SVIATOHIRSK, Ukraine – Earlier this year, things were looking up for Pavel Drozd, 36, the proud owner of Pyramid Café, a quaint family eatery with a cobbled patio and barbecue pit in this northern Donetsk Oblast resort town of 5,000 residents. Putting up his one-bedroom Sloviansk apartment as collateral, his bank granted him a $15,000 small business loan to open the place.
The plan was never to live and work here full-time, but to live a vacationer’s life on the forested banks of the Sever-Donets River, in the shadow of the sprawling golden-domed Sviatohirsk Monastery, from June through August.
But after war tore through the eastern region, leaving a shockwave of destruction – homes and infrastructure destroyed, an estimated 423 people dead, according to the United Nations – all thoughts of normalcy fled from the mind of Drozd, who says he is now facing bankruptcy due to the summer season being “completely disrupted.”
Instead of feeding thousands of paying travelers who would typically pass through this time of year, he’s taking a steep loss to provide for many of the 15,000 to 20,000 displaced persons – which includes his family – who have fled Sloviansk, the epicenter of fierce fighting between Ukrainian armed forces and pro-Russian separatist militias since April, and taken up residence in Sviatohirsk’s many sanatoriums, hotels and even the monastery.
A monk said as many as 1,000 displaced persons were staying in more than 340 available rooms on the monastery’s grounds.
A senior UN human rights official this week said in the past two weeks the number of displaced persons in Ukraine has doubled to more than 46,000. But the true number is likely higher due to the lack of a formal registration system.
Of the 46,000 displaced persons, more than 35,000 are from the east while some 11,500 are from Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula annexed by Russia following a sham referendum in March.
A man sifts through rubble in his home wrecked by shelling in the besieged city of Sloviansk
on June 24, 2014. Kremlin-backed separatists of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republik
in Sloviansk are surrounded by Ukrainian forces and clashes have occured frequently.
In Sloviansk, where residents have been without water, electricity and gas for weeks, food is scarce, but at least one supermarket – Bravo – was still dolling out items for free to those who fled to Sviatohirsk this week, residents said. The city’s other stores and residential buildings reek of rotting food due to the lack of refrigeration.
“In Sloviansk, everything is decomposing and rotting. The whole city smells of death,” Drozd said.
That’s one reason why many have fled to Sviatohirsk, located some 35 kilometers away. Here, in place of the typical posters advertising rooms for rent now hang the signs welcoming “refugees.”
“Refugees and guests of the city,” begins one sign posted to the door of the ATB supermarket in central Sviatohirsk. It goes on to list contact information for doctors. Another sign explains that “refugees from Sloviansk” must bring their birth certificates to the city government building and register. The third instructs them to visit Drozd’s Pyramid Café to receive “humanitarian aid.”
As of 11 a.m. on June 25, people streamed into the restaurant to inquire about food and clothes. Drozd directed them to the courtyard, where volunteers at a table adorned with a UN Refugee Agency sign greeted them.
A middle-aged woman, whose young daughter clung to her legs, said she didn’t know what she would do without the aid. “We have no money and no home. They [the volunteers] give us everything now,” said the woman, who declined to give her last name because she still had family in Sloviansk and feared for their safety.
But aid the woman and dozens of others received that day will soon be gone, putting thousands there in a bind.
One of them is Yelena Laskova, 19, a second-year university student from Sloviansk, who was studying Ukrainian language and literature before evacuating the city on May 29 with her coworkers at Bravo supermarket. She was a cashier, but interning to be an administrator at the store. She now lives day-to-day in Sviatohirsk, where she scrapes by as a waitress at the Pyramid Café as well as on outside donations. Her father remains in Sloviansk, as he doesn’t want to abandon their house, she says.
To sustain nearly 20,000 new residents in Sviatohirsk, two 25-ton trucks full of aid, including food and personal hygiene products, are needed each week, Drozd said. They’re not getting that right now.
Ahead of a visit by President Petro Poroshenko last week, a large shipment of aid arrived, but only enough for a little more than a week’s time.
Pavel Drozd inside Pyramid Cafe.
Volunteers had begun making headway in Kharkiv, the second-largest city, where three tents were erected on public squares for people to donate food and supplies for those in Sviatohirsk.
But the volunteers apparently were ordered to take the donation tents down upon the return of Mayor Hennady Kernes after his rehabilitation in Israel. He spent more than a month there after he was shot in the back in April in an apparent assassination attempt.
Kernes could not be reached for comment.
Without large-scale, regular shipments, people here won’t survive, Drozd says, adding that one option is to move some of the refugees to different locations around Ukraine immediately.
“People can’t stay here much longer without regular shipments of aid,” Drozd said. “Come fall, when the whether turns cold, people will need to be moved. As a summer resort town, there is no heating here.”
A group of volunteers from Boryspil has offered assistance. They are ready to house 500 Sloviansk refugees currently sheltered in Sviatohirsk and will provide them with room and board for an indefinite length of time. But that is merely a fraction of those who need assistance.
Laskova is banking her hopes on a peaceful outcome to the conflict plaguing the east before summer’s end. She would like to return to university in Sloviansk, but knows that’s unlikely.
But she does not want to return if the city remains anything like what she left. Bursts of gunfire echoed through the city every night, she said. And she was nearly hit by a mortar one morning while walking to work.
For her, the last straw came when a group of rebels fired a mortar from the courtyard of her apartment building, using civilians as cover. She believes it was done to provoke Ukrainian forces into returning fire in a residential area.
Drozd, too, would like to go home to his one-bedroom apartment near Sloviansk’s police station in autumn, but admits that returning there is unrealistic without successful negotiations between the Ukrainian government and separatists.
This week both sides blamed each other for violating a cease-fire agreed upon during peace talks in Donetsk on June 23. In the hours following, 12 Ukrainian servicemen were killed in battle with armed separatists, including nine who died when their MI-8 helicopter was downed near Sloviansk.
“If the conflict isn’t resolved soon, we’ll have a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe on our hands,” Drozd said.
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. The content is independent of these organizations and is solely the responsibility of the Kyiv Post.