It’s probably not deliberately ironic that refugees from predominantly Russian-speaking east Ukraine, arriving in Ivano-Frankivsk, are directed straight to the headquarters of Osvita, an organisation promoting Ukrainian language and culture.
Under notices extolling Ukrainian statehood and self-determination are huge piles of clothing, foodstuffs and children’s toys donated by locals. Volunteers offer cups of tea to nervous, tired people, many straight off the train or bus from destroyed towns and cities. Osvita has lent its building to house an aid centre for the swelling number of Ukrainians fleeing first Russian annexation of Crimea, and now the conflict in east Ukraine that has claimed well more than 1,000 civilian lives.
“Real war was outside my city, but now it’s come into the city,” said Tanya, 28, who had just arrived in Ivano-Frankivsk, located in Ukraine’s far west, from besieged Luhansk in the east. She did not want to be identified, fearing retribution against relatives still in Luhansk. “All I can do now is pray.”
Of those, 102,600 are from the eastern regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, where self-declared ‘people’s republics’ are fighting the Ukrainian army for more independence from a "fascist" Kyiv or for union with Russia (it’s not clear which)
Meanwhile, Russia says that 730,000 Ukrainians have fled to Russia since the start of the conflict.
The real number of internally-displaced people (IDPs, as opposed to refugees who are defined in international law as having crossed a national border) could be as much as three times higher, says Oldrich Andrysek, UNHCR Regional Representative in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. The figure is based on government registration but many who have fled do not bother to register, believing it to be useless or even harmful if the list falls into the wrong hands. With no relevant law or even official definition of an IDP, no budget, and no integrated system of assistance, the Ukrainian government response to the crisis is woefully inadequate.
Ukrainian civil society has stepped in to fill the gap. Andrysek says volunteer organisations are providing up to 90 percent of Ukraine’s IDP relief effort.
In Ivano-Frankivsk, non-government youth organisation Etalon is setting an innovative example of cross-sectoral cooperation. People like Tanya from Luhansk can get help right away from representatives of health, education, migration, employment and social services gathered in one room of the Osvita building. Psychologists and lawyers are there to provide counselling. Notices on the walls offer free tours of the town, or trips to the nearby Carpathian mountains. When Tanya arrives, she is at once offered a food package and up to two week’s free stay in the Banderstadt hotel.
The name Banderstadt comes from controversial Ukrainian nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who lived from 1909-1959, when a KGB agent murdered him in Munich, Germany.
Bandera’s followers are called "Banderites," a term used by Russian media to demonize western Ukrainians as extreme nationalists and fascists bent on wiping out the Russian people and language in the south and east of the country.
"We kept quiet when they called us Banderites,” says Etalon director Lesya Aronets. “When they scared everyone in Crimea with us Banderites who would come and chop them up and eat them we kept quiet, we just started to act. We prepared an appeal to all our Carpathian citizens and state organs to extend a helping hand to those Ukrainians who need support.”
Despite the impressive nationwide volunteer effort, many patriotic Ukrainians are finding it difficult to respond to the newcomers who have inundated their towns seeking accommodation and support. Everyone has a story about ungrateful refugees from the east who expect to be provided with everything and make no attempt to help themselves, or continue to support the anti-Ukrainian movement that is battling Ukrainian armed forces and creating the very disaster they had to flee.
“Some people left and came here out of terror and some came out of self interest; there are all kinds,” says Aronets. “Some say they want to come for a week’s holiday – we don’t provide free holidays.”
Tanya from Luhansk, a 28-year-old sales manager who did not want to give her last name, seemed overwhelmed by the help she received. “People here are really kind, you can see that straight away,” she said. She first visited Ivano-Frankivsk a few weeks ago, on holiday from what was then becoming a difficult situation in Luhansk. Since then, the electricity has been cut off and shooting has started in the streets, causing her to flee west once again.
Many other IDPs in Ivano-Frankivsk are amazed and grateful at their reception. But there is a definite frostiness too between some locals who feel they are being taken advantage of, and some displaced people who find the level of help insulting.
