What the forced ‘evacuation’ from occupied Donbas turned out to be — testimonies of those who left and stayed
The first few days of the “evacuation” of residents of the non-government-controlled part of the Donbas announced by the self-declared, Kremlin-controlled authorities there, revealed the true nature of this operation.
For hundreds of people, the semi-forced relocation, spurred on by false threats by Russian propagandists about "attacks" by Armed Forces of Ukraine, turned into chaos, with Russia reluctant to provide the "evacuees" with even minimal living conditions.
On the morning of Feb. 21, acting Head of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Russian Federation Alexander Chupriyan said that over 61,000 residents of occupied Donbas had left for Russia over the past few days.
Earlier, the self-declared authorities announced that they intended to relocate up to 700,000 people from the non-government-controlled territories of the Donetsk region. The first figure is impossible to verify, while the second was extremely exaggerated for propaganda purposes. The Russian authorities decided to take people not only to Rostov, but also to Voronezh Oblast.
From open sources, NV collected testimonies of people during the first three days of the “evacuation” and facts about this operation known to the Ukrainian authorities.
'Two days without food and sleep on buses’: what the Ukrainian authorities know about the ‘evacuation’
On the evening of Feb. 20, Ukrainian Human Rights Commissioner Lyudmyla Denisova summed up the situation with the relocation from occupied Donbas by noting that these are Ukrainian citizens “who were forcibly evacuated to the Rostov region of the Russian Federation, (and who) are deprived of the right to decent living conditions.”
According to her information, women with children and the elderly had to stay without food or sleep for almost two days in unheated buses. Many temporary shelters where they were planned to be accommodated turned out to be closed. The Russian authorities failed to provide the “evacuees” with temporary housing, hot meals, and medical services.
Some of the deported Ukrainian citizens were placed in a sports hall in the city of Taganrog (Rostov region) — "in violation of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees the right to respect for private and family life."
The “evacuation” operation grossly violated the rights of Ukrainian children in the occupied Donbas: in these territories, under the pretext of an “aggravation” of the security situation, the educational process was stopped in schools and universities; and orphans and children left without parental care were forcibly removed from residential establishments.
Denisova stressed that all these facts violate Article 55 of the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War of Aug. 12, 1949 (IV Geneva Convention). According to this document, it is the occupying state that is obliged to provide the civilian population with all the necessary resources.
Given the situation, Denisova turned to her Russian counterpart, Ombudswoman Tatiana Moskalkova, demanding that Russia "ensure proper conditions for the stay of Ukrainian citizens in the Russian Federation, to provide the necessary assistance, including free legal advice and humanitarian assistance."
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov called this situation a “staging for (Soviet-era film company) Mosfilm” and said that some of the “evacuees”, according to Ukrainian intelligence, had decided to return home on their own, to the non-government-controlled Ukrainian cities in the Donbas.
“(The Russian mercenaries in the Donbas) demonstratively evacuated several thousand (people). Now our intelligence has accurate information that people are returning home on their own. No one is feeding them there, no one is providing them with accommodation. This is purely a staging for Mosfilm or whoever is doing movies there,” Reznikov said on Feb. 20 on Ukraine’s 1+1 television channel.
Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valery Zaluzhny, reacting to the "evacuation" of the non-government-controlled areas, accused the leaders of the self-declared Donbas “republics” of making provocative lies. He said that Ukraine "does not plan any offensive operations or shelling of civilians."
“I appeal to the residents of the temporarily occupied territories not to believe the lies of the occupying authorities! You are being used to escalate the situation in order to provoke yet more bloodshed,” Zaluzhny said.
Latvian outlet Meduza published a report from refugee accommodation centers located along the Russian part of the coast of the Sea of Azov. Its author states that the “evacuation” operation “seems to have come as a surprise” both to the residents of occupied Donbas and to the authorities of the Rostov region.
According to Meduza, dozens of buses with refugees from the Donetsk region arrived at the village of Krasnyi Desant, 15 kilometers from Taganrog, by the morning of Feb. 19. They were supposed to be placed in the children's camp Kotlostroitel, "but by noon about 150 refugees were stranded outside – there were not enough places."
