They are the messengers of war: the number of refugees from eastern Ukraine is rising rapidly. Leaving their home towns behind, they try to overcome the conflict that has drawn them apart. Between Berlin and Donetsk, from mid August to September, we follow the stories behind numbers.
22 August, Berlin. Moments of solidarity and unity
The room is packed with people, sitting on chairs, on the floor, or standing. “Neue Heimat“ or “New Home” is the name over the doorstep of a little bar in Berlin Moabit. It sounds like a cynical joke for a place where refugees from eastern Ukraine report on how they lost their houses, their belongings, and more. The audience, mostly Ukrainians themselves, listen with respectful attention. Only sometimes speakers interrupt each other more sharply, disagree, automatically switching to Russian, the common language for practically all of them.
The attendants of this informal meeting come from different regions in Ukraine. And views differ according to experiences they have gained in their home towns. A student from Luhansk tells of the difficulties her family faces as they wanted to settle down in another part of Ukraine, and their fears to be looked down on, being called “Muscovites” since they come from what she sees as the “demonised East”, currently under the pro-Russian separatists’ control. Others highlight the moments of solidarity and unity that they have seen. A woman tells how she was a witness to people spontaneously gathering in public places in Kyiv, praying together for the victims on both sides and for peace.
24 August, Berlin. Over the river
“The attendants came here with the big political issues in mind that are discussed very controversially in the media. We want them to open up. To talk about their personal experiences in order to develop a better understanding for each other”.
Two days later, on Sunday, I meet some of the attendants of this gathering at a seminar house in Berlin Köpenick. In an idyllic neighbourhood at the riverside, a group of those paying the direct costs of the conflict between Russia and Ukraine exchange experiences that can rightly be called traumatic. Refugees and residents from Donetsk and Luhansk meet with Ukrainians from other regions and participants from Germany and Poland in a trinational youth encounter organised by the German Association “DJO“ (Deutsche Jugend für Europa) and the Ukrainian “Foundation for Freedom“, co-financed by the German-Polish Youth Office and the German Foreign Office.
The five days of seminar program in Berlin is about sharing difficult experiences the young people were confronted with rather than a discussion on “big political issues”, controversial in Ukraine – that’s what Sabrina Bobowski, tutor at the seminar, explains to me during our talk.
She introduces Daria and Nataliia – two young woman, one from the Kirovohrad region in central Ukraine the other one from Donetsk.
I ask them whether the conflict and the growing number of refugees and victims excite compassion or hatred among Ukrainians from both sides.
Daria strongly disagrees with the suggestion of hatred: “I come from a little village in central Ukraine and we send a lot of recruits to the East. Brothers, husbands and sons who may not return. But still I don’t see that there is great hatred among Ukrainians. People feel hatred towards Putin and Russia but not against other Ukrainians“.
Nataliia, whose family still lives in Donetsk, has a similar opinion: “It is the members of political camps that are hostile towards each other. Among common Ukrainians there is no hatred“. Yet there are division lines that run through the country and even through families. “Yes, there are controversies among my relatives. That is because they live in different regions and … simply because they watch different news shows. Still we stay in good contact and leave politics to the politicians“.
Daria nods approvingly and explains how the question of what tv channel you watch becomes as crucial as party affiliations: “I think mass media is one of the main reasons for the conflict. Young people can of course compare different sources in the Internet. But old people just watch one tv show and believe that this is the truth“.
Watching media coverage from both sides, Daria and Nataliia feel appalled and often amused when they see how the same incidents are presented in a totally contrary way. In Nataliia’s view it is just another proof that politics serve as an “instrument” that they have no influence on. As the conflict continues, mistrust in the media and the feeling of being taken hostage by the power play of politicians become common denominators. For Nataliia it is visibly hard not to give in to disillusionment, but nevertheless she expresses her belief in a political solution bringing peace to her city: “I just hope that the war is soon over. That we will join in a dialogue and won’t pick up arms. Donetsk needs a long time for recovery”.
It’s time for recreation, the attendants decide, enjoying the last evening together with a Ukrainian dish before they leave in different directions for their home towns or temporary places of residence. Five days are only a short break to recover but they have agreed on meeting again to sustain the dialogue they began in Berlin.
24 August, Berlin. Sunday after midnight
“We will need to meet again many times for five hours,” Pavel Klimkin, Foreign Minister Ukraine, comments on the recent meagre results in a Berlin meeting.
