Ukraine's displaced just want to go home

2014-09-11 10:27
File: AFP

File: AFP

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Mariupol -For the Ukrainians who have fled the war zones of the east, life has become a grim daily grind of battling red tape and trying to find food, jobs and shelter.

"Most of all, we want to go home back to Lugansk," sighed Vasiliy as he cradled his three-month-old baby daughter Camilla at a municipal welfare office in the southeastern port city of Mariupol.

The office has been turned into a centre for the displaced to try to help the thousands who have sought refuge in Mariupol, the only city in the conflict zone that is still in government hands.

Vasiliy said he and his family fled Lugansk, which lies around 20km from the Russian border, embarking on a weeks-long trek across Ukraine before they found a welcome in Mariupol.

"First we went to Kiev, then to Lviv, from Lviv to Uzhgorod and then finally here," he said, referring to the capital and cities hundreds of kilometres away in the far west of Ukraine.

The actual number of displaced

"People out there don't really understand that there is a war here in the east, for them it is something abstract," the 30-year-old told AFP in the courtyard of the building as his wife sorted out paperwork.

"They do not understand the horror of what is happening here."

Ulyana Tokareva, the municipality's director of social services, said there were more than 10 000 registered refugees in Mariupol - with the actual number of displaced probably much higher.

Families are taking advantage of the ceasefire to come to Mariupol, which in the days before the truce had become the latest battleground in the fight between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

Tokareva said her office is bracing for a wave of new arrivals from Novoazovsk, a town about 50km to the east that was seized by the rebels as they launched a counter-offensive in the region, apparently backed by elite Russian troops and firepower.

'Give them stability'

According to latest figures from the UN refugee agency, the conflict has forced more than half a million people in eastern Ukraine to flee their homes, with one official putting the number closer to one million.

About 260 000 have moved to safer havens within Ukraine, while a similar number have sought asylum in Russia, according to the official UN figures.

Tokareva said that on average between 100 and 200 people a day register at her office, where staff offer help on a range of issues including housing and jobs.

"For us the most important thing is to give them some stability so that they can think about the future, and plan ahead, particularly as so many of the families have children," she said.

Women with young children hanging off their arms drifted in and out of the centre as the staff sat at tables in the courtyard, marking off lists.

"We are here to provide help to refugees. We are here to give people pills, medicine, bandages and hygiene products," said Oksana, a nurse.

'All we want is peace'

Other local organisations have also swung into action to help the displaced.

The Red Cross centre is distributing food including sacks of potatoes, clothing and vouchers worth 200 hryvnias ($14) that families can use at a local supermarket.

"They're helping us a lot," said Sveta, a woman originally from Gorlivka near Donetsk, as she left the centre with cough medicine for her children.

"It has really touched us. Hopefully when we get back home, we can pay them back."

Back at the welfare office, Vasiliy said he had faced a bureaucratic nightmare trying to get government help for his family, and did not care who was in power in Ukraine.

"All we want is peace," he said.

"We are just workers, we are not involved in politics. They are fighting for power while normal people suffer."

Read more on:    un  |  ukraine

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