AFTER pro-Russian separatists gained control of key government buildings and infrastructure in the spring of 2014, an armed conflict erupted in the heavily-industrialised Donbas region.
More than three years have passed since the beginning of the war in East Ukraine – causing over thirty thousand military and civilian casualties and forcing over two million to flee their homes.
As a result of fierce fighting that swept through the towns and villages in the first two years of the war, many people left; fleeing to both Central and Western Ukraine and also to Russia.
The conflict has been particularly brutal in terms of the weapons deployed by both sides – mines, heavy artillery and notoriously-inaccurate multiple-launch rocket systems have been used to devastating effect.
Furthermore, both sides have been criticised by international organisations for keeping heavy weapons near schools and residential areas.
This, combined with the illegal use of landmines on both sides, has left a significant area of the region destroyed and uninhabitable.
The decision as to whether to travel East or West has largely depended on familial ties, but the split could also indicate which side of the conflict the person supported.
For Russia, attracting, and subsequently caring for, refugees, is a propaganda goldmine – reinforcing Moscow’s line of protecting Russian-speakers in the region.
According to Russia’s TASS news agency, the Kremlin has simplified the procedure for registration for refugees from Ukraine, and has also created thousands of jobs in the country’s desolate and bleak Far-East and Siberia.
[pullquote]Under International Law, to be classed as a refugee, the person needs to have left their country of residence – otherwise they are known as Internally-Displaced Peoples (IDPs)[/pullquote]
But it is in government-controlled Ukrainian territory where most IDPs end up, and where many face poverty, a lack of access to amenities and housing and severe discrimination from native populations.
According to Kyiv Post journalist Olena Goncharova, who has reported extensively on the issue of IDPs in Ukraine, the biggest challenge for people from Eastern Ukraine is navigating the extensive Soviet-era bureaucracy.
She said: “The main difficulties are to find accommodation, land a good job in a different city or town and register in a new location, which is required to receive government payments, including pensions.”
There are supportive urban myths, which suggest that some landlords advertise apartments while openly stating that Eastern Ukrainians and IDPs need not apply – they say that they are unwilling to rent their apartments to ‘separatists’.
Olena continues: “They usually can’t afford legal aid, too because it’s too expensive. Often IDPs face prejudices from landlords who don’t want to rent an apartment to people from Eastern Ukraine. People leave everything behind and often lack basic things like clothes, shoes.”
While most major rail stations have a designated point for IDPs to register and find help when they first arrive in the city, subsequent support from the government has been criticised as being lacking.
Nina Sorokopud, a spokesman for the UN Refugee Agency echoed these concerns in a recent report, saying: “To date, the government [in Kyiv] has still not adopted a comprehensive durable solutions strategy for IDPs.
“All participants commented on the state of uncertainty about their future, causing a great deal of stress three years after the start of the conflict.”
In the same report, the IDPs themselves described the hardship they faced since leaving their homes.
A 53-year-old man [whose name is withheld for safety reasons], from a town called Stanytsia Luhanska said: ““It is written in the Constitution that the state should protect us as its citizens, but we feel like nobody needs us here.”
Others were more philosophical, however – one woman, aged 50, who moved from Luhansk to Kharkiv, said: ““There are children and youngsters who need to grow up not knowing what the war is about. But for us, it is already entrenched in our souls, in our bodies, we live it. We carry our tragedy inside.”
Further analysis from the UN’s Institution of Migration (IOM) shows that IDPs have a significantly lower standard of living, even for Ukraine.
Their latest survey showed that the average earnings, per month, for an individual IDP was around 75 US dollars, with some earning as little as 50 dollars.
Not only in losing their homes and livelihoods in the East, the Ukrainian IDPs continue to struggle once they leave – especially when the Ukrainian government is ill-experienced and ill-equipped in dealing with the situation.
Manfred Profazi, the IOM’s chief of mission, said: “Lack of support in finding relevant solutions for IDPs and returnees hinders their integration and creates dependencies on Government and aid organizations’ assistance.”
The government’s inability to act has led to a dependence on foreign aid organisations, and while the war endures, this will only continue to be the case.
Unfortunately, despite multiple requests, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian Minister of Temporarily Occupied Territories and IDPs was unavailable for comment.
For some, however, the decision to leave the Eastern regions was out of principle as well as a necessity.
Mikhail Pylypenko is a taxi driver from Donetsk, who told me his tale while driving through the wealthy Podil region of the city.
He said: “I tried to stay after the city was taken over, to continue as normal but we just couldn’t. There was no order, the place was run by criminals.
“It was very dangerous, there was artillery stationed near my son’s school and when it would fire, the ‘reply’ would come back and we would have to hide.”
“There was no freedom of speech and we had to be very careful. I’m glad I came to Kyiv, I don’t worry about what I can or cannot say here, I have my taxi and my family are safe.”
While there are positive stories for some those who left the occupied territories, for man, it seems, the horror and trauma of war have not been left behind.