Here in Kiev, the thousands of refugees who have fled eastern Ukraine are invisible. It’s impossible to spot them on the streets: They don’t live in UN tents, or stand in lines for subsidized meals. They look just like everybody else. Legally, they do not exist—after all, it should be impossible to be a refugee in one’s own country.
But as a result of the unrest that has overtaken the country for the past several months, thousands of Ukrainians have fled their homes. I recently met one of them, 28-year-old Eugenia, in a crowded café in Kyiv’s bustling downtown—the city has all but returned to business-as-usual since the revolution. Still, Eugenia lowered her voice and glanced around as she began telling me of how she fled her hometown of Mariupol, in the rebellious Donetsk province. (Eugenia asked that I not publish her last name as her mother is still in Mariupol.)
“I want to get back so bad, but they will kill me,” she said. “People like me are disappearing there all the time. I even saw guys stopping a car and kidnapping a pro-Ukraine activists just in the middle of the street.”
The death toll in eastern Ukraine, where the vast majority of the fighting has taken place, has climbed to well over 200, making this the most violent crisis Ukraine has seen since World War II. The number of internal refugees also continues to rise rapidly. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) says the crisis has displaced an estimated 10,000 civilians; most are from Crimea, and almost one-third are children. Ukrainian activists in Donetsk say that the amount of internal refugees from their region might also be in the thousands, but it’s harder to measure because unlike Crimeans, internal refugees don’t have to cross a border.
Ukrainians have fled their homes for a number of reasons, all stemming from the tenuous political situation. “People cite fear of persecution because of ethnicity or religious beliefs or, in the case of journalists, human rights activists and among intellectuals, due to their activities or professions. Others say they could no longer keep their businesses open,” UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards told journalists in Geneva.
Eugenia found she could no longer keep the family business open after violence overtook Mariupol earlier this month. She is ethnically Russian, but considers herself a pro-Ukraine activist. When the National Guard entered the rioting city on May 10, Eugenia and other locals provided them with provisions and helped with logistics.
The soldiers needed all the help they could get. "I was shocked by how disorganized and unprepared Ukrainian army was,” Eugenia told me. ”I even had to bring maps of the city for them. At the some point they were chaotically riding their armored vehicles through the downtown, because they were lost.”
Eight people died in the standoff between the National Guard and local separatists that day. Someone traced Eugenia’s car, and later that evening she received a call from a friend, a member of the local police, urging her to stop helping Ukrainian soldiers. As in so many other towns, the police of Mariupol had decided to switch sides and support the separatists. They had already placed Eugenia on their watch-list, she says. Death threats followed. Eugenia soon closed down her business for good, packed her bags, and left for Kiev. Her mother remains in Mariupol.
"I’m happy I’m safe, but now I feel disoriented," Eugenia says. "I’m lucky some friends let me crash at their place for now.”
The Ukrainian parliament has taken some steps to ensure that refugees have access to basic social services and shelter. For instance, a new law regarding the rights of displaced persons helped thousands of refugees from Crimea—the vast majority of whom are Crimean Tatars—settle in other parts of Ukraine.
But those who have fled eastern Ukraine can’t turn to the government for help. If the Rada were to vote on a bill helping displaced persons from within Ukraine’s borders, it might be taken as a sign that Kiev has lost control over eastern Ukraine once and for all. So refugees from the east must count on friends or strangers for help.
Serhiy, a young pro-Ukraine activist from Luhansk, helped organize a number of rallies in favor of the Maidan revolution. (Serhiy requested that I not publish his last name for security reasons.) In March, he helped supply the Ukrainian army with food and military gadgets while they were fighting pro-Russia rebels. Death threats became a part of his daily life. But on April 6, when separatists seized the local Security Service building and the stockpile of small arms inside, he and other activists decided it was time to get out. He packed overnight, left his parents and traveled all the way through the country to Lviv. Friends offered him a place to stay.
“I don’t expect any help from the government," Serhiy said. “The government is so weak they have to rely on us, regular activists, to provide our army with food, bulletproof vests or night vision devices. I doubt it that they have additional resources for us refugees." Now, he’s helping others escape from Luhansk.
A 59-year-old Victoria Kirillova, a refugee from Mariupol, has no plans to return. For months, she was subjected to death threats and verbal harassment from passers-by for wearing a blue and yellow ribbon, the colors of the Ukrainian flag. She couldn’t take it anymore, so she left home and moved in with her daughter in Kiev. “They all truly believe Russian propaganda there, that people in revolutionary Ukraine are fascists," she told me.
Kirillova, from Donetsk, assures me that animosity between eastern Ukraine and the rest of the country is nothing new, that it’s been around since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. "Visiting my relatives there is like travelling to a different country now," she says.
Most residents of eastern Ukraine, of course, are still there. In Slovyansk, where fighting between separatists and the Ukrainian army is especially severe, more locals are being caught in the crossfire with every passing day. A number of local journalists and residents confirmed that rebels aren’t allowing anyone to leave the city—at least not without offering a bribe.
The majority of eastern Ukrainian refugees I spoke to don’t have any illusions about returning home soon. They expect months to pass before the Ukrainian army can regain control—but they do not think the separatists will win.