When Russian-backed forces seized public buildings in eastern Ukraine, unleashing the ongoing conflict, many Ukrainians thought the crisis would not last very long. Two years later, with western sanctions and two peace agreements failing to stop Russia’s intervention, the war continues and many of those displaced see little hope that they will get to go home anytime soon.
“Around four one morning, my friend called me and said, ‘Viktoria, it’s actually very dangerous now, armored vehicles are coming in,’” Viktoria Vasilevskaya, a mother of three, told VOA, describing a phone call in 2014 that caused her and her family to flee her home city of Luhansk, now held by pro-Russian separatists.
Vasilevskaya, her husband, and her children then became part of the 1.4 million people the Ukrainian government says are internally displaced by the conflict.
The family arrived in Kyiv with only a few belongings and nowhere to live. “We felt alone,” said Vasilevskaya.
In Luhansk, the couple and their children had enjoyed a comfortable life. She is a dermatologist and he is a professional physical trainer. Together, they had renovated their apartment and taken a vacation abroad just before the start of the war.
"I don’t know why but it seemed that in two weeks everything would settle down, everything would be resolved, and everything would be good,” Vasilevskaya said.
Viktoria Vasilevskaya says she will not return to her home city of Luhansk as long as it is under control of separatists. (L. Ramirez/VOA)
But the crisis was not to be short-lived.
International efforts have failed to stop the conflict and there is a perception here that the world’s interest is turning away as the West focuses on the war in Syria and the Islamic State threat.
Indications that Germany and France may call for the EU to allow sanctions to expire at the end of the year are causing alarm among Ukrainians. Neither Russia nor Ukraine appears ready to implement the Minsk agreements that were intended to end the conflict.
Russian-backed forces in recent weeks have stepped up their offensive in eastern Ukraine to show that Moscow is not abandoning its efforts even as it fights a war in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Viktor Tukaylo escaped Donbas after his home was shelled. Readjusting to life in another part of the country has been difficult, but he says 'we're surviving.' (L. Ramirez/VOA)
In many ways, life has moved on for Viktoria Vasilevskaya.
She and her husband found an apartment in a grey, Soviet-era apartment block in Troyeshina, an outlying district of Kyiv. Their children settled into their new schools.
Two years into the conflict, newly displaced people are still arriving daily and applying for assistance at the Florivska 9/11 Center, a refugee assistance facility in Kyiv. (L. Ramirez/VOA)
She took a job at the Florivska 9/11 Center in Kyiv’s central Podil area that assists displaced people, and where she herself once got help.
The solidarity and generosity she sees at the center every day make the crisis, for her, bearable. Throughout the morning Wednesday, a succession of donors approached a window in the center’s warehouse and handed bags of used clothing, toys, and other items for distribution to the refugees.
“We got so much help from here, this place showed us we were not alone,” said Vasilevskaya.
The Florivska 9/11 Center in Kyiv. The sign says 'donation reception point'. (L. Ramirez/VOA)
Two years into the conflict, new applications for help come into the center every day. As the war drags on, it becomes to clear to people in eastern Ukraine that the suffering will continue and after holding out for some time, they are choosing to leave.
“None of us could have thought and imagined even in a nightmare that such a war would be happening around us,” said Viktor Tukaylo, who left his home in the Luhansk region after it was shelled. He now works as a volunteer at the center. “I don’t know why, but we were absolutely sure we would not have such a fate.”
Lingering war zone memories
He, like others who come to the center, left the war zone but brought the shock and trauma with him, including memories of how the separatist fighters forced him to dig graves and bury the dead.
Like others at the center, he holds out hope for better things in a distant future.
“I’m sure that in the end everything will be fine, and we will win the war. But obviously now and for future years, I can’t imagine how Luhansk can come to normal.”
Volunteer receives bag of donations for those displaced from war-torn eastern Ukraine. (L. Ramirez/VOA)
Tukaylo says he tried to hold out but reached a point where he found living under separatists’ control unbearable. “People are now under this Russian propaganda but as soon as the button is switched off, people will come back to normal, and be human again.”
But it remains unclear what it will take to end the conflict.
I asked Vasilevskaya about her thoughts on returning to Luhansk. “If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have said that my suitcases are ready. I would be packed quickly and been ready to go home. Half a year ago, I would probably doubt it, but today I can definitely say that it will be several years before we go there,” she said.