At the other edge of the city, four old men are walking down the lawn of the Villa Borsig, the river Spree glistening in soft evening light. A harmony of the view ahead in the end proves to be delusive as the Foreign Ministers’ meeting does not come to any concrete results on the conflict in eastern Ukraine. In the meantime the fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk even intensifies. A ceasefire? A closure of the border? Nothing that can be agreed on during a five hour long diplomatic talk in Berlin Tegel. “We will need to meet again many times for five hours”, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Pavel Klimkin writes on Twitter. In a more lengthy format, an interview for the German public broadcaster Deutschlandfunk ahead of the meeting, he had once again emphasised his priority of territorial integrity. He sounds determined that Crimea will return to Ukraine. And yet admits that Kyiv’s course of national unity is not always heard and welcomed in the so called “people’s republics”: “Maybe there was not enough information in Donetsk and Luhansk about which goals we are following”. Regaining trust in the national government might be achieved by more autonomy in the regions, as Klimkin explains: “The goal of future reforms is to give every municipality the right to choose which language will be spoken. … we want to give more freedom and responsibility to the people on the local level”. Is it a civil war that tears Ukrainians apart or is it actually a war between Russia and Ukraine? “Neither nor”, Klimkin responds, “This is of course no civil war. But it is no war either between Ukraine and Russia – at least at the moment”.
29 August, meanwhile in Minsk. New hope after the handshake?
Daria doesn’t believe in such symbolism: “In Russian language channels nobody recognises that regular troops are fighting in Ukraine. On this basis talks like those in Minsk don’t change much”.
“When I heard today how Putin compared the Ukrainian Army to the German Wehrmacht in World War Two, I couldn’t believe it … I was really surprised“. Daria sighs and explains why she couldn’t answer earlier to my messages. She just finished a Skype call to her father. To have regular contact with her family via Internet is important for her since she works as an au pair in the outskirts of Hamburg. Daria has good news to share with her parents. She got accepted at the University and from October on she will study Italian philology and sociology in Hamburg. Actually, it would have been a pleasant conversation if politics had not lowered her mood.
One week after our first encounter in Berlin, Daria seems even more concerned about the events in her home country. “The situation has worsened a lot. I think now we are really at war!” Three days before, on 26 August, Minsk hosted a meeting of Poroshenko and Putin, and the world had placed its hope in the value of a handshake between the two countries’ presidents. But Daria has little faith in such symbolism: “My dad lives in Belarus at the moment. In the Russian language channels nobody recognises that there are actually regular troops fighting in Ukraine. On this basis talks like those in Minsk don’t change much”.
In Oleksandria, her home town, people don’t need to be reminded on the state of the fight. Three recruits to the Ukrainian Army, aged 20 and 21, have been recently killed in the war zone. “I didn’t know them personally but in a town of 80 000 inhabitants such news spread quickly“, Daria tells me.
Has she heard anything from Nataliia and the other seminar attendants from Donetsk since they met in Berlin? “Yes, we are in contact via social networks and e-mail. She is now in Kyiv. Her parents have arranged a place for her to stay after they heard that she couldn’t return to Donetsk due to barricades blocking the city. Of the attendants at our seminar, nobody lives in Donetsk anymore“.
29 August, Geneva. A noon-briefing at the OHCHR
“Deliberate targeting of civilians is a violation of international humanitarian law, and more must be done to protect them” – High Commissioner for Human Rights
Hours before I speak with Daria, the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, presents a report blaming both separatists and Ukrainian forces of either preventing civilians from leaving the conflict zone or not providing effective protection for so called “safe corridors“.
IDP stands for an Internally Displaced Person, a term that describes people who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes but have not crossed an internationally recognized state border. (see Deng 2004: 7)
People like Nataliia and her friends.
In mid August there are almost 140 000 people from the Donbas identified as IDP according to the High Commissioner’s report. Five days later, on 2 September, the UN needs to correct its estimations, suggesting that the number of displaced people in whole Ukraine had “doubled over the last three weeks“ and mounted to 260 000. The total number of IDPs is expected to be much higher, as the report explains, since “many IDPs have not identified themselves at this stage, namely those staying with friends and relatives or hosted by civil society groups“. (OHCHR 17.08.14 p. 26).
A statement of Irina, another young woman from Donbas I met in Berlin, rings in my ears: “People who had to leave their homes don’t go down the streets crying that they are refugees! They talk about this only to close people and relatives“.
Who wants to bear the stigma of being a refugee? And yet I wonder whether awareness and willingness to help is rising with reports on “displaced persons” issued by officials, who are naturally “deeply concerned”. UN is an acronym for the somewhat diffuse term of “world community”. Does the world community look the other way as humanitarian emergency comes on the heels of violations of international agreements?