DONETSK, Ukraine — The director of Donetsk Boarding School No. 1, Olga Volkova, is stuck in a waiting game that has become a nightmare.
On the one hand, there is the threat that Ukraine’s war against the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic will arrive at her doorstep at any moment. Just two days ago, nine civilians were killed in heavy mortar fire in the nearby city of Petrovka, just 12 miles from the center of Donetsk.
On the other, there is the even more immediate issue of the pro-Moscow rebels, who yesterday ordered the director to prepare the more than 120 orphans in her charge for immediate evacuation to Russia.
The rebels said they would arrive at the school with enough buses to take the orphans across the border. By order of the Donetsk’s People Republic, she must have the children, ranging in age from 7 to 18, packed and ready to go when the buses arrive — or else.
Volkova shook her head as she described how helpless she felt in the situation. Though she had been arguing back and forth with the rebels’ minister of social politics for several weeks, she had made no headway in getting them to back down from their demands.
“What can I do if they show up here with Kalashnikovs and buses?” she said as she peered through her office window at the children’s rooms across a grassy courtyard. “It’s just us here. How can we fight back? I will be forced to make a quick decision based on what is best and safest for the kids.”
The situation at the orphanage is an example of the state of confusion and fear felt by those living in rebel-held Donetsk as the population waits out the Ukrainian government's next moves against the separatists. Tens of thousands of eastern Ukrainians with the means to do so have left this city of 1 million, after nearly three months of violent conflict, which has claimed nearly 500 lives.
A day before the shelling, Mariinka’s boarding school for orphans also received a visit from a group of armed rebels from the Donetsk People’s Republic. The gunmen told the school’s director, Nikolai Mysura, they would shoot him if he didn’t allow them to evacuate his 54 orphans to Russia. That night, Mysura piled the children into a bus and took them to Volkova’s school.
Together, Mysura and Volkova now have 128 children housed in the Donetsk facility, a brightly painted yellow campus built in 1959 and recently given a cheery remodel. “We can’t let the militiamen take the kids,” Mysura said, as his eyes filled with tears. “Maybe this is just a PR move for them to show the Russian media that they are ‘saving’ Donbass children. We don’t know.”
Mysura and Volkova’s greatest fear was that the rebels would use the children as human shields in its war with Ukrainian government forces.
The rebels visited the orphanage school once before, taking the younger students into a closed room and asking them how the director and her staff treated them. The students later said they were asked, Don’t you want to go to Russia, where it will be safer?