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Ukraine

Fleeing from home in Ukraine

Fighting has continued this week in eastern Ukraine with reports of Russian tanks moving into Ukrainian territory. The continued unrest is displacing more and more people west as they flee enforced conscription.

About 50km from the Ukrainian capital, in an undisclosed location, half a dozen families have just moved into temporary accommodation. Children play outside in the sun whilst a group of mothers talk with UNCHR representatives. The families are newly arrived internally displaced persons or IDPs from Ukraine's Donbas region.

Ever since Crimea's March referendum there has been a steady increase in the number of displaced people in Ukraine. The first wave of refugees arrived here after the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation and the second one after the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics merged into a confederation called the Federal State of New Russia.

Food donated by locals and volunteers

Life is hard for IDPs who rely on food donations and help from the UNHCR.

Enforced conscription

Kolya, 28, from Slavyansk left after separatists started recruiting civilian members of the population by force, in some cases even at gun point.

"They also told me to join but I declined. They left me alone, but that was about a month ago. Since then the situation has deteriorated. Now it wouldn't be possible to [refuse]. They just come to your house with automatic rifles and take the boys away, threatening to kill anyone who resists."

Kolya says practically half the separatists fighting in the area are locals.

"My wife's cousin is fighting with the separatists. A couple of weeks back when it was still relatively quiet, he would stay with us on a regular basis, in full kit and armed. I didn't feel comfortable with that. However when the fighting intensified, he left."

When Kolya asked him why was fighting, he would simply say: "I'm fighting out of principle – they told me, so I went."

Roadblocks

On attempting to leave the region Kolya said he encountered a number of separatist roadblocks. They would thoroughly check all the documents and passports, and ask a series of questions and conclude by saying: "Why are you leaving?"

Proud IDP's holding the Ukrainian flag

Many of the people who have fled to Kyiv are proud of being Ukranian.

It was when he reached a roadblock manned by the Ukrainian army that people were given a telephone number to call for help and a place to stay. In Kolya's case, one of his relatives in the Ukrainian National Guard tipped him off about this center for IDPs.

Sadly not all were able to leave Slavyansk. "My mother, grandmother and sisters, they've decided to stay simply because it's too dangerous to get out now. The elderly don't want to leave; they are tied to their roots," Kolya told DW.

Support for separatists dwindling?

When asked what kind of support the separatists have in Slavyansk, he responds: "In the beginning, I would say about 70% of the population supported the separatists, now you have about 40% or maybe even less. The local population initially saw the separatists as Russian liberators, but then they realized they were in fact terrorists."

But it's not just the fear of being forced to join the ranks of the militants, people are also leaving because they're worried about being persecuted for their religious beliefs and ethnicity. People like Tahir who came to Ukraine from Pakistan more than a decade ago. He married a local Ukrainian, and they now have four children. He used to own a bakery not far from the Enakievo Metallurgical Plant. Being one the largest plants in the area, many mill workers would stop by to buy his produce along the way to work. All that is lost to him now. Tahir sees himself as a Ukrainian patriot, but in the end he left his home town because he feared for his family's safety.

"Of course armed groups are patrolling the streets, they even robbed a bank, robbed shops, they chased the mayor out of town, the schools and nurseries are closed. We have four children, three little ones and a teenage boy. They were afraid of walking the streets."

No place for a Ukrainian patriot

But it was not just his Pakistani background that endangered Tahir and his family. He was also known as a Ukrainian patriot and after word got out about his abstention in the referendum held in the Donetsk region on May 11 he was singled out as an enemy of the Donetsk People's Republic. Now that he's found safety he has no intention of returning home.

Proud IDP's holding the Ukrainian flag

Tahir had to flee after word got out he was a Ukranian patriot.

"We will stay here, for the time being at least. It won't be easy for us, but we won't return to Enakievo anymore. I know what to expect there. The people there know me and there is no law and order. We would be living in constant fear."

The same goes for Tatiana from Horlivka. She like many others - received countless threats over the phone, via text messages, email and social media. Speaking the Ukrainian language openly was too risky with armed Pro-Russian separatists roaming the streets and she even had to be careful when talking to friends, neighbors and people in case she let slip that she was against a split and supported the concept of Ukraine as one nation. In the end she couldn't go to work anymore. That was when she decided to pack up and leave with her son.

Unknown future

"The volunteers here have been fantastic. When there was a request to bring something for the children, they were quick to help. They brought them clothes, shoes and food."

IDP children playing in the back garden

The IDPs try and create as normal a life as possible for their children.

There also is a pressing need for more permanent accommodation as well as employment opportunities. Tatiana is thankful for the short-term help but is also looking ahead in terms of job security:

"At the moment we have a roof over our heads, they feed us three times a day, thank God, I don't need anything else. But I am hoping to find a job soon so that we can get back on our feet. The local authorities have been informed of our situation. So now they'll formally register us and provide us with the necessary documents."

IDP's preparing lunch for IDP's

But resources have to be pooled and a lot is shared.

Assistance to IDPs is currently organized through local and regional governments, community-based organizations and volunteers. The main challenge for IDPs is gaining direct access to social services, the issue of long-term accommodation, the transfer of residential documents due to the nature of their relocation, and employment opportunities. With the crisis continuing it remains to be seen how easy those things will be to sort out in the future.

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