Saturday, 23 August 2014

Trust in Kiev evaporates as fighting causes refugee exodus to swell

It took 4 months for the western press to finally report what really is happening in Eastern Ukraine!

Financial Times

By Courtney Weaver in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky and Roman Olearchyk in Kiev

Last September Olga Laskireva dropped off her 20-year-old son in Kiev for his obligatory military service in the Ukrainian army. Nine months later she returned to the capital to pick him up and bring him home.
As residents of Krasnodon, an eastern Ukrainian town less than 20km from the Russian border, the Laskirev family has tried to stay neutral as the Ukrainian army and Russian-backed separatists battle for the Lugansk region. But over the course of four months of heavy fighting, they have begun to blame Ukraine’s new president and the government in Kiev for the conflict.
“Who gives a son a weapon so that he can go and shoot his own mother?” Ms Laskireva says. “That is not right.”

When the artillery fire got so close to Krasnodon that the impact of a mortar shot sent Ms Laskireva’s four-year-old daughter flying to the earth in the playground, she packed their bags and had a neighbour drive them to the first Russian hospital across the border.
Her husband and son have been forbidden to leave Ukrainian territory by the rebels, who are refusing to let any man between the ages of 18 and 60 leave the country. But, as far as Ms Laskireva is concerned, Kiev bears the greater blame.
“I remember the hunger we had in the 1990s [after the collapse of the Soviet Union] – it was terrible,” she says. “But at least the government wasn’t shooting its own people.”
As the Ukrainian army closes in on the rebel strongholds of Donetsk and Lugansk, it faces an enormous challenge winning back not just territory but the trust of the people who once lived there. Many say they have no desire to return once the conflict is over.
Four months of fighting have sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing from the region. They have headed either towards central and western Ukraine or across the border to Russia. They have been living with relatives and friends or staying in tents or converted buildings and factories in makeshift refugee camps, sometimes with hundreds of others.
According to the Ukrainian military some 123,000 civilians have left eastern Ukraine and Crimea over the past few months to move other regions within the country. If those who have fled to Russia are included, the number is significantly higher.
The UN reports that 285,000 people have fled their homes in Ukraine because of the conflict, with 114,000 staying in Ukraine and 168,000 going across over the border.
Irina Ivakhnyuk, deputy director of the department of population at Lomonosov Moscow State University, said she believed the numbers are even greater. This is because many Ukrainians are unlikely to officially register their refugee status in Russia as all those doing so are required to stay on Russian territory for at least a year.
“I know dozens of cases when Ukrainian citizens have come to their relatives or friends in Russia just to run away from the risks of the war for a while and did not register their refugee-like situation with the Russian authorities,” Ms Ivakhnyuk said.
The exodus has raised questions over what the landscape of east Ukraine will look like after the fighting is over.
Coalmines, steel mills and other factories in the broader Donbass region are grinding to a halt as the fighting and exchanges of artillery cause sporadic power outages. Donetsk, the largest separatist stronghold, has become a ghost town by dusk. Even by 1pm most shops and restaurants have shut for fear of being hit by artillery shells.
In Lugansk, street battles have been waged all week in the downtown area as Ukrainian forces confront rebels. The city’s electricity and water were cut off two weeks ago. Close to half of Lugansk’s 400,000 residents are estimated to have fled.
While many residents of Donetsk and Lugansk began the conflict as impartial bystanders, the intensifying violence has put them in the way of shellfire in their residential neighbourhoods.
“People are dying every day as each side accuses the other of shelling innocent civilians,” said Olga, 32, who was fleeing the city of Lugansk this week by train. She said she had been unable to convince her pensioner mother to come with her. “She refused to leave. I don’t know what will happen to her now,” she said, fighting back tears.
Elena Antamonova, who fled Lugansk for the Russian border town of Kamensk-Shakhtinsky with her husband Sergei and young son, said their civilian neighbours had become casualties of the fighting. “They have killed a nine-year-old girl, her mother and father. These people are lying in a morgue now,” Ms Antomonova said angrily.
Sitting in the hospital on the Russian side of the border where her daughter is receiving treatment for wounds sustained from her fall, Ms Laskireva says she loses sleep worrying about her son and husband. They must pass dangerously close to the fighting to commute to their jobs at the coal mine where they work. Sometimes the shelling prevents them from getting to work. Sometimes it stops them leaving.
“Everything was fine. There was some stability,” Ms Laskireva says. “And now we have to run from our homes?”
She and her daughter have been sleeping side by side in twin hospital beds in a room occupied by other refugees. But this week they are due to be released.
“Now,” she says, “we do not know what to do.”

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