KIEV, Ukraine — On the night of April 28, Oleg Saakyan was at home in Donetsk after barely escaping a violent attack by pro-Russian separatists when he got a phone call from one of his friends warning him to get out of town.
Saakyan’s photo, name and address had been posted to a list on VKontakte, a popular Russian social network, with other eastern Ukrainians who had taken part in a pro-Kiev unity march that day, the friend said. The site warned that the people on the list would be hunted down and “taken care of” within 24 hours.
Saakyan packed his bags and headed for Kiev that night.
His exodus from the eastern front of Ukraine’s increasingly violent civil conflict was one in what has become the latest trend in the ongoing crisis. Just as thousands of Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar families fled the Crimean peninsula after Russian troops arrived in late February, volunteers with the loosely formed Eastern SOS group say they are now advocating for what they estimate to be the next large groups of internally displaced Ukrainians, this time from the eastern regions.
“Things are turning into complete banditry in the east, and the government is turning a blind eye to us,” said Kateryna Kyryllova, the chief coordinator for the all-volunteer group, who fled her apartment in Donetsk with her 11-year-old daughter after she started receiving threats by telephone when pictures of her were circulated by social media accounts belonging to pro-Russian rebels.
Several days after the pictures began circulating, masked men holding Molotov gas bombs appeared at the door of Kyryllova’s friend and fellow Ukrainian activist Diana Berg, threatening to attack her if she didn’t stop organizing “fascist marches” with Ukrainian flags. The next day, Berg called Kyryllova to tell her she had fled to the western city of Lviv and advised her friend to get out of Donetsk.
Kyryllova packed her things and her daughter and headed to Kiev, where she is now trying to sort out where she will live and how to enroll her fourth grader into a local school to finish out the year.
Eastern SOS wants the government to recognize that they are internally displaced families needing government assistance.
“None of us came to Kiev because we wanted to,” Kyryllova said. “We came because it’s not safe in the east anymore if you believe you still live in a country called Ukraine.”
Since early April — when armed, masked pro-Russian separatist groups began seizing and occupying government buildings and police stations in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk — violence and lawlessness have risen sharply in the cities and towns of that heavily industrialized part of the country. Violent clashes between pro-Russian separatists and pro-unity Ukrainians have injured hundreds and killed scores in Odessa, Donetsk and Mariupol.
The Ukrainian government’s antiterrorist operation has added to the violence, as seemingly haphazard attempts to oust the separatist rebel groups from eastern cities like Slovyansk, Kramatorsk and Mariupol have resulted in more deaths and clashes with civilians. Chaos ensued in Mariupol last Friday, a public holiday commemorating the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, after government forces tried to recapture the police station being held by separatist rebels. With no police in sight, looting and vandalism took over the usually calm city center, located on the Sea of Azov.
There, as in other eastern cities where Ukrainian government forces have conducted the antiterrorism operation, many locals blamed the Kiev central government for the violence, saying it was evidence that the Western-leaning interim government was willing to shoot at Ukrainians. It drove many locals to support a referendum Sunday on sovereignty that was organized by rebels with the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, Saakyan said.
“The problem with the antiterrorist operation’s failure is that it’s making it easy for people to believe whatever they are being told on the Russian television about us being fascists, Banderites,” he said, referring to a derogatory term used to describe western Ukrainians. “The government sees what’s happening, they know we are here, but they are doing nothing. It makes it look like they are supporting the separatists.”
When Russian soldiers occupied Crimea, the Ukrainian government responded by setting up a hotline for those needing relocation assistance, including job placement assistance, school registration and pension inquiries. Social network sites sprang up, with volunteers across the country offering to house families seeking to leave Crimea after Russia annexed the peninsula. Thousands of families received help from the services.
The situation in the east is exactly the same as it was in Crimea, Saakyan said. The rebels took over government buildings, held a referendum discredited by the central government, and then declared themselves independent from Kiev. On Wednesday night, the rebels gave Ukraine 24 hours to remove its troops from the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic.
Despite the similarities between the Crimean refugees and those fleeing the volatile east, there have been no assistance programs set up to address the growing number of displaced eastern families, Kyryllova said.
Fed up with the lack of response from Kiev, Saakyan decided to take action Wednesday. With about a dozen other eastern Ukrainian “refugees,” he rolled his suitcases to the steps of the Ukrainian parliament and demanded that someone from the administration of acting President Oleksandr Turchynov hear them out.
Inside the Soviet-era parliament building in central Kiev on Wednesday, Turchynov was hosting the first of what are planned to be several roundtable discussions between regional leaders and government ministers. The discussions are meant to address regional concerns in an attempt to defuse the crisis in Ukraine. The international community, including the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United States and Russia, has said regional dialogue is paramount to stabilizing Ukraine.
Kiev has repeatedly said it would not recognize the rebels “with blood on their hands” in discussions, but it has invited regional Kiev-appointed governors and politicians to the talks.
Saakyan and the other protesters weren’t allowed in, which infuriated the group.
“We’re the most patriotic people in eastern Ukraine, and they won’t listen to us,” said Veronika Mironivka, a journalist from Donetsk, who fled after rebels broke into her website’s office and threatened staff for “publishing lies.” It was one of several local news outlets threatened by armed rebels in the past month, forcing some to close their editorial offices in Donetsk.
“The situation is really difficult,” Mironivka said. “My husband and I can stay with friends for a while, but I feel like a refugee in my own country.”