Hundreds of thousands of people in eastern Ukraine have fled their homes to escape fighting between government forces and Russian-supported rebels. Most are in government-controlled parts of the two eastern districts that the rebels claim. Under international law, they are called “internally displaced persons.” But they call themselves “refugees.”
VOA visited a small group of these refugees in a church building in the city of Artemivsk, just 40 kilometers from the front lines of the conflict. The refugees believe the building is a safe place for them.
One of the refugees is named Paul. He is the leader of a different church. He fled the rebel-controlled Donetsk City early in the conflict.
“I left at the end of June because it was a quite strange situation. It was difficult to express -- a danger to express -- my point of view. It was a danger for my life.”
Many of the refugees in the church lived in small towns and villages before the Ukrainian revolution took place a year ago. Shortly after the revolution, Russian president Vladimir Putin supported an uprising in eastern Ukraine. Many people there feel closer to Russia and fear what will happen if Ukraine continues to become politically closer to Western nations.
Fleeing their homes
The people VOA interviewed all speak Russian and are from eastern Ukraine. But they do not feel close to Russia. We spoke to a woman named Nadezhda, a church worker.
She says she brought her 90-year-old mother to the church the day before we spoke to her. She says during the night an artillery shell landed near their home, causing great destruction.
Galina is a social worker.
She says she saw the explosions and the shelling. She says she was afraid to sleep at night. She worried that if she slept, the house would blow up.
Fighting affects the children
The fighting in eastern Ukraine has also affected the children who were forced to flee quickly with their families. They attend new schools and must try to make new friends. They say they miss the friends and family members they were once close to.
Anya is a student who fled the conflict.
She says she talks – when she can -- with her friends in the city she fled. But, she says, her friends often do not have telephone service or electricity. She says they struggle to recharge their phones. She says when she is able to talk with them they tell her there is shelling every day.
In the safety of Artemivsk, the refugees try to make new friends.
Galina, the social worker, says they are given food and clothes. She says they fled wearing only summer clothes, like shorts and tee shirts, but now they have winter clothes. She says it is nice that the world is thinking about them.
Olga is a music teacher.
She says the children are going to school and taking music lessons. She says the adults are trying to help the children live normal lives, similar to the ones they had before they fled the fighting.
The fighting continues
But they fear that the rebels will force them to flee again. The rebels are nearby. They are supported by Russian troops, supplies and training.
The church worker named Nadezhda says she cannot accept the idea of the rebels coming because, in her words, they are destroying our people and our land. It is not right, she says. It is not fair.
The refugees say they hope to go home someday. But peace talks between Ukraine’s government and the rebels ended after just a few hours on Saturday. And each side criticizes the other. Pressure is also growing for the West to provide military weapons to the Ukrainian army.
So the refugees will probably stay where they are for a long time. If the fighting reaches Artemivsk they may be forced to flee even farther west.
I’m Kelly Jean Kelly.
VOA Foreign Correspondent Al Pessin reported this story from Artemivsk, Donetsk Region, Ukraine. Christopher Cruise wrote this story in VOA Learning English. Kelly Jean Kelly edited the story.
Words in This Story
displaced – adj. no longer in its original or regular location
front lines – n. area where soldiers are fighting
expressed – v. said or showed one’s thoughts or feelings
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