Next stop Russia for those fleeing rebel-held Donetsk

opinion July 18, 2014 00:00

By Agence France-Presse

When young mother Natasha woke up to find her quiet suburb suddenly on the frontline of fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Moscow rebels - she knew it was time to pack up her three kids and get out.

Now they’re waiting anxiously in line with over a hundred others, mainly women, children and elderly from around the main rebel-held city of Donetsk for a bus put on by the separatist authorities to ferry them across the border to Russia. 
“We left everything and fled in a hurry as they were bombarding the town,” Natasha, a resident of the town of Krasnogorivka just outside Donetsk, said. “Everyone who was able to left at top speed.”
Kiev and the West blame Moscow for fuelling the fighting but those leaving the rebels’ self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” say that joining thousands of others who have already headed across the border into Russia is their only hope. 
“I pray one day to come back home, but for now it isn’t possible to live anymore where there is shelling and we have to hide in cellars,” said Viktor Goncherov, 67.
Since Ukraine’s Western-backed President Petro Poroshenko tore up a ceasefire earlier this month, a lightning advance by Ukrainian troops has seen Kiev snatch back a string of key towns and military hardware wheeled to the doorstep of million-strong Donetsk after rebel fighters retreated there. 
Now government forces have surrounded Donetsk in an attempt to cut off supplies to the insurgents, and air strikes and bombardments have become a new reality for those living around the industrial hub.
Rebels have pledged to wage a street-to-street guerrilla campaign and the fear is that the three-month rebellion that has claimed some 600 lives so far could get far more bloody.
The convoy Natasha is waiting for is being organised by the unrecognised rebel state’s “committee for refugees” and officials claim that they have been helping hundreds of people to flee the threatened city on a daily basis.
“Each day there have been at least 450 people leaving,” said Daria Morozova, the head of the committee, adding that there are “900 people” on a waiting list. 
Those being taken out will go to the Rostov region across the frontier in southern Russian where they will first be put up in temporary camps. 
“There are so many of them along the border,” Morozova says, before thanking the Russian government “for its assistance”. 
Following the resumption of heavier fighting after the end of the unsuccessful truce this month the number of those looking to leave has shot up and the rebel refugee committee has grown from half a dozen volunteers to some 40 people. 
But still most of those fleeing the region are doing so under their own steam.
The opposing sides in the conflict have given widely differing figures for the total number displaced by the fighting and have accused each other of manipulating the crisis for propaganda purposes.
Russia’s migration service said on Wednesday that more than 32,000 Ukrainians have applied for temporary asylum, Russia’s RIA Novosti state news agency reported. 
Today the convoy is made up of four modern coaches and a rattling old Hungarian model. 
“Come on, come on: get in any bus you can,” urges volunteer Valentina, telling latecomers to store their bags in the luggage compartment. 
Leaving though without knowing when they will next see their homes is proving a traumatic experience for some of those boarding the vehicles. 
Vera, 65, has spent all her life in the town of Khartzysk, some 40km from Donetsk, and now she’s worried for her son and two daughters who are staying behind.
“They’re refusing to leave. One of my daughters is pregnant and the other one has to stay and take care of the farm.”