In his 72 years of life, Ala had to leave his native Lugansk three times. Two were between 2014 and 2015, when civil war ravaged Donbass, Ukraine’s eastern region now at the center of international tensions.
“This time was different, I don’t know where I’m going,” she said at a refugee screening center in the Russian port of Taganrog, on the Azov Sea. The city became the main reference for the redistribution of civilians evacuated at the request of the governments of the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Lugansk.
Now recognized as independent by Vladimir Putin, the entities began the evacuation in an absolutely suspicious way on Friday (18), with a video of the Donetsk leader that had been recorded, according to metadata analysis, two days earlier.
The somewhat farcical air continues in the sports hall of school number 13 in the city of 250,000, which is 55 km from the border of the rebel area of Donetsk and 75 km from the main city of the Rostov region, Rostov-on-Don. A professional photographer painstakingly captured each of the arriving refugees, snarling at the report.
The report could not enter the gymnasium with space for hundreds of refugees. In the previous two days, however, he was introduced to Russian journalists. A monitor on the wall allowed to see parts of the building, but the image of the camp beds was frozen in a photograph.
Other reports, picked up by news agencies in different parts of Rostov’s territory, point to the same script: the announcement took many by surprise, raising the question whether the decision was not designed to thicken Putin’s narrative soup that there is a ” genocide” against the Russian-speaking population of Donbass.
Here comes the drama told by Ala and her daughter Karina, 42, and grandson Mikhail, 16. They chose not to reveal their surname, living from work in a “produkti”, the traditional Russian grocery stores. According to the grandmother, the explosions in Lugansk began “shaking the house at night” since last week.
“My grandson suffers from panic disorder, he had attacks at school, because of fear,” he said. “We got on government buses, which gave us 1,000 rubles (R$63) to leave. At the border, we switched to cramped minibuses, there were four people each way,” he said.
She was not wearing a mask, like her grandson, but unlike her daughter, who was regularizing her registration to gain access to the 10,000 rubles (R$630) promised by Putin to each of the refugees. That’s money for a week in Rostov-on-Don.
The new coronavirus is an additional problem. Russian officials say several positive cases have been isolated among the roughly 80,000 refugees who have already arrived — the suggested evacuation and subsequent man-mobilization by rebel governments aims to get up to 800,000 people out of the Donbass. There are 4 million people in the region.
Ala and his family, however, did not enter the gym for shelter and redistribution. She has a cousin who lives in Rostov-on-Don, and her husband has just arrived to take her home. “I don’t know how long it will last. But I’m grateful to the Russians, without their help I wouldn’t have anything to eat, as the Ukrainian government has cut my pension since 2015,” she said, hoping there would be no open war.
Crying, she says she is tired of the routine, but wants to go home soon. The opposite is done by Katia, 35, a systems analyst from Donetsk. She said she didn’t come with the first wave of refugees and ruled out official help, taking a taxi to the border on her own and then the second.
“I wanted to stay, I said I could live in the basement, but my sister asked me too much. My brothers stayed with my father,” he said. She is now looking to get a job in the regional capital of 1.1 million people, where her sister lives.
Eight Russian regions declared an emergency to access special government credits to receive refugees. In addition to Taganrog, there are centers for the redistribution of people at other smaller points on the border. In many cases, people boarded trains without knowing exactly where they would be resettled.
State TV channel RT has launched a campaign for Russians to temporarily welcome refugees into their homes. In Rostov-on-Don, official advertising is being done on the remaining white elephant of the 2018 World Cup, the Rostov Arena.
The LEDs on its exterior spread, from the speech of recognition of the rebel areas that was well received by Katia, motivational messages such as “We are together”. The stadium itself, which hosted Brazil’s poor debut in that tournament, a 1-1 draw with Switzerland, rarely fills up to receive the local team, but even the pandemic was sustained with great shows.
The regional capital has not yet felt the impact of the crisis, which is barely mentioned in cafes and restaurants. But its Technical University decided to separate 750 rooms from their dormitories to receive any families that arrive there.
The apparent calm extends all the way along the long, flat road to the border, bordering the Don River, whose basin gives the Donbass its name in Russian, and the Sea of Azov, the first portion of the turbulent Black Sea that bathes the entire conflict area.
This Monday, in the region around Taganrog, there was no movement of military vehicles in the region. On the horizon, two Mi-24 attack helicopters, perhaps their modified Mi-35 version, appeared in the early afternoon, but that was all.
The civil war in Donbass has killed more than 14,000 people, and in Ukrainian-controlled Ukraine alone there are around 1.5 million internally displaced people. Refugees in another country are an uncertain number. So the family stories of Ala, Katia and others fit both Putin’s and the West’s arguments about the crisis, just never their own.