Stories of residents of the Donetsk region who chose Ukraine.
By Natalia Shevchuk
No matter what military intelligence analysts and local prophets warned Ukrainians about, Russia’s attack on Ukraine on February 24 shocked many compatriots. But among them, some people are forced to relive this aggression for the second time: the residents of the occupied regions, particularly the Donetsk region. After I talked to a few of them, I discarded the draft of the introduction to this article. Their stories are louder than my words.
Some people demanded that I not include their photo or surname, others – that I change their name altogether. Many were worried about the relatives who remained in the occupied territories; others felt vulnerable talking about their past grievances. Where were they for the last eight years, the years Russian propaganda parades so loudly? What was their life like? What were they thinking then and now?
I was born in Russian Transcaucasia, but at the age of six, I moved with my mother to Donetsk and lived there most of my life (Olga is in her late 40s, – auth.) I remember exactly when I left, it was August 14, 2014. We had to go for several reasons. Sometimes it was impossible to sleep. First, because of how our Ice Arena was destroyed, then because of the constant shelling of the Donetsk airport. I moved from my apartment to my mother’s house in another district, but even there, drunken local militants staged a street fight with shooting.
In general, it was scary. Imagine – at the very beginning of these events, I was walking down an avenue in yellow and blue clothes. They grabbed me; they wanted to drag me into a minibus. What saved me was that they checked my passport, and one of the Russian cities was indicated as my place of birth there. They decided to let me go at that time with a warning. I have always been pro-Ukrainian; my neighbors and people at work knew about that. (I am a social worker.)
One colleague hinted that they were interested not only in me but also in my daughters. The older one was already married and lived with her husband, and I worried about the younger one. Our family members left separately. My mother is a believer, and thanks to the church’s support, she made it to Kyiv. My younger daughter also traveled the Kharkiv-Kyiv-Bukovel route with people from my mom’s church, and I went to Odesa. We managed to meet up only after a few months.
The eldest daughter and her husband moved in with us about a year later. She had her passport reissued with her married name first, and later there was no way out of the city for a while. They managed to flee to the Russian Federation. There were also troubles with the documents there, but finally, they arrived from there to us, in Odesa.
Representatives of the church picked me up right at the Odesa train station. For about a month, I stayed with them, then for a couple of weeks in a hostel, then with another displaced woman for two years in Luzanivka, Odesa. We had three rooms for two families for a moderate fee; we were lucky. Back then, I thought that I was about to return home.
I was looking for a job through advertisements, worked in a bakery and pizzeria, and sold women’s shoes in several markets. I left Odesa for several years and worked in another city (there were colleagues from my former job), but eventually, I returned. I don’t know why, but Odesans accepted me as one of them. I guess this is my native city now, too. I returned to social work. Now I am a member of the civil movement “Faith. Hope. Love”.
I was terrified of a new war. And I knew that there would be war. I stocked up on cereals and canned meat in advance – I have a dog who needs to be fed. I was preparing, and still, February 24 was very scary. Eight years ago, I ran away from Donetsk with a tiny purse. But where to run now, when finally, after many efforts, I am back on my feet? When I am not so young and healthy and know no foreign languages.
I was depressed and apathetic, to tell the truth. I took it one day at a time. All my fears from eight years ago came to life and cast me down me even harder. The only plus was that I no longer had to worry about the integrity of my home; I’m renting an apartment here. As far as I know, some mercenaries (whether from Rostov or somewhere else) took over my apartment in Donetsk.
I was afraid of bombings and shelling, occupation, getting seriously ill – literally of everything. My brother, who remained in Russia, started writing to me more often. He bombarded me with messages: called me a Nazi, an idiot, and told me to look at my passport and see “the truth”… He stopped writing to me about a week ago, so there’s that.
And then refugees started coming to us in Odesa. “Faith.Hope.Love” actively helps them, so I also began helping others. Together with the newcomers, I went to psychological group sessions. There was a great psychologist (he is from Mariupol), and he helped me feel some relief. Starting this week, I will go to him for personal consultations. I understand that my old emotional wounds have opened again, that I need long-term therapy, and that one or two meetings won’t cut it. But I will take care of this, especially since my family members don’t want to go elsewhere. We already suffered enough of this eight years ago.
I was born and lived my whole life in Bakhmut, Donetsk region. I devoted my life to one place, one factory, where I worked for more than 40 years in engineering positions. Already in evacuation, in Odesa, I celebrated my 85th birthday. When Russia attacked Ukraine eight years ago, it failed to capture our city. But I still remember that emotional state: not fear but anger. That was my reaction to the rallies in the center of Artemivsk (the old name of the city, auth.) in the spring of that year. At them, Russian agitators (by no means local) freely, without hindrance, called for the creation of the so-called Novorossia to express distrust of the authorities of Ukraine. Russian flags accompanied all these actions.
