In just a few weeks, the UN estimates that over 2.5 million refugees have fled Ukraine. Prompted by Russia’s military attack, this is the second great exodus from the country in under a decade. The first came after the events of the 2014 Kiev ‘Maidan,’ which led to the Western-backed overthrow of a democratically elected government, Moscow’s reabsorption of Crimea and an attritional civil war in the Donbass.
Back then, most of those seeking to escape the turmoil chose Poland or Russia, depending on their ethnic, political or traditional leanings. However, at this moment, European Union countries are overwhelmingly the destinations of choice. Nevertheless, a significant amount of people have sought refuge in both Russia itself and in the Donetsk (DPR) and Lugansk (LPR) People’s Republics, which were officially recognised as states by Moscow, last month.
There they receive accommodation, meals, and medical help. But not everybody can leave towns and villages that are under fire right now. Those who have ended up behind the Donbass front lines are also suffering. They have survived shelling and fighting in their towns, and now they are facing a life in ruins. In some places, the new authorities have already restored basic utilities, but there are remote areas that are still desperate for help. These are the places where volunteers go, bringing basic necessities to people.
RT asked Dmitry Plotnikov to go to the Mariupol area with the TYL (Rear)-22 volunteers. He saw with his own eyes how Donbass residents are trying to go back to their normal lives after yet more trauma.
Mariupol is a large city, situated on the Azov Sea, about 50km from the Russian border. It’s also 100km south of the larger Donetsk, which de facto left Kiev’s control, back in 2014. Fighting in the area has been intense, due to its strategic importance and its status as the base of ultra-nationalist Ukrainian fighters, such as the Neo-Nazi Azov battalion.
Volunteers start their days early. They never know where exactly they will be sent on a given day. It depends on the situation near the frontline and army movements – they receive the details at the very last moment.
© Dmitry Plotnikov
Depending on the mission, they have to figure out several things before they move out. First, they need to find a vehicle. If they are going to Bezymennoye, for example, where those from Mariupol’s suburbs go, a regular passenger car would be enough. But if the trip is to the Volnovakha area, they will need to find an SUV or a van, because the road is in really bad shape. Finding a driver is another quest – some have been drafted, others evacuated, or people simply don’t want to go anywhere near the frontline and risk losing or damaging their vehicle. Or worse.
This time, we are scheduled to go to a suburb of Mariupol; the roads are not bad, which means that any car will do. Now we need to get the supplies. Tatiana Kruglova, a TYL-22 coordinator, is holding a long shopping list. We go to a number of grocery stores and pharmacies. Sometimes it takes several trips for the volunteers to fill the orders. Bringing specific things requested by specific people is the main thing.
On her first trip to a new destination, Tatiana brings the bare minimum – water, some food, and personal hygiene items. People will obviously need these things. After she arrives, she talks to people and asks what they specifically need.
The requirements vary greatly depending on the situation in each town or city. Around Volnovakha, where locals are still living in their basements, they need food, drinking water, and warm clothes. In Bezymennoye, all the evacuated people have been provided with temporary accommodation, so their main concern is personal hygiene items and meds.
Tatiana is trying to cater to people’s specific needs, saying that the authorities and major foundations are only vaguely aware of the situation on the ground and typically arrange standard humanitarian aid shipments. This means some things may be in excess, while there is a shortage of others. This is how the stories about the humanitarian aid black market appear. Ticking off items on Tatiana’s list, we buy sweets, tea, coffee, disposable plates and cutlery, cigarettes, and pet food. At the healthcare workers’ request, we venture to the pharmacy to obtain syringes, basic fever-reducing drugs, and sedatives. There is a centralized supply of meds for the evacuated people, but they are always in high demand. We also purchase a blood glucose meter – requested by the temporary accommodation center at the Bezymennoye school.
Tatiana says that state-supplied humanitarian aid covers the basics, while volunteers are more involved in their personal situations and target more specific needs, such as getting a rare drug, bringing a relative, or sending a message.