“We’d have liked to exclude them,” says Aronets frankly. “Many soldiers from our region are dying in the east; in one black week sixteen young men came back in coffins. There was a wave of social disgust after that.”
Mariana Ozorovych, also from Etalon, says the organisation cannot turn men away because it would violate European ideals of gender equality. “We accept everyone.”
“But how do we explain this to a mother whose son died there, and she sees a young man coming and sitting here while our men are fighting for his territory?” asks Aronets. “I understand that there are moral principles, and there are legal rights. It’s difficult.”
In fact, internally displaced people. have no special legal rights in Ukrainian legislation. And people like Tanya have difficulty defining for themselves who they are.
“I took an emotional decision to come here for two weeks. If after that I can’t go back, I suppose that makes me a refugee,” she says doubtfully. “I don’t really know what that would mean for me though.”
Since this interview, Luhansk, surrounded by the Ukrainian army and with no water or electricity, has become a disaster zone. It seems unlikely that Tanya will be going home soon.
Irina Rudneva, who collected a few documents, clothes and the family cat and fled from Kramatorsk in Donetsk oblast in June, is more definite.
“My relatives can’t help me, so I came here to see if we can get status as refugees,” she said in the coordinating committee centre. “At the moment the government considers we are re-settlers, and that there is no war in the country: no dead, no refugees. I think I’m a refugee if I had to leave my home and everything I ever earned in my life. I left it all behind and I don’t know if it will be in one piece when I return.”
Rudneva sees little point in registering as a displaced person. Her relatives in Ivano-Frankivsk region found her an empty house to live in rent-free, and her husband has got a low-paid job via the employment centre. As Rudneva scrupulously lists every item in the humanitarian aid package she received via Etalon – basic food and hygiene items, an iron, a quilt, a blanket and second-hand sheets – it is clear she considers the package insufficient. She came unwillingly to the centre to try and get help enrolling her son at the local college.
Once these disclosed people move on from the Banderstadt or from a hostel outside the town, Etalon has a list of available accommodation, much of it offered rent-free in empty houses in villages. Regional authorities provide a one-off 500 hryvnia payment per person to help with rent or utilities. Etalon is also unique in having developed a legal agreement between the coordinating centre and IDPs, which acts as a guarantee for temporary accommodation, and a voucher to enable people to register for pensions, healthcare, education and benefits.
Etalon gained its invaluable experience in rapid assistance provision and coordination from a partner NGO in Hungary which helped alleviate the aftermath of disastrous Carpathian floods in 2008. Etalon staff completed a work experience project in Hungary in January this year. In February they decided to set up a coordinating council in case of some future disaster, like another flood. “The idea was to demonstrate the effectiveness of cooperation between the emergency ministry and civic organisations in difficult situations,” says Aronets. “Neither they nor us could have guessed quite how complicated the situation in Ukraine was going to be.”
As the Ukrainian army takes towns in East Ukraine back under government control, some IDPs have already returned home. Andrysek from UNHCR suggests the government should encourage more to return by offering a one-off start-up payment, otherwise economic and social problems of displacement can drag on for months and years. Ivano-Frankivsk already has high levels of unemployment which an influx of newcomers can only exacerbate, and its close-knit society based on Ukrainian and European culture and the Greek Catholic church is very foreign to east Ukrainians.
But some IDPs, like Rudneva from Kramatorsk, would like to stay permanently.
“Why not - do you think all people where I’m from are great? There’s crap everywhere,” she says. “Yes, most people (in the east) are for Russia, but many of them are actually originally from west Ukraine, their forebears were sent to rebuild Donbas after the war. So even though everyone talks about Banderites and fascists there, in fact their ancestors are from here. But it's dangerous to openly mention that fact.”
Tanya, as she heads for her room in the Banderstadt, adds “Ivano-Frankivsk is a European city, so of course they want to be in Europe. People in the elast are more Soviet and can’t believe that Russia can be acting the way it is. But mostly people just want peace now. They’ve been playing at war for long enough.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been produced for Kyivpost with support from www.mymedia.org.ua, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark and implemented by a joint venture between NIRAS and BBC Media Action, as well as Ukraine Media Project, managed by Internews and funded by the United States Agency for International Development.