There were 50 to 100 people at these rallies from the city where 70,000 people lived. As for the kind of people that attended, they usually convinced everyone that they were “not interested in politics.”
For the first five years out of the eight you are asking about, residents of the so-called “DNR” were allowed to come to Bakhmut. The purpose of those mass visits was to receive pensions and purchase food. I remember asking a strange woman from Horlivka: “How is life there?” She replied: “It’s good that we can come here!”. With the beginning of the covid pandemic, they no longer had such an opportunity.
Reflecting on this, I see that not much has changed in eight years. The local print publications “Vpered” and “Sobytiya” ignored the neighboring entity – the DNR – completely. And at the annual city-wide celebrations of Victory Day on May 9, we heard no mention of the threat to peace from the territories bordering our district.
This is already the second war and the second evacuation in my life. I experienced something similar for the first time when I was four. Despite my young age, specific episodes of months-long wanderings in the evacuation train were etched in my memory for the rest of my life… All I want now for my city and country is peace! Instead of the horrors of war. And I really want to go back to my city.
The man was evacuated at the beginning of April, when the military administration of the Donetsk region asked people to leave the city due to increasing threats and because his son Gennady insisted on his departure. Gennady says that his father often experiences headaches and dizziness. This is because of his age and health problems and how worried he is about his hometown. After all, you can read in all the news that the direction Bakhmut-Lysychansk is under intense fire on the eastern front.
Like every person who deals with bandits, the father realizes that at any moment, he can lose all his property, says Gennady. But there is no point in hiding something from him: he communicates with people who stayed in the city and is interested in other news. The benefit of many sources of information is at least that there are not only negative news but also encouraging ones.
What do I miss most in my hometown? And on what scales should it be weighed? Do I miss my mother’s grave, or the young oak my father and I planted on the eve of the Russian-Ukrainian war in the local park? Do I wonder about the fate of relatives who did not want to leave? The ones who had been living in a partially destroyed house in the very center of the city for a month? How about the pain of losing the local history museum’s legacy, materials on the history of the oldest town of Donbas? How do I weigh what I love most about the country that shaped me and got me through many ordeals? The same with the native city.
Avdiivka, 13 km from occupied Donetsk, is still under the control of Ukrainian armed forces; but due to constant shelling, it has turned into an army stronghold. The houses here are destroyed, and hardly any local residents are left. The woman I’m speaking with left there when the first shots were fired in 2014.
I was a private entrepreneur; I fried and sold chebureks at the market. And in Odesa, I am doing the same now, Natalya says with a sigh. In 2014, I was one of the first to leave because the health department offered to help parents with disabled children with evacuation. And my daughter has diabetes. I also have a younger son. When we evacuated, there was a train of parents like me, some with their children in wheelchairs.
We took root here with difficulty. We spent the first summer at an old recreation center in the resort town of Serhiivka. We settled in fine, but one of our compatriots, a blind pensioner, hanged himself because someone stole all the money from his card. But closer to winter, the town’s mayor insisted that we should leave as soon as possible. However, the local people’s deputies offered him to relocate us to an unfinished building that we would have somehow fixed to be fit for living. But it didn’t work out. Then there was the Kuyalnyk sanatorium, then another eviction with a scandal because no one paid for us to stay there. I then managed to secure a spot for us in Luzanivka, at a center for people going through hard times. People who came later couldn’t stay there because of limited space; they had to make some other arrangements. We are still here, but we don’t know for how long. The center seems to be under renovation; new settlers are not accepted.
My neighbors had an even harder time. They took over empty houses to live in, some on Uspenska Street, some on Fontanka. Media covered that story a lot. In 2015, I won a grant from the charity organization Caritas to start my own business. I left the equipment for frying chebureks in Avdiivka, but I received a new set here with this grant. Now I work in Novyi Rynok. Some of my former neighbors have left for Europe with their children. They went to Poland, Germany, Italy, and Spain. But I can’t go, not again! I’m staying in Odessa, although there is almost no trade now.
My daughter grew up and studied to be a hairdresser, but she still has health problems and cannot work if it’s hot. The son is still in school. When I was leaving, I planned to later sell my place in Avdiivka, earn something from that sale, add some more money and buy an apartment in Odesa. But… I don’t have a home anymore. Now they say there will be a state compensation program for those who lost their homes. Maybe they will remember us, people who lost everything eight years ago? That would be fair.
Some of my friends who went to Europe will probably get rooted there. Some will return. And I am still here and inviting all my friends and relatives to join me. Of course, if a person is in panic, not a patriot, or does not understand “who attacked whom,” then let them go somewhere else. They won’t do us any good here. But I keep my chin up. Sometimes it’s scary, but deep down, I’m convinced, for some reason, that Odesa will remain as it was. It will remain steadfast.
The article’s author apologizes to those interlocutors with whom she arranged an interview but whose stories she did not include in this text. The material turned out to be longer than I expected. I am convinced that the topic of displaced people deserves further consideration, and I will return to it.