Russia offers Ukrainian refugees chance for ‘new life’
"The bus for Irkutsk leaves in an hour", the loudspeaker blares. Messages broadcast over the tent camp remind refugees from Ukraine's civil war that their "new life" awaits them here in Russia.
Just a few kilometres inside the border, with artillery fire popping in the far distance, those who have fled the fighting lean against a dusty Lada car and watch a bus pull in to carry other refugees away.
Major Likhov, a representative of the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry at the camp, says the refugees have the right to stay in the camp three days, and then need to choose a new home.
“After that they have to leave — either on their own way, or to Irkutsk (eastern Siberia) … or other Russian cities which have agreed to take a number of refugees from Ukraine,” he said.
There are perhaps some 1,300 refugees staying in over 50 tents set up at the camp, plus another few dozen living in vehicles parked nearby.
Other cities on offer to the Russian-speaking refugees are Chelyabinsk in the Ural mountains, the city of Ufa located north of Kazakstan, or to Vladimir to northeast of Moscow.
– ‘Start my life anew’ –
Seventy-three-year-old Alexander has decided to go to Irkutsk, where the authorities have promised housing plus jobs for his two nephews.
“Can you believe it, just two days ago I was having breakfast in Lugansk in the apartment in which I was born, and now it no longer exists. It’s been destroyed, and now, at my age, I have to start my life over in Irkutsk,” he kept repeating.
Like most of the Russian-speaking refugees in the Donetsk camp, he does not hide his support for the pro-Russian separatist rebels who have been battling Kiev’s government forces in eastern Ukraine for four months.
The fighting has claimed more than 2,000 lives and some 5,000 people have been injured, according to UN figures.
Dmitry and Anna fled with their two children a village outside of Lugansk, where fighting has intensified in recent days Ukrainian soldiers have moved in to reclaim part of the city from rebels.
“Leaving will allow us to turn the page,” said Anna.
“Our children will be able to go to school normally and grow up without anyone accusing them of being on one side or the other,” she added.
– ‘Build a new life’ –
Dmitry said when he gets his first wages from his new job they would buy new clothes, pots and then a refrigerator.
“Little by little, we’ll build ourselves a new life in Russia better than the one we had in Ukraine,” he said.
Russia’s southern Rostov region, where the tent camp is located, cannot absorb the flow of Ukrainians seeking shelter, regional official Alexander Titov said.
Instead it is becoming “a transit area” toward other regions which can take them in.
Titvo said 1,200 refugees who agreed to move had been relocated to other Russian cities within the past 24 hours.
Russian authorities said at the beginning of the week that about 58,000 refugees were in temporary camps and 38,000 had been transported to other regions.
Some still hold out hope for a peace that will allow them to go home to Ukraine.
Galina has been sleeping with her husband in a small van for the past two weeks.
“I still hope that the war will finish before the winter starts as it will be too cold to stay here,” she said, adding that they would not be heading elsewhere into Russia.
“Those who are leaving are the ones who have lost hope of finding their home standing.”
– ‘That’s so far’ –
Their neighbours are a young Ukrainian couple and their three-year-old son, who still, impulsively, throws himself to the ground when he hears loud noises “to escape the planes”.
They also aren’t ready to resettle in one of the Russian cities.
“It’s so far! I just can’t bring myself to leave my parents behind,” said Olga, seven months pregnant.
“Maybe if we learn that our house burned down and my parents rejoin us, then we’ll leave too.”
Her husband wears combat fatigues and says he fought with pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine.
“We are grateful that Russia has offered us start again,” he said.
“But how can we abandon our country?”