‘Kiev has just forgotten about us’: Eastern Ukrainian evacuees scrape by

by @SabraAyres February 17, 2015 11:30AM ET

Thousands flee eastern Ukrainian fighting, which continues to rage after cease-fire between pro-Russian rebels and Kiev

Ukraine Crisis
Members of the Ryzhkov family, who fled fighting in the heavily contested town of Debaltseve, in a wagon they live in at the train station in Slovyansk in eastern Ukraine.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

SLOVYANSK, Ukraine — Since her narrow escape from embattled Debaltseve last week, Tatiana Yasko has moved three times, shifting her plastic bag of belongings and her disabled husband from one stationary train wagon to another to make room for more displaced people.

She is, she said, barely holding herself together. Her despair was tangible behind the cloud of cigarette smoke filling the wagon’s corridor as she described life as an evacuee from the war between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed rebels in the east.

At night, it’s quiet enough to sleep in the cramped quarters of train No. 9/10’s third-class sleeper car, which once ran the Donetsk-Moscow route before war destroyed railroads across much of eastern Ukraine. The car sits with six others on tracks behind Slovyansk’s station, where they serve as temporary housing for a handful of the thousands of evacuees pouring into this small eastern city about 50 miles from the front line.

A coal-fired furnace keeps the wagons warm, but there’s no water or electricity, and the nearest toilet is two cars down. Yasko; her husband, Mikhail, 66; and daughter Ira, 43, have claimed a three-bunk section of the wagon. They are surrounded by dozens of bunks with other evacuees from cities and towns destroyed by shelling and heavy artillery. Strangers before, they are now bound together by war’s communality.

“Imagine having to go through all of this at our age, when we are supposed to be enjoying our retirement?” Yasko said. “I hope [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko’s children and grandchildren and their grandchildren never forget how we are suffering in this situation.”

People displaced by fighting in eastern Ukraine line up for lunch at a sanatorium where they have taken refuge on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Feb. 12.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
People displaced by the fighting in a tent where free secondhand clothes are being distributed, at the train station in Slovyansk, Feb. 9.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

Yasko’s stay in the train car may be short term. A massive network of volunteers, who have rallied across Ukraine in the wake of the now 10-month conflict, has compiled lists of families willing to take in the growing number of evacuees. But another move offers little comfort to the former nurse, whose future has changed course drastically in her twilight years.

Debaltseve evacuees like her tell horrific stories about survival in the bombed-out city. Almost the entire civilian population is living underground in Soviet-era bomb shelters and apartment building basements to take cover from a barrage of heavy shelling that has been nonstop since mid-January. The fighting has destroyed the city’s infrastructure, and there is no water, power or heat. Some former residents estimate nearly 90 percent of the city has been destroyed.

“There are corpses just lying in the doorways of bombed-out buildings,” Yasko said. “Who’s going to come get them? Who cares about them?”

A Feb. 15 cease-fire brokered in Minsk, Belarus, last week between the Kiev government and the rebels was intended to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine and make space for political dialogue. But within the first few hours, each side was accusing the other of violations.

Most of the violations were in and around Debaltseve, where it is believed several thousand Ukrainian troops are trying to hold their position. Ukrainian officials have declined to give exact troop numbers. Rebel leaders claim they have surrounded them.

At the sanatorium in Kharkiv, a woman after receiving a phone call from a neighbor in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk that the apartment building where her ailing father lives was hit by shelling — a report that turned out to be not true.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

Debaltseve, a regional transportation hub and railroad depot, has the misfortune of being a strategic connector between the two rebel territories of the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk people’s republics. The pro-Russian rebels claim it’s within their territory, while Kiev says that according to the Minsk agreement signed on Feb. 12, Debaltseve is Ukrainian territory.

As fighting raged on in Debaltseve days into the cease-fire, there are dozens of Ukrainian fighters left wounded inside and unable to get out. Kiev has declined the rebel government’s offer to create a safe corridor out of the city if the Ukrainian soldiers give up their weapons.

Few Ukrainians have much faith in the current cease-fire after previous attempts failed. The most prevalent rhetoric heard from the evacuees is that no one from Debaltseve cares who will be president or which flag is flying, as long as there is a stop to the relentless destruction and mounting civilian death toll.

Evacuees eating lunch in the canteen at the Pearl of Donetsk sanatorium in Svyatogorsk, Feb. 9.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America
Denis Golba with his daughter Nikita on Feb. 9 at the Pearl of Donetsk, where they went to escape the fighting in eastern Ukraine.
Brendan Hoffman for Al Jazeera America

“We just want them to stop shooting at us, whoever it is,” said Maxim, a fireman from Debaltseve who left on Jan. 30. He declined to give his last name because he feared reprisals. Both sides were and are firing on each other in and around the city, he said.

He is living now with his wife and toddler in a room at the Pearl of Donetsk, a Soviet-era children’s sanatorium in Svyatohirsk. The facility is a summer camp for children, but today it and half a dozen other camps like it are hosting an estimated 5,000 evacuees from Debaltseve and Horlivka, another eastern Ukrainian city teetering on collapse after months of heavy fighting.

“The politicians are acting like a bunch of kids in a playground, and they need to find a solution to this now, before there is nothing left of this country,” Maxim said.

Like Yasko’s family, he and hundreds of other evacuees were able to get out of Debaltseve with very few personal belongings. They now rely on humanitarian aid and volunteer groups for food, clothing, medicine and housing.

At the train station and the Pearl of Donetsk camp, two hot meals are served a day for hundreds of families, all prepared by volunteers from donated food.

As a light snow fell midmorning, dozens of evacuees stood in line outside a green army tent set up next to the Slovyansk train station, where Viktor described how his single-family home was destroyed in January by shelling. He had been living in a basement with his wife and teenage son, Ilya, who suffered from an abscessed tooth for days as they waited for space on a bus to get out. When they arrived in Slovyansk, a dentist treated Ilya for free.

“Everything is done by volunteers. Kiev has just forgotten about us,” said Viktor, 54, a welder. He also declined to give his name, saying was too ashamed of his situation, which he described as just “a few steps away from being a bum.”

“We’re pathetic now. This is what we’ve been reduced to — we’re practically begging,” he said.