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Reporting On Ukraine’s Refugees, At Home And Abroad

Displaced Ukrainians Seek Safety On Both Sides Of Russian Border
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Displaced Ukrainians are seeking safety on both sides of the Russian border.

Russian journalist visits refugees from the fighting in eastern Ukraine, some of whom have fled to Russia, others who are seeking refuge in Ukraine.

Mumin Shakirov, a Moscow-based freelance reporter with RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Radio Svoboda, knew there must be more to the story of Ukraine’s war refugees than was being told by either Kyiv or the Kremlin, so he decided to see for himself, from both sides of the border zone. In a recent video documentary, he traveled to a refugee camp in Russia and a center for internally displaced persons in Ukraine to find out how these people live, what they left behind, why they chose to stay in Ukraine or leave to Russia, and what their hopes are for the future. (Translation from Russian by Zydrone Krasauskiene)

The idea to do a report on Ukrainian refugees came to us in the autumn of 2014, when hundreds of thousands of people fled from the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. Some of these refugees resettled in Ukraine itself, while others moved to Russia. The information war between the Kremlin and Kyiv makes it difficult to determine what is actually happening in southeast Ukraine, how much the people who left the war-torn region are really suffering, what is the exact location of military actions, what the people of the region think, whom they blame for all the troubles, and how they see their future.

I thought it would throw light on the situation if I reported about these two kinds of refugees-- those who had fled to Russia and wanted to stay there, and those who had decided to remain in their home country, Ukraine. So I decided to visit two cities: Russia's Belgorod, and Ukraine's Kharkiv. Both are transit cities with a large influx of refugees and displaced persons from southeastern Ukraine. In the suburbs of these two cities there are camps where refugees take temporary shelter. Before the trip, I collected information about a children's summer camp called "Camp Youth" near Belgorod, and about “Camp Daisy," the one located on the outskirts of Kharkiv. My plan was to investigate the life of the refugees in these two centers of temporary shelter.

Surprisingly, I met with no obstacles. The Russian authorities are spending a lot of money on the reception of refugees from Ukraine before sending them for resettlement to other regions in the country. As it is important for Moscow to show the world that Russia does not abandon her own in trouble, I got permission quite easily to visit Camp Youth.

Mumin Shakirov, a freelance reporter with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Radio Svoboda.
Mumin Shakirov, a freelance reporter with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Radio Svoboda.

Here, refugees live in relatively good conditions. Three meals a day, clean clothes, and baby food are available to them. I suggested to the camp director that we should arrange a gathering around a campfire. He agreed, and brought the wood, lit the fire, and brought tea, sweets, and buns. People were glad to come to talk about their life around the fire. Over two days at camp Camp Youth I collected interesting stories from the refugees, most of whom felt nostalgia for the USSR, and thought that Russia had retained all the features of the decayed Soviet empire, which, of course, fell apart more than 20 years ago. They somehow associated President Putin with a mythical tsar who had the answers to all their problems.

After spending three days in Belgorod and the surrounding area, I left for Kharkiv. Local journalists warned me that the Ukrainian border guards did not allow men between the ages of 16 and 65 into the country, and especially not Russian reporters. And they were right. In Belgorod I boarded a taxi minivan, and an hour later I was at the border. As a Russian citizen, I was interviewed by a senior officer at the Ukrainian checkpoint. I told him honestly that I was a journalist from Moscow, and that I was heading for a camp for displaced people near Kharkiv as part of my work on a report about refugees and their conditions. The Ukrainian military officer carefully checked my documents, put a stamp into my passport, and let me into the country. The distance from Belgorod to Kharkiv is just 90 kilometers, so an hour and a half later I was at Camp Daisy.

Camp Daisy is a private camp owned by a local entrepreneur who decided to help people fleeing eastern Ukraine. He was proud that, as he said, he had managed to substitute for the Ukrainian rescue services. And it is true--the state takes almost no part in looking after the refugees. All the work is done by volunteers, who not only provide temporary shelter for displaced persons, but also collect clothes and food, and sometimes even provide transportation around Ukraine. The portraits of the people at Camp Daisy are different from those refugees who have left Ukraine and have now tied their future to Russia. I can't say that the people at Camp Daisy seemed very patriotic about Ukraine. I did not hear them singing the praises of Ukrainian President Poroshenko, but they did not disparage the authorities in Kyiv either, and they were very reluctant to speak about Putin. They did not want a return to the USSR, and they had an ambiguous attitude to the Maidan, the protest movement that ousted former President Yanukovych in 2014.

What unites these displaced people in the two camps is that they see themselves as victims in this tragedy, and they are looking for security and a chance to return to an ordinary life.