Hope dwindling for Ukraine’s displaced

In a small town of Svyatohirsk, prayers and charity are what sustain a growing number of the internally displaced

Orthodox faithful head to the Svyatohirsk caves and monastery complex on the Seversky Donets river during Orthodox Easter, April 12, 2015. Many had to leave their homes because of fighting and now live in rundown motels and summer camps in the surrounding forest.
John Wendle

SVYATOHIRSK, Ukraine — The otherworldly chant of the monks rose from the onion-domed chapel and seemed to emanate from the very cliffs themselves, drifting through the narrow apertures of the complex of caves that Orthodox monks had dug by hand here at the Svyatohirsk Monastery some 500 years ago to escape the temptations — and horrors — of the world.

The joyful sound floated across the Seversky Donets river, drawing in the crowds of faithful celebrating Orthodox Easter.

At the Holy Church of the Intercession, a priest in a flowing beard and black robes flicked holy water over the throng.

Andrei Gontsov took his two sons to church that morning. Like hundreds of others here, they have been displaced by the fighting that has ripped Ukraine apart for the past year.

"We prayed for peace this morning. We went to church early to be blessed," said Gonstov, a miner in his previous life. "I’m not a religious man, but we pray more now."

This peaceful scene stood in sharp contrast to the horrors he witnessed just two months ago. As mortars, shells and rockets screamed through the air early this February, he, his wife and their sons hid in their cellar in Chornukhinye, a tiny village on the front line of fighting between Ukrainian and pro-Russian rebel forces in Debaltseve, a strategic rail hub town just a short walk from their house.

The family was rattled as a mortar slammed into the frozen earth nearby. Blasts shook the cottage to its foundations. When Gonstov was finally able to emerge the next morning, he saw the bomb blew a crater just 3 meters from the cellar door.

"When it fell," he said, "the house shook so hard, I thought it would collapse and bury us alive."

Gontsov, 38, has smiling blue eyes and a friendly attitude mirrored in a round face that never betrays he is living through the toughest days of his life.

Like many of the estimated 1.2 million people displaced within Ukraine by the fighting, he is living in a kind of limbo — a wilderness in which he has no money, no work, no official status and no home. Eastern Ukraine is in a similar situation, sunk in a cease-fire that has turned bloody again, with six servicemen dead and 12 wounded on Monday — while both sides claim the other is building up for an offensive once the warm weather comes.

"In the winter, when the fighting was the most intense, we’d run to the shop quickly to buy some food and then run home, put on our heaviest jackets and get into the root cellar just in case something happened, so we could live," Gontsov said, describing the situation ahead of the Minsk II cease-fire deal signed on Feb. 12. "Our village is on the road, so to get to Debaltseve, the militias had to go through us."

‘There was no way out’

On Feb. 5 the situation began to seem unbearable.

"A piece of shrapnel killed my neighbor," he said. "It tore his head off. He was 50. We buried him in the kitchen garden behind his house." His aunt was later injured when she was hit in the stomach with shrapnel.

Gonstov’s house was peppered with shrapnel, and all the windows were blown out by repeated bomb blasts. All the neighboring houses took direct hits.

The next day, the bombardment lifted briefly, and he decided to move his sons —Vladimir, 16, and Maksim, 12 — to a deeper shelter.

“We had about 15 minutes to gather our things and run to the bomb shelter. We were in there for about 30 minutes. It was humid and hot, and all the babies were crying. We could hear explosions outside. We heard a convoy would come for us, and we decided to run for it,” said Vladimir.

"My mom was at work, and she didn’t have time to get to us. That’s how we got separated from her," said Vladimir. She is now stuck on the other side of an increasingly hot cease-fire line, taking care of her mother and trying to make sure the house is not looted.

"There was no other way out for us. We were trapped. We ran with the clothes we had on our backs," said Gonstov.

He was told a second transport could get his wife out, but their road was under fire with heavy artillery. He has been able to talk to her only a few times in the past two months.

She told him that food is scarce and that no one is being paid. But Gonstov and his boys might be in a worse situation.

On Feb. 7, they and some 1,500 other internally displaced people (IDPs) arrived in the town of Svyatohirsk. The jumble of Soviet-era summer camps and newer log cabin resorts surround a revered 600-year-old monastery and cave complex. Dilapidated cabins and motels have been absorbing the influx of IDPs since fighting began, and they are stretched beyond their capacity.

"Right now there are 400 refugees in the monastery and 120 children. After the battle at Debaltseve, 850 showed up at the monastery in one day. That number always increases after big battles," said Father Mefodiy, a priest at the monastery.

Gonstov and his sons are staying in a summer camp on the main street, up the road from the monastery. The family shares a single room about 4 meters by 3 meters on the sixth floor of an old Soviet building. He has a small bed to the side, and the boys sleep on a foldout couch taking up most of the room. Onions, a knife and some plates sit on a nicked and scratched bookshelf in a corner, and a pile of donated winter clothes is stacked in bags in another corner.

The family has no money and is living on charity. This is a new situation for Gonstov, who worked in a government mine near his village for seven years and earned about $500 a month — a good salary in this region. He was last paid in May 2014, and the money has long since run out.

"We waited for more, but it never came," he said.

Bureaucratic limbo

Vladimir, Andrei and Maksim Gontsov in their small room in a summer camp in Svyatohirsk. They fled fighting in the village of Chornukhinye, near the town of Debaltseve in February.
John Wendle

Many other government employees still receive a small salary even if they cannot work because of the war. But the mine where Gontsov worked is in rebel-held territory, making him, through a bureaucratic glitch, ineligible to receive pay, even though he is living in government-controlled territory.

Making his family’s situation even more tenuous, he is not technically an IDP according to the government. His village, Chornukhinye, is not on a government list of rebel-held settlements. Because his village is still, on paper, under government control, he cannot apply for the 800 grivna (about $34) monthly allowance he would be entitled to as an IDP with two children.

"This means we can’t claim status as refugees. There has been no decision on the status of our village. It wouldn’t be much anyway, but at least it would be something," he said.

"According to the IDP law, there is no geographic criteria. It is quite general. The government issued a resolution with a list of settlements from which people can apply for status as IDPs in October and updated the list in February, but some villages and settlements such as Chornukhinye remain off the list," said Nina Sorokopud, a public information officer at the United Nation’s High Commission for Refugees.

"The situation is quite challenging. Many people have lost everything. They have lost their jobs, their life savings and their homes. They have been separated from their families, and they need psychological support. They need assistance in recovering their livelihoods. These are immediate needs," she said.

Compounding these stresses is the widespread belief that foreign aid agencies will lose interest in the plight of the country’s IDPs as the war drags on. That the cease-fire will be broken and fighting will begin again is another common cause for concern.

Pavel Drozd, a local restaurant owner, has helped lead the humanitarian response in Svyatohirsk. In January he set up Slavic Hearts, a nonprofit to help the IDPs there. He says the situation has deteriorated.

"Without the European and international NGOs, I don’t know what we would do. The Ukrainian government is basically giving us nothing now. All of the government’s help has dried up," he said. "The bigger problem is that the weather is becoming warm, and so fighting will start soon — if we can’t say that it has already started."

He added, "And when it starts again, it will go to the end. One or the other side will go for an all-out victory this time."

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