Natalyevka in the Rostov Region — 20 kilometers from Krasnyi Desant — where the "evacuees" were to be accommodated in the Sputnik children's health complex, witnessed a similar turn of events. There, too, places quickly ran out.
Here are some of the testimonies of people who, on the first day after leaving the Donbas, were “missed out” during the chaotic resettlement and spoke to a Meduza correspondent:
“We set off at 6 am. (But it was only) at 8 am that we crossed the Russian border. There were huge traffic jams,” says Kristina, a resident of Yasynuvata.
“Did you see the line of buses? We haven't eaten anything since 8 pm. We came because we have children. If it weren't for the kids, we wouldn't have come. In 2014, we didn’t leave… I’m tired of sitting in basements (during shelling). But there is no one here at all, no one is responsible for this (work with refugees).
We wanted to know whether they would accommodate us or not, whether they would feed us… We don't even know where we were assigned. We just ended up wherever they could take us,” Anna from the Donetsk Oblast says.
Another video was shown on the Russian TV Rain channel. The indignant women in the clip complain that although they “stood in line for settlement” at one of the receiving stations for “evacuees”, they were refused accommodation due to lack of space.
They also admit that “social protection sent them here, it was not of their own volition,” that is, they were given a strong recommendation to leave for the Russian Federation by the social protection authorities. In support of their words, they showed identical papers with a list of resettlement addresses and promises that "everyone will get shelter, everything will be taken care of."
“We visited all (proposed refugee receiving centers in Rostov Oblast),” the video shows another elderly woman who came from Makiyivka near Donetsk with three children saying. “As if this was planned, we get the same response everywhere: out of places. We haven’t slept since 7-8 pm yesterday, we haven’t eaten anything.”
'Who are you going to fight? Who is attacking?’: What the remaining residents of the cities in occupied Donetsk say amid evacuation
Journalists from Donbas.Realii (an RFE/RL project) covered how the "evacuation" from Donetsk was actually proceeding: They visited one of the meeting points in the city, and also asked Donetsk residents what is happening.
According to the media, about 50 assembly points for “evacuees” on buses were organized in Donetsk, and trains are also involved in the relocation.
“There is no need to sign up for evacuation: everyone can go. People are told that passports (including expired ones) of Russia, Ukraine, “documents” issued by the so-called “republics: and even other countries will suffice for crossing the border with Russia,” Donbas.Realii writes.
“Everyone is welcome to come with belongings to the indicated assembly points. But no gathering time is announced,” said Larysa, a resident of Donetsk, who decided to stay in the city.
“We had pouring rain the entire evening (on Feb. 18, when the "evacuation" was announced). We’re getting phone calls left, right and center, with everyone asking whether we were leaving and what to do. In reality, considering the rain, nighttime, and the timing of the message, nobody went voluntarily after receiving the message or hearing the announcement.
From 8 pm, buses began to leave with those who were picked up collectively at the place of work, those on welfare – mothers with babies who receive social assistance."
Russia’s Novaya Gazeta newspaper published an emotional story of another resident of Donetsk who remained in the city and chose to remain anonymous. The woman was outraged by the discrepancy between the statement of the “DPR” self-declared authorities and the realities in the city.
“Everything seems rather stupid: some kind of urgent evacuation... It’s quiet here. I wake up in the morning and read the news: ‘Donetsk was bustling.’ What are they on about?! Here is my district.
After yesterday's announcements by (“DPR head” Denis) Pushilin, we, of course, could hardly sleep at night, it was scary. I heard a noise just once during the night: as if someone had a muffler go bad. Since 2014 we have known all too well what ‘bustling’ is. Now it's quiet.
I look out the window – all the cars are in place, no one is leaving anywhere. I call friends in other residential communities – the same thing, everything is in place. Even on TV, there aren’t any crowds at evacuation points. Yes, buses are leaving, allegedly 10,000 people have already been relocated. But who are these people, why are they fleeing? I just don’t get it.”
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