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Thursday, October 5, 2023

“Everybody wants to go home,” says Czech, who works with refugees in Ukraine

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The war raged behind them, but they seized the first opportunity to return home. After the start of the Selydov occupation of the Donetsk region, almost all of the 35,000 inhabitants fled. But now the city has been repopulated and 22,000 people are trying to return to normal life.

Their job is not easy. When you turn the tap, the water is completely yellow because the nearest filter station is bombed. By the way, when they tried to fix it, it was hit by rockets again in half a day, “says Petr Štefan, media coordinator of the non-profit organization People in Need, which tracks the fate of so-called internal refugees in various parts of Ukraine.

Internal refugees are people who have been driven from their homes or directly deprived of their homes due to war, but who do not force them to leave their borders. Of these, 7 million are in Ukraine, about 2 million more than those who fled abroad, according to the UN.

Petr Stefan

  • Petr Štefan is the media coordinator of the Humanitarian Aid and Development Department for People in Need.
  • He has provided stories and testimonies of people who have helped People in Need from humanitarian disasters over the past 10 years, including Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Congo, Mali, Ethiopia and Ukraine. He has been regularly traveling to eastern Ukraine since 2015 and has been in the country twice since the Russian occupation.
  • After the invasion, he first visited small villages in the north, near the border with Belarus, which the Russians destroyed in the first days after the attack. Later, he worked in a joint center in the Dnipropetrovsk region, where local refugees from various regions of the Donetsk region, mostly elderly people, were gathered. In the end, it was about 30 kilometers from the front line in the town of Selydove, directly in the Donetsk region.

Peter Stefan.

First you visited the devastated villages in the north of the country after the invasion. Do they have a similar history to the oft-mentioned and long-occupied Buča, or did the Russian troops pass after the conquest?

You will find both cases there. There are villages occupied for several weeks, but I was in a village destroyed in the first war.

For example, I was with a family whose house was hit by a Russian bomb. The whole house burned down and nothing was left of it. People were very lucky to be with their relatives that day, so they did not lose their lives. Otherwise, they were left with just an incinerator.

Photograph: Petr Štefan, People in Need

A small village in the Zhytomyr region experienced heavy fighting at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine (source: Petr Stefan, People in Need).

What can you suggest to help such people?

We have been helping People in Need a lot in these areas since the conflict was imminent. This means that we are trying to transport water, food and other essentials through local volunteers.

As for the aid available, we are launching financial support – the most vulnerable people will sign up and receive the equivalent of $75 each month for three months. (approximately 1750 kroner, editor’s note).

You’ll probably wonder right away what this is for someone who’s lost their home. Therefore, I immediately add that we are working intensively on the repair plans of the homes and community centers where internal refugees live. It needs to be repaired in the summer so that those who have lost their homes at least have a place to spend the winter.

Internal refugees are apparently people determined to stay at home until they are directly expelled by the impending war. Did some of them not cut off contact with the imminent danger so much that they did not want to reconsider and leave the country?

All the people I talked to there, both in the spring when the invasion began, and now, they tell me one thing – we want to go home.

No one likes living in a community center for weeks or months in the same room with other families. People are so eager to get home, and when possible, they actually go back there.

For example, it appeared in the town of Selydove, 30 kilometers directly from the front line. Before the occupation, it had a population of about 35,000 with the surrounding small villages. When the invasion began, nearly everyone fled somewhere, and only about 1,500 to 2,000 remained, according to the mayor. Today, four months later, there are 22,000 inhabitants in and around the city. In other words, a significant part of those who want to live there have returned.

Photograph: Petr Štefan, People in Need

The family, who fled Kramatorsko before the fight, lives in a community center in the village of Likhivka (source: Petr Štefan, People in Need).

They face many different problems. The first problem is that there is no drinking water, when you turn on the tap, the nearest filter station is bombarded, so the yellow water flows completely. Meanwhile, when they tried to repair it, it was hit by rockets again in half a day.

Another problem is work. Many factories, companies, shops and even below have closed, so people are looking for new ways to make a living.

How endangered is this place now?

Like I said, about 30 kilometers on the front line. So you can hear the explosions in the city from afar, but basically not like in Lysyčansko, which is directly on the front line. Rockets don’t fall on your head.

So people there believe the Russians won’t be able to reach them again?

Yes. They have to believe or they won’t even come back.

Did you also talk to one of the fighters who decided to stay at home until the last minute even though they didn’t want to fight?

For example, I spoke to a lady from Avdějevka, who fled after a Russian bomb fell near her house and her mother was hit by shrapnel and later died in hospital from being injured. This is something that will compel even the most stubborn to leave the house.

In general, this is very much the case for seniors. If you’ve lived in one place for 60 years, you don’t want to leave. For example, in 2014 these people tried to live somewhere else for a while, but they came back again and they don’t want to move anywhere.

Photograph: Petr Štefan, People in Need

Collective center in a kindergarten in Selydov. The shelter here was mostly found by the elderly directly from the frontline municipalities (source: Petr Štefan, People in Need).

Is Ukraine still getting enough funding for humanitarian aid?

I feel like a lot of help is flowing. Solidarity is great, not just from the Czech Republic. In addition, the aid is provided by non-governmental organizations and the United Nations, etc. I also see great progress in the fact that it is quite well coordinated between Of course, the question is always whether help gets where it’s needed fast enough.

On behalf of People in Need, I must say that we always try to be as fast as possible. We have already spent half a billion crowns helping Ukraine and helped 260,000 people. It is not just emergency assistance, but also longer-term assistance such as psychosocial assistance and home repairs. We know that the conflict will continue.

When it’s over, what will be the biggest challenge for Ukraine?

I think the biggest challenge will be repairing the infrastructure. Majorly damaged, broken bridges, whole house blocks etc. there is. Recovery will take a long time.

The second major challenge Ukraine is likely to face longer is wounds in the soul. We offer help through mobile psychosocial teams or, for example, people’s helplines. But the traumas here are so powerful, and processing them will, of course, take longer than repairing homes, possibly generations.

Source: Seznam Zpravy

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