“Basically, the Ministry of Emergency Situations (EMERCOM) provides food and shelter, while a volunteer will find the exact same toy that a child lost when their house was destroyed. It’s also very important,” she explains. “These things help to marginally improve the lives of the people who are going through an ordeal and give them a little joy. Volunteers are like rays of hope in a way.” – Tatiana Kruglova, TYL project volunteer
The evacuated face numerous problems. Some have had to leave the combat zone on foot, carrying very little with them. Others lost their houses and property as a result of the shelling. There are no ATMs in the DPR, so many people’s savings are still in their accounts with Ukrainian banks.
In addition, the supply chains are in shambles. It’s worse in the villages – there, even if you have money, there is nothing you can buy. The stores and pharmacies are empty, and doctors are unable to reach their patients because of the shelling. Even basic painkillers and fever relief medicines are gone, not to mention drugs for chronic diseases.
On our way to Novoazovsk, I ask Tatiana why she suddenly decided to leave Moscow and rush to Donetsk.
“Right now, I can get to places where others can’t get to. On top of that, and this is very important, I want to document everything: I want to film these people, write down their stories, to use any media available to tell the world about the things happening here,” she says.
She says that everyone affected by the conflict has a powerful, moving story that stays with you for a long time. While personal, these stories are similar at their core. These are accounts of people fleeing from the war zone, of locals getting wounded or having their homes destroyed and their lives ruined.
“The volunteers (most of them, at least) are bats**t insane people,” Tatiana laughs. She says they are always willing to sneak into places where reporters don’t venture and where even the military is nervous to go after reading the reports. “There are often situations when there are still no reports from the area, but the volunteers are already on site handing out aid and helping people.”
Our first stop is at a hospital in Novoazovsk. It does not need much help, but a couple of days ago Tatiana met some wounded people evacuated from nearby Mariupol and promised to come and see them at the hospital.
We quickly get the sweets from the trunk and go up to the surgical ward to see Tamara Ivanovna, a pensioner from Sopyn. Her house was destroyed by the shelling, and she suffered a head injury. The matter-of-fact way she talks about the incident is unnerving – as if it were an everyday trip to the grocery store.
“I was standing there with the right side of my face covered in blood. My neighbors couldn’t even recognize me at first. Actually, I was lucky. A piece of shrapnel shaved off a piece of skin from my head – you could even see the bone – but I got off without any permanent damage. Most importantly, I’ve still got my eyes,” Tamara says. Instead of worrying about her injury, the woman is more concerned about the fate of her dog and cats who ran off during the shelling.
The constant fighting quickly became the new normal for people outside Mariupol. The shooting, the explosions, the deaths of family and friends – these things used to shock and horrify. Now they are accepted as a fact of life.
We leave our massive bags in the hospital and carry on towards Mariupol. There is still much to do today.
The temporary accommodation center in Bezymennoye is much more crowded compared to a few days ago. This is where the DPR Militia brings evacuees from the occupied suburbs of Mariupol. Most of them don’t stay here too long.
Bezymennoye © Dmitry Plotnikov
Some are sent further for more permanent housing at the resorts and recreation centers in the Novoazovsk district. Some choose to stay with their relatives in the DPR, while others go to Russia.
This is where we had to bring the blood glucose meter. The local doctors had complained they didn’t have enough of them.
It’s also where I meet Victoria (or Vika for short), a little girl whose family fled from the Mariupol suburbs. She rushes towards us and gives a warm hug to Tatiana. Her greatest concern is the dogs they had to leave back at home in a rush.
“Could you get them out of there?” she asks. Tatiana is being honest – she can’t promise anything, but she’ll try to talk to the soldiers who are headed that way.
Vika asks for one more favor, and she’s a bit shy to do it – she misses her beauty kit. Tatiana promises to bring her one.
