGEL

Svetlana doesn’t know if she’ll soon be able to return to Donetsk. The officials at the border reassured her that it would soon be possible. But who knows what the truth is – especially now, the 45-year-old quietly says.

She has just arrived in Avilo-Uspenka with her 14-year-old daughter Paulina. She pulls the fur-lined hood of her down jacket low over her face to protect from the wind blowing across the parking lot at the Russian-Ukrainian border. It is located just a kilometer away from where the territory of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic begins – the region under the control of pro-Moscow separatists. And Svetlana’s home.

"The most important thing is that I am bringing my child to relatives where she’ll be safe,” she says. Nobody knows, she points out, what might come next. Particularly given the rapid pace of developments on Monday.

People from the Donbas boarding a bus near the Taganrog train station.

People from the Donbas boarding a bus near the Taganrog train station.

Foto: Maxim Babenko / DER SPIEGEL

Svetlana wants to hear as little about it as possible. Russian television reported that a Russian border post was allegedly destroyed by Ukraine, an allegation that Kyiv quickly denied. The Russian military claimed that it had destroyed two armored personnel carriers and killed five Ukrainians who, according to the Russian army, were trying to cross the border into Russia. Ukraine denied those claims as well. State-owned broadcasters repeatedly reported shots fired from the Ukrainian side in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, resulting in injuries. The reports cannot be confirmed. Russian state propaganda, though, seems to have quickly ramped up to full speed. Late on Monday evening, the media proclaimed that it had been an "important, historic day” for Russia.

The reports have been accompanied by myriad images of women who, like Svetlana, are arriving in Russia with their children. They pull their suitcases across the parking lot, past Svetlana and her daughter and into the tents that have been set up nearby or to the waiting buses.

Howitzers and Tanker Trucks

Russian officials claim that tens of thousands of people have already fled – from the allegedly looming "genocide,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed. The leaders of the two so-called "people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk ordered the "evacuation” of women and children from the area on Friday – paving the way for Putin’s announcement late on Monday that he was officially recognizing the breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine and sending Russian troops into the Donbas.

Those troops can already be seen everywhere in the area during the day on Monday: A long column of howitzers, transport vehicles and tanker trucks drive along a dirt track some 15 kilometers from the border. The vehicles bear license plates from an area located 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away. Another 15 kilometers inside Russia, around 50 armored trucks and tanks are lined up on a field. Soldiers are sitting on top of them watching the cars and trucks drive past, including the numerous buses taking women, children and the elderly from the border region to Taganrog, a city of 250,000 on the Sea of Asov.

Julia from Horlivka with her sons.

Julia from Horlivka with her sons.

Foto: Maxim Babenko / DER SPIEGEL

But only very few people can remain there. The hotels are full, and the health resorts also don’t have any free beds left. The regional government seems poorly prepared for the current situation, with several men and women telling DER SPIEGEL that they were sent from one accommodation to the next over the weekend. Some had to sleep in their cars. Most, though, are nevertheless grateful for the assistance they have received and praise the helpfulness of officials and volunteers.

Trains are now bringing people hundreds of kilometers further north to Voronezh, or to Nizhny Novgorod to the west.

"We Want to Get Back Home"

But not everyone is prepared to go quite that far. Julia, a 39-year-old from Horlivka in eastern Ukraine, comes out of a gymnasium in Taganrog that is now serving as a reception center for refugees, as the people from Donbas are being called. She has applied for the 10,000 rubles (around 115 euros) that Putin has promised the people of Donbas. She says that no matter where she looked for shelter in the area for herself, her two sons and her mother, she was turned away. Finally, a hostel took them in. "We want to get back home as quickly as possible,” she says.

“He gave me a bed, at least.”

Marina, a resident of the Donetsk region, when asked about Putin

Marina, a 42-year-old from Yenakiieve near Donetsk, looks tired as she emerges from the gymnasium. She slept for a bit on a cot inside the building with her husband, 62, and daughter, 19. They then were able to shower and have a bite to eat. "They’re fighting with one another and we’ve been stuck in the middle for years,” she says. Marina hopes that things will quiet down in 10 days, that the Ukrainians and the pro-Russian fighters – she calls them "hooligans” – can reach an agreement. In her town, she says, the sound of artillery impacts was constant. The family would have liked to bring along their car, a red Chevrolet station wagon. "We saved up for a long time to buy it.” When asked whether she sees Putin as her president, Marina grimaces and says: "He gave me a bed, at least.” She is now looking for an apartment where she and her family can stay.

A gymnasium in Taganrog, being used for those who have fled eastern Ukraine.

A gymnasium in Taganrog, being used for those who have fled eastern Ukraine.

Foto: Maxim Babenko / DER SPIEGEL

Other refugees have nothing but effusive praise for Putin, their "protector,” as they call him. Many have had Russian citizenship for quite some time. Some 800,000 Russian passports have been issued to residents of Donbas.

“This is my home and I don’t want to leave. I have my house here. Where should I go in Russia?”

Galina, a resident of the Luhansk region

DER SPIEGEL is not allowed into the gymnasium on this Monday, due to "anti-terror measures,” a police officer says. Journalists from state-controlled media outlets, though, are welcome. The health resorts in the area are also off limits to DER SPIEGEL, due to the "sanitary situation,” as the press office of the regional government says. The reference, of course, is to the coronavirus pandemic, but there are no restrictions for Russian journalists.

"Where Should I Go in Russia?"

Fewer people are pouring into Russia now than in recent days, with the columns of buses growing smaller. Svetlana, back at the parking lot on the border, says that all those wanting to leave have already departed. But many people in the Donbas have ignored the calls to "evacuate.” According to estimates, some 2 million people still live in the areas belonging to the self-proclaimed "people’s republics,” with half of the pre-conflict population of 3.8 million having left since the trouble began in 2014.

Galina, a resident of the Luhansk-area town of Antrazyt in her mid-60s, says over the phone that she plans to stay for the time being. "This is my home and I don’t want to leave. I have my house here. Where should I go in Russia?” She says she wants to wait and see how the situation develops.

Svetlana says it’s hard to understand what is happening. In her hometown of Donetsk, she says, everything was quiet until Denis Pushilin, head of the self-proclaimed People’s Republic of Donetsk, made a video announcement ordering the "evacuation” of women and children and announcing a "general mobilization.” Men able to bear arms were ordered to report to the authorities and would not be allowed to leave the region, Pushilin said. After that, Svetlana says, the sirens went off and everybody received text messages ordering them to leave the area.

That night, the shooting started, says Svetlana, who declined to give her family name out of concern – shared by many – that doing so could create difficulties. There are a number of indications that the video announcement, which immediately preceded Russia’s official recognition of the separatist areas, had been planned for some time. According to the metadata associated with the videos, they were filmed several days prior to broadcast.

"None of the men want to fight.” They’re all just sitting at home in Donetsk waiting to see what happens, she says. "Who are we supposed to fight against? Our relatives?” Svetlana doesn’t just have family in the nearby southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don, but also in areas still under the control of the Ukrainian government.

Will Russia’s recognition of the "people’s republics” will change anything? Svetlana shakes her head, but adds that the people can’t change anything anyway. It all depends on the government. When asked who she is talking about, she says Putin. What happens next is completely up to him, she says. "But we want to finally have peace in our homeland.”

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