Stories from Ukraine:
the internally displaced struggle to get by

September 18, 2014

NIKOLAEVKA, Ukraine, September 18 (UNHCR) – The old lady sits on the bed staring at the lavatory in her small room.

“I am human, I am not a dog,” she says. “I didn’t ask them to bomb me. I had everything. Now I have nothing.”

Tamara is an internally displaced person (IDP) in eastern Ukraine. The fighting that has raged across the region since the spring has forced at least 310,000 people to flee their homes and register as IDPs. UNHCR officials believe the real number could be much higher. Many simply move in with relatives or friends and don’t tell anyone.

Tamara’s story is more complicated, and sad. She is an internally displaced person in her own town of Nikolaevka, a poor place of 16,000 inhabitants, long ravaged by unemployment.

But after decades of loading coal and saving money, Tamara had a pension and her own apartment with a new TV and refrigerator. Then the conflict came. Artillery shells destroyed her apartment building around the corner from the town’s Avenue of Peace. She escaped the collapsing building and the ensuing fire in the clothes she was wearing.

“I stood there and my tears were falling. I didn’t mean to cry, but my tears were falling. And they have been falling for two months already, and now the third.”

The town had nothing to offer her except dank and rundown dormitory rooms. Three times she moved. In her present place the walls leak and the wallpaper peels. She had to replace the smashed window panes with her pension money.

At the beginning of July, Nikolaevka was one of the centres of conflict. Now it is a haven for IDPs, more than 170 of them, who have fled from areas further south where the conflict carried on.

Once a week Tamara hobbles to the town hall to receive an aid package distributed by UNHCR – food, lavatory paper and other basic necessities. She is joined by the other IDPs, both from the town and from outside. The local administration can offer them little, the national government almost nothing.

UNHCR’s representative in Ukraine, Oldřich Andrýsek, said the government needed to do more. “The Ukrainian government, with many competing priorities – presidential elections, now parliamentary elections, the loss of Crimea – cannot focus on the displacement issue,” he noted.

“It’s focused itself on regaining control over non-government-controlled territory and it somehow is not devoting enough resources and attention to helping the IDPs,” Andrýsek added.

Among the IDPs is Sveta. She fled her eastern Ukraine home town of Debaltsevo four times over the summer, going back three times, each time hoping the fighting had stopped, each time discovering she was wrong.

She came to Nikolaevka at the end of August with her husband and three children. Her husband immediately went back to Debaltsevo to watch over their apartment. Sveta’s children are in school in Nikolaevka, the local people have been kind, but Sveta is bitter at the lack of official clarity and help.

“At the moment I don’t see any future,” she said. “No one knows the truth. No one speaks the truth. I don’t believe anyone, I don’t believe anyone.”

Sveta said she would like to return home with the ceasefire but still doesn’t dare. She talks on the phone every day, sometimes every hour, with her husband. But there’s still shooting.

She has, at least, a home that she might be able to return to. Tamara has only the crumbling dormitory building and her small room. In it she sits on the bed and stares out through the glass she installed. She sees the rubble of destroyed buildings among the trees. She sees her past, and doesn’t see a future. “They [the authorities] say they will give a new apartment – when they build it. So for now I have this. I am alone. I’m of use to no one.”

By Don Murray in Nikolaevka, Ukraine