Ukrainians in Russia align with Moscow but lament refugee camps
“We spent around two weeks hiding in the cellar. There was no water, heating or light. Outside, neo-Nazis were walking the streets, telling us this is all for our independence referendum in 2014 and we’ll all die here – the Russians will come and slaughter us all,” Tatyana recalled, of the early days of the battle for Mariupol.
While the Russian military is often blamed for the destruction of the city, Tatyana sees things rather differently.
“Since February 24, the Ukrainian side was bombarding the whole city. Until March 16, we didn’t see any Russian forces, only the Ukrainians patrolling our streets and setting up checkpoints, blocking the road. So even if you just went out to see your grandma, you couldn’t come back the same way because the whole road would be blocked.
“On March 16, our neighbour shouted to us that the Ukrainian positions had been broken through. We didn’t hesitate: my husband got in the car and we drove off.”
Tatyana, who asked Al Jazeera to withhold her full name and other personal details, now lives in Moscow with distant relatives and is searching for a job.
By the end of May, Russia’s war on Ukraine had displaced more than six million from their homes, according to the UN. Most headed west – with 3.5 million taking shelter in Poland alone.
However, less attention is paid to the refugees heading east, to Russia.
According to the Ministry of Emergency Situations, more than 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the Russian Federation since February. And many have a very different perspective on the conflict to those interviewed by Western media.
The first wave arrived just before the war began on February 24, when the pro-Russian rebels of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR) in eastern Ukraine announced the evacuation of all women and children from the area before an imminent Ukrainian attack. Men of fighting age were kept behind for mobilisation.
‘An awful day’
Lyubov Gerasimenko, 38, is from Ilovaisk in the region of Donetsk, where a fierce conflict was fought between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces in 2014.
“It was an awful day which I’ll remember for the rest of my life,” she said. “[When the battle began], me and my friend were riding the bus and could hear rumbling in the distance. When we got out, we heard our hometown was being bombarded by planes and missiles. We could see broken windows, wires hanging out, houses smoking in the distance. I rushed home and the kids were nowhere to be found. I realised they were at my father’s house hiding in the cellar, so I ran over there and that’s when a serious crossfire started from all sides.
“The power went out so we had to sit there with matches and candlelight. Then after 10 to 15 minutes of silence, we knew it was over so we could step outside, but as soon as we heard another blast, we all jumped back in the basement because we didn’t know where the next round would hit.”
After the battle, the town came under the control of the DPR.
On February 19 of this year, Lyubov and her younger children joined the evacuation to Russia, taking a train to the border and then onwards to Moscow.
On their arrival, refugees spend a short time in temporary tent accommodation at the border before being bussed across the nation.
Refugee shelters have been set up around the country, in boarding houses, hotels, and children’s summer camps.
There, they are provided with toiletries and clean clothes. Injured pets are seen by vets and children take classes in local schools.
But some of these refugees have complained about feeling stuck at the camps with only minimal help from the government.
“At first, we stayed with our relatives in Moscow, but it was very uncomfortable together and we were offered to stay at a refugee centre. The children needed to go to school and it all seemed to be organised there,” Lyubov told Al Jazeera.
“The conditions at the centre were not bad, but we couldn’t leave or go to work. Our friends and relatives weren’t allowed to visit us, and we couldn’t visit them as guests either. If we left, we had to be back by the evening or we’d be checked out. The camp was somewhere in the forest, so we’d have to walk half an hour through the woods to reach civilisation. We were fed, but the government didn’t [provide us with any money] for four months and we couldn’t work. The kids wanted to eat fruit, and we didn’t have any money. So in the end, I decided to leave and find a job.”
Svetlana Gannushkina, co-founder of Civic Assistance Committee, one of the organisations working with new arrivals, said, “People don’t have money. The promised 10,000 roubles [around $170] are only consistently being handed out in Rostov after a long bureaucratic procedure. Clearly, there wasn’t enough money in the budget to allocate everyone 10,000 roubles. Out of the thousand families we’ve seen, you could count the number who’ve actually been paid on one hand.”
Her organisation has been blacklisted by Russian authorities as a “foreign agent”.
“At the temporary accommodation centres they’re given food and shelter, but a person can’t live without money. That’s their main request to us – please give us something! At first we gave away 5,000 roubles at a time, and you can imagine what it is for a small organisation such as ours to give everyone 5,000 roubles. Our money disappears in a flash.”
Meanwhile, the Russian government has been accused of forcibly relocating civilians from occupied Ukrainian territories, resettling them in remote areas of Russia or using them to film propaganda videos. However, Gannushkina, who has signed an open letter condemning Russia’s military aggression, said she has not encountered cases of people taken against their will.
“I don’t know of any such cases where someone was taken by force, but refugees don’t have a choice,” she said. “Picture yourself sitting in a basement, there’s bombs falling outside, you don’t know what’s happening, the hatch opens and some soldiers tell you there’s a bus, get on board. What would you say? No?”
“But it should be said, many of them wanted to reach Russia – not only from the Donbas but other Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine, as well – but that’s not for me to discuss.”
There are still many Ukrainians, including Tatyana, who share the Kremlin’s anger at what they see as discrimination against Russian-speakers in Ukraine and the alleged role of the West in igniting the conflict.
“There were some complaints about me at work serving customers in Russian. I can speak Ukrainian, but I don’t like it. I was told I have to speak only in Ukrainian,” she said.
“The European governments did this to our city. They are responsible because they supplied the weapons, and because they humiliated us and the Donetsk region for eight years.”
What is certain is that Ukrainian refugees have to pass an opaque “filtration” process. At border crossings, witnesses have reported being interrogated, having their fingerprints taken and the contents of their mobile phones and electronics checked, while soldiers hold onto their passports.
Although most are quickly released, it remains unclear what happens to those who are not.
“The filtration procedure varies, depending where you are,” said Gannushkina.
“We’ve had families who were questioned for 15 to 20 minutes and everyone got through, and then there were times where they were held for five or six hours, stripped and checked for tattoos, and asked questions they couldn’t know the answers to. They’d ask about Ukrainian military positions – what would someone know hiding in the cellar? They don’t even know which direction they’re being fired upon.”
“But the most frightening thing is when someone doesn’t pass filtration. There was a huge Roma family of 36, and all of them passed except one. A young man of around 20 had something off with his passport. In the end, our volunteers managed to find him. But I had another group, three women and one man. The women passed, the man didn’t. When his sister asked the soldier what happens when you don’t pass filtration, [she said] the magnificent warrior replied, ‘I already shot 10, then I got bored and stopped counting.’”
While Gannushkina is often able to locate people through her contacts, in cases such as this, there is nothing she can do.
Al Jazeera was unable to independently verify what happened to the man.
For those who make it safely across, their thoughts remain with their relatives and friends left behind.
Lyubov’s elder sons, aged 18 and 20, were held back to be drafted by the separatists, but they have not yet been deployed to the front line.
“People are still dying there every day,” she said.