‘I’m Holding My Breath but I’m Ready’: Ukrainian Refugees Prepare for Invasion

Elena, a single mother of a 9-year-old girl, says her daughter 'knows where she and I will meet up if there’s a bombing. Where the documents and the cash are'

Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
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Anya with her husband at the doorms, Kharkiv, Ukraine 2022.