Under the shade of a giant oak tree, Lena, 37, wondered why she and her family left Luhansk.
“Why did we finally leave?” repeated Lena with incredulity, before listing off all that had happened.
After the referendum in May, which attempted to legitimise the self-styled Luhansk People’s Republic, Lena and her husband thought things would quiet down. After all, Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists were just a ragtag group of bandits, they reasoned.
But in June, as Ukraine transitioned into a state of crisis, the sound of shooting became all to familiar. Soon, more than 2,600 people had left the Donetsk and Luhansk regions escaping the violence. Around this time, Lena’s eldest son, Danil, started a modest bullet casing collection.
In July, the family tried to fall asleep to the sound of shelling – sometimes it was real, sometimes they just dreamt it. Even more people left the city of Luhansk and a total of nearly 65,000 people in total left the Donbas area.
According to the latest figures, some 2,500 people have transited through them. If I look at the displacement figures, which are well over 100,000, it's a fraction, it's a minor proportion.
Around the middle of the month, Lena’s mother, Vera, 58, who lived with her daughter’s family, started sleeping in the basement of their five-storey apartment building. After a few days, the rest of the family followed suit, along with Lena’s brother, his wife, and their two small children. No one was sure who was shooting or why there were explosions. All that mattered was that the family was in the basement when the bombs went off. They worked out a schedule of safe times to climb up to their second-storey apartment for short spurts to cook and bathe, hoping the drumming of explosions would end soon.
“Remember when we went upstairs and the door slammed really loudly and we all went running into the basement, thinking it was a bomb?” said Danil, 12, with a smile, not realising the full gravity of what he said.
“They learned to recognise the sounds of rockets,” said Sveta, Lena’s sister-in-law.
Even Sveta’s two-year-old son, Denis, picked up on the changes in his family’s vocabulary, learning the words of the instruments that caused the racket of explosions overhead.
“He started to scream ‘Grad! Grad!’ whenever he heard loud noises,” the 34-year-old said, gesturing to Denis who was tottering in a sand pile nearby. The Grad rocket launcher is a Soviet-era weapon and rockets shot from a it are notoriously difficult to target accurately. Both the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian separatists have accused each other of using Grads indiscriminately on heavily populated civilian areas in both the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
“We almost figured out a schedule for when the rockets are fired,” Danil interjected again, proud to share his knowledge of the situation.
Lena stroked her son’s shoulder and looked up. “This is why we left.”
No real ‘green zone’
By the beginning of August, Lena and her family were added to the tally of more than 102,600 people displaced by fighting in eastern Ukraine, according to a report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
“According to the latest figures, some 2,500 people have transited through them. If I look at the displacement figures, which are well over 100,000, it’s a fraction, it’s a minor proportion,” said Oldrich Andrysek, UNHCR’s regional representative for Ukraine.
|One of the two tents at the Svatove transit centre that offers counselling [Katherine Jacobsen/Al Jazeera]|
Though a government hotline has officially been set up to help direct Ukrainians fleeing the fighting zones, both a Human Rights Watch report and Al Jazeera’s on-the-ground interviews have found that civil society organisations have mainly dealt with directing internally displaced persons (IPDs) fleeing conflict zones.
While there is a “green zone” allowing civilians to escape the heavy fighting in Luhansk, the classification hardly guarantees a safe or smooth passage out of the area. The zone recognised by the Ukrainian government, has not been acknowledged by the Luhansk People’s Republic, the de facto government of the pro-Russian separatists in the Luhansk region.
As a result of the regional instability, many people find themselves re-routed while attempting to leave the area because of military operations, said Olga Sergeeva, a call centre coordinator at Vostok SOS, an organisation that helps residents of Luhansk and Donetsk who are affected by the fighting.
The long road to Svatove
After a week of living in their basement, Lena, Sveta, their sons, Lena’s mother and a neighbour, piled into two sedans and drove north – away from the rubble and clouds of smoke.
Both Lena’s and Sveta’s husbands stayed behind to protect the family homes from looting and to keep working.
“How else will we make money to live on?” Sveta said.
After a long trip, the group arrived safely in Svatove, a small town on the northern edge of the Luhansk region. The Ukrainian state emergency service runs a transit centre for people temporarily displaced due to fighting in the country’s Donbas regions.
In July, members of the town’s local administration volunteered a swatch of land – previously a football pitch – for the emergency services to set up a camp for those fleeing the conflict. The Svatove Centre now has beds for approximately 200 people in 10 sleeper tents. The centre offers a cafeteria, psychological help, as well as support staff.
The federally owned train company of Ukraine has also agreed to run daily trains from the Svatove station to Kiev, Kharkiv and Berdyansk, all outside of Ukraine’s conflict zones, at no charge to passengers.
According to statistics the centre provided to Al Jazeera, over 1,200 internally displaced people have come through the camp, some headed to a pre-determined destination; most, however, just wanted to escape the fighting.
Two other transit centres in the towns of Volnovakha and Krasnoarmiisk, on the western edge of the Donetsk region, service people trying to escape the fighting near separatist strongholds in that region, each with similar intake numbers.
However, the centres are limited in capacity and cannot sustain the influx of the nearly 62,350 people who have been internally displaced as a result of the escalating conflict in the Donbas region. The three main camps, so far, can only answer immediate needs of the growing number of IDPs.
The Ukrainian government, meanwhile, still has not enacted any laws that would make it easier for displaced people to find accommodation, or temporary jobs.
“Apart from providing the first information on how to regain a passport, or solve social security issues, [and] from providing first counselling and maybe some relief, a bottle of water, they need to plug into a nationwide system of where there are available beds, for instance and this is still not happening,” said Andrysek.
“If a person registers through a transit centre, then he is guaranteed to receive housing and food. It’s possible that we have more than 100,000 people who have left the ATO (anti-terrorist operation zone) but they’re not registered. We can’t guess how many people there are. The people that we have registered are the people that we can serve,” said Nataliya Bystraya, the official press secretary for the State Emergency Service of Ukraine.
Some summer camps and hotels have offered accommodations, but for the most part, people rely on volunteers to help them find temporary housing or they stay with family members.
After a few phone calls and a short meal at the Svatove transit centre, Lena, her family, and neighbour decided to continue north to the Kharkiv region where a distant relative will help them find a place to stay.
Hopefully, the stay will be temporary, and the family can be back in Luhansk by the time that school starts on September 1.
After all, they’ve only brought their summer clothes with them.
Names of the families interviewed have been changed.
Follow Katherine Jacobsen on Twitter: @Kajtweets