One day residents of Donbass woke up to nothing. People had no jobs. Kids had no school to go to. Banks closed their doors. Food became scarce and expensive.
This is how Olga describes the life after the war in the eastern Ukraine has begun. The other refugee Lyudmila remembers: “We had no money – nothing. Sometimes, we had nothing to eat.” Humanitarian aid from Russia and Ukraine came much later.
Olga’s five-year old daughter Taisia adds: “In Ukraine, when we slept at night, there were always boom-boom sounds. They were shooting.”
Two weeks ago, when the women fled the region, Donbass was still hot with bombings and shootings. The women say the war in Donbass is an unwanted war. People there never wanted to fight.
“It’s an undeclared war. It’s a political war. It’s all politicians – the government of Ukraine. People don’t want this war. The war now involves all countries. Civilians don’t understand why there is war in the eastern part of Ukraine,” Lyudmila says.
The war that started last spring was the consequence of the Ukrainian Revolution. The new government’s hostile policies towards its Russian-speaking population sparked antigovernment protests in southeast of the country. As a result, Crimea joined Russia, Donetsk and Lugansk oblasts declared their intentions to separate from the country. This all brought on the war between Russia and Ukraine.
However, while the two countries are fighting, and the international community is trying to make peace protocols work, women and children are the ones who get caught in the conflict. They flee destroyed homes, seeking asylum in neighbouring countries.
It was last July, when the first refugees appeared in Bor, a small town on the Volga River in Nizhny Novgorod oblast, Russia. Families came dragging their children who only had their summer clothes with them. Many people were sick and injured.
Local residents welcomed them, some people offered refugees to stay in their homes. The town’s Olimp hostel provided each refugee a bed and a meal three times a day. Volunteers poured into the hostel to help. Donations of clothes, toys and treats kept coming.
Over the year, Nizhny Novgorod oblast accepted around thousand refugees. While half of them stayed in the region, others left to seek their fortune in other parts of Russia. Bor’s Olimp now hosts 42 refugees, including 15 children.
No matter how Russia is willing to accept refugees from Donbass, it burdens the country. It costs the country 600 rubles ($12 CAD) per day to host one refugee in the hostel. The Federal Migration Service now counts over a million refugees living across Russia.
According to the federal government program, the refugees can stay in the hostel for one month to legalize their status as a temporary resident, which will provide them free medical insurance and work permission. The government also promised to short track their applications for the citizenship.
Many refugees, however, turned the hostel into a permanent place to live. One family has been living in the hostel for more than a year, during that time they gave birth to their sixth child. With the help of residents, the father found a job at a construction company. The family has no plans or means to move out from the Olimp in near future.
There are also many challenges that come from working with refugees. One of the administrators of the hostel says majority of young men get drunk and brawl every night. Instead of finding jobs, they get cash from helping around.
The administrator says: “There are no rules for them. They smoke in public places.” Moreover, she says, they damage furniture and fight all night.
The problem keeps ongoing because the police can’t do anything. Refugees are not considered constituents under the Russian government. The police can come and try to talk things down, but can’t make arrests.
“We all want to return home. If they are destroyed, we are strong enough to rebuild them.”
Newly-arrived Lyudmila and Olga, however, have no plans to waste time. Lyudmila’s eight-year old daughter was left with her grandmother in Donbass. The woman had enough money to just buy one-way train ticket. She is planning to find a job and bring her daughter to Russia.
The women, nonetheless, are happy that they can sleep and walk in peace. Lyudmila says, she was used to constant “bombings, banging and something exploding”, now she can’t get used to silence.
This is not home though. Both women say they don’t know what would happen next. They, like many people in Donbass, no longer believe in peace agreements. While the international community is trying to help, there are people suffering.
Taisia, too, misses her home and school. Also, her kitten Loki was left with her grandparents. When asked why her grandparents didn’t want to come with them, the girl explains: “They didn’t want to come. Who is going to take care of the cat and dog?
Olga and Lyudmila sit on one of the seven bunk beds in the hostel’s room. Taisia is busy making a bracelet out of colourful beads. Olga prays for war to end and for peace to come.
“We all want to return home. If they are destroyed, we are strong enough to rebuild them. Peace is what matters,” she says with a determined voice.
In the hall, the announcements on the walls that remind the guests to follow the rules are left unread. Tenants walk by them with eyes that reflect nothing but emptiness and uncertainty.
The Olimp’s doors will stay open while the refugees keep coming. They will stop coming only when bombs cease destroying their homes and the world leaders stop playing with Ukraine with carts of their own interests. After all, they shouldn’t forget that they are playing with lives of people.
Full names of the interviewees and their pictures are not printed due to the sensitive nature of the article.