Some might say that’s just nonsense. How can you think about beauty products when people are dying out there? But I believe a child must have a safe place and a piece of their past life, something that feels normal. So I’ll bring it to her. I’ll buy it with my own money if I must.
Meanwhile, Vika brings more people from the temporary accommodation center to meet us. Some hesitate to share their troubles, considering them too small given the circumstances. Since EMERCOM is already providing food and sleeping bags, what else can you ask for? The girl encourages people to share their needs with the volunteers. She makes a very convincing statement –
“All volunteers are kind.” Tatiana writes down all the requests. She promises to send everything with her colleagues from the media if she can’t return to Bezymennoye herself. A note posted by a refugee reads: “Dear friends! Those who have lost contact with me, I’m looking and waiting for you,” accompanied by a name and a phone number. © Dmitry Plotnikov
Among those who talk to us is Roman from the village of Sartana east of Mariupol. Roman was evacuated together with his pregnant wife. She had to be moved to a hospital in Donetsk to give birth soon after. He’s already heard the news – he is a father again, and it’s a girl. They decided to name her Victoria.
Roman asks Tatiana to deliver a note to his wife, since he has no way to contact her. The center has promised to give him a local SIM card soon, but it has not arrived yet. Tatiana takes the note and asks what flowers his wife likes. Roman tries to joke his way out of it, saying that a chocolate cake would be a better option, or some fruit.
Tatiana asks him if he’d be willing to tell his story on camera so that more people could learn firsthand what it was like to survive in a warzone. Roman refuses at first, but soon he can’t stop talking. He recounts everything: The constant shelling; how he, his pregnant wife, and his child were hiding in a cold basement; how Ukrainian Army soldiers denied them safe passage out of Sartana. He stops once he gets to the part where they were taken to this temporary accommodation center. Here, their life is put on hold.
“I’ve got a lot of experience and I can see who really needs help. These people’s stories and these little moments of joy inspire the will to live. They show me that I’m on the right path even when I feel like giving up.” – Tatiana Kruglova, TYL project volunteer
The most horrible thing about the places where the evacuated people are staying is the feeling of utter and complete resignation with what has happened and with whatever the future might hold for them. People here believe they no longer have any control over their lives and that they cannot do or change anything.
However, talking to them helps them shake off some of the shock. After a 20-minute conversation, Roman is already making plans. He says,
“I’m in one piece, so after the war is over, I can help rebuild what’s been destroyed, all the cities, towns and villages.” © Dmitry Plotnikov
There’s one more stop we have to make – for the new arrivals tent camp outside Bezymennoye. We need to drop off a bag of pharmaceuticals with the EMERCOM guys on duty and pick up a new order. We also need to deliver tea, coffee, and plastic dishes and cutlery to the people in the tents. There are many new arrivals coming in every day, so they can use anything they can get. The republic’s authorities simply cannot keep up with the situation, try as they might, and there are always glitches. For example, in some places, there’s a generous supply of toothpaste but no toothbrushes. Such things happen.
People inside a big army tent are sharing stories about how they had to leave their homes and what they had to endure on the way before they ended up here in Bezymennoye. The first thing they ask for, however, when they see us is the latest news. There has been no communication with Mariupol and the suburbs for quite a while. The people here are not from Mariupol, however, but mostly from the nearby towns and villages. The DPR People’s Militia has made it its mission to evacuate local residents from the active combat zone as soon as they manage to enter a town or a village.
One woman tells us a story about how she and her husband were evacuated by soldiers from Mariupol to Bezymennoye. She says,
“I’m 65 and I haven’t seen anything like this my entire life, not even in the movies. And that’s probably just a tiny fraction of what’s going on in the city now, because we don’t know everything.”
It’s already dark when we return to Donetsk. I begin writing, while Tatiana has a much more challenging task to accomplish. She needs to find and deliver a chocolate cake to Roman’s wife. Soon she’ll be on her way, which will take her, once again, closer to the frontline where anything can happen. Tatiana is willing to go to great lengths to keep her word.
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