ARTEMIVSK, DONETSK REGION, UKRAINE —
The Russian-backed revolt in eastern Ukraine has forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes, taking an emotional toll. Most of them are in government-controlled parts of the two eastern districts that the rebels claim. One small group huddles in a church hall in the Donetsk Region city of Artemivsk, just 40 kilometers from the front line.
This small unassuming building in a residential neighborhood has become a safe haven.
In the technical jargon of international law, these are ‘internally displaced persons,’ but they call themselves ‘refugees.’
Paul is a protestant pastor. He fled the rebel stronghold 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 to my life," said Paul.
These people led simple lives in small towns and villages before the Ukrainian revolution a year ago. Shortly afterwards, Russian President Vladimir Putin sparked a revolt in eastern Ukraine by residents who feel a traditional, cultural allegiance to Russia, and fear Ukraine’s shift toward the West.
But these ‘refugees,’ although Russian speakers from the same area, feel the opposite, and have had their lives turned upside down. It was mostly the women who wanted to talk.
“Yesterday, I brought my 90-year-old mother here because during the night a shell landed, at 10pm, right outside our window, and everything was blown to pieces," said Nadezhda.
“I saw the explosions. I saw the shelling. I was afraid to sleep at night. I was afraid if I fell asleep the house would blow up," said Galina - a social worker.
The war and the hasty, sometimes desperate, moves have also been hard on the children, with changes of schools and new social groups to fit into. And they say they miss the friends and family members they left behind.
“I connect with my friends from Avdievka from time to time, when it’s possible, because they have no service, no electricity. It’s really hard for them to charge their phones. If I manage to reach them, my friends tell me there’s shelling every day," said Anya - a student.
Here in the relative safety of Artemivsk, they make the best of it with new friends and donated winter clothes.
“We get help - food and clothes. Because we left in shorts and tee shirts, and now we have full wardrobes. It’s just so nice that the world is thinking about us," said Galina.
“The children are going to school and manage to get music lessons. We’re really trying to make their lives a little closer to the life we had," said Olga - a teacher.
But there is also the nagging fear that the nearby rebels, backed by Russian troops, supplies and training, could force them to flee again.
“I can’t accept the idea of them coming here because they are just annihilating our people, our land. It’s not right. It’s not fair," said Nadezhda.
These people say they hope to go home someday. But peace talks broke down after just a few hours on Saturday. Rhetoric is harsh from both sides. And pressure is growing for the West to provide lethal aid to the Ukrainian military.
They will likely be here, or perhaps farther west, for some time.