Winter Is Coming For The Half-Million IDPs Who Fled Fighting In Eastern Ukraine

November 20, 2014
Maksim, who is a year and a half old, is from Donetsk | Simon Peek

Kiev — During a midnight cab-ride, the taxi driver tells me: “No, no, I’m not a Kievyanin. ’I’m from Donetsk. Back home I was a manager, small company, we sold and installed air-conditioning.”

The chauffeur tells a sad tale that is heard all over Kiev currently, but he is one of the lucky ones. Despite the evident fortune that he got out of Donetsk unharmed and together with his family, he has work. Which, despite having to scale down his career path, is something many IDPs are hoping for.

There are at least 450,00 internally displaced people, or IDPs in Ukraine according to the latest data published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on November 6.

According to that report, more than ninety-five percent of these people have fled from eastern Ukraine as a result of the ongoing violence there; the remainder, 19,157 persons, came from Crimea after it was annexed by Russia.

At a parking lot nearby the charming Andreyevskiy Descent in Kiev’s old town, several aid huts that are provisionally assembled on the concrete. ‘The Volunteer Hundred’ (Volonterskaya Sotnya), who house this lot, are a local charity organization.

Founded from several volunteers unions by Arseniy Finberg, Alyona Druzhinina and Marina Lisak, the Sotnya support internally displaced people (IDP’s) in Kiev with clothing, toys, weekly food packages and other essentials during their first 45 days in the city, they lend aid to hundreds of people on a daily basis.

“We help 100-200 people a day, and around 900 receive food packages on Saturdays,” Finberg said. The Volunteer Hundred is just one of the many organizations that have come to aid and Kievans have donated enough garments to supply even regional aid associations.

Somewhere around 39,000 people have registered for help in Kiev, and another 14,000 are fanned out in Kiev’s region. But the numbers are far from resembling the true amount of displaced, because not everybody chooses to register.

Those who don’t register are not entitled to any humanitarian or governmental aid, including compensation for damaged property back home, and support from organisations like Sotnya. They are also invisible in the official data, leading unofficial guessed to rise as high as one million IDPs.

Some, who can afford it, stay in the many hostels and hotels that Kiev houses, originally intended for tourists, now filled to the brim with Ukrainians.

“Register? What’s the use?” Maria, a young lawyer from Donetsk said, inhaling her cigarette. Maria stays in a hostel dorm. “The government won’t do anything, they can’t do anything, they don’t have any money, it’s is all being used for other purposes.”

After enduring a two day shelling in a basement with her family, she decided to leave.

“The people of Donetsk were just sitting around, like this,” Maria crossed her arms, “we couldn’t do anything. When it was over I decided there was no point in staying.”

Maria’s parents and grandmother are still in Donetsk, they are unable to travel due to health problems and the pets they have to take care of. Again, a common story for those left behind.

It is not only the cynical and economically independent that shy away from registering. Some, marked by the intimidation they have endured back home, fear registering might do them harm:

“It’s dangerous to register,” Natalia Alexandrevna, a doctor from Donetsk exclaimed. “I don’t know how they get the information, but if you register, your information is being passed on to the DNR. [‘Donetsk People’s Republic’].”

Although her claim is unverified, according to Ms. Alexandrevna this information-leak can lead to threats of bodily harm against the registered or their family members and their property.

Oldrich Andrysek, UNHCR Regional Representative in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine, partially validates Natalia’s concern.

“People are realistically threatened that if they officially leave, their apartments will be nationalized,” he said.

It remains a question whether this situation can be ascribed to a lack of confidentiality of the registrants’ personal information, like Ms. Alexandrevna said, or whether the absence of rule-of-law in the rebel-held territories simple leads to ownership violations – a plausible explanation.

Unfortunately, no government official was available for commentary.

Meanwhile, for the government, the IDP’s are only one of the many acute problems that unexpectedly face Ukraine, but legislation has finally been drafted to aptly assist the displaced:

On October 15, a centralized registration system was launched (before this IDP’s were only locally recorded), and on October 20 the law “On ensuring of rights and freedoms of internally displaced persons,” was passed, defining what exactly an IDP is.

However, it will still take a while before the legislations will be fully operative.

And time is running out when it comes to helping the displaced, because even though the weather has been remarkably cooperative this fall, the ferocious Ukrainian winter is readily approaching.

AP reports of inhumane living conditions for the people who are left behind in Donetsk, about a half of the original population, without heating, running water or even a roof above their heads.

Rebel control thus far has made it impossible to get the necessary security clearance that international aid organizations require to access a region, and government subsidies, like pensions, in many cases haven’t been paid in months.

On October 20, Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Ella Pamfilova told Rossiskaya Gazeta she expected a new wave of refugees from Ukraine in Russia, because, she said, “winter is coming.” Mr. Andrysek shares this concern.

“Yes I also think there will be an upcoming increase [of IDP’s],” Andrysek said. “People will move. When situations become unbearable, people move.”

The increase in military activity due to new arms supplies on the separatists’ side these past weeks do not bode well either.

Kiev, though, as well as Kharkiv, are packed to full capacity, bringing even the people that have registered and found housing to desperation.

“Who needs me here?” Sasha, a twenty-six-year-old sports trainer from Lugansk, asked. “I can’t practice my profession here. I don’t have my diplomas. What can I do? Who needs me here?”

Sasha valiantly added that he would simply go back to Lugansk if circumstances did not improve in a month, to lament only a moment after:

“What would I do there? There are no prospects there, and winter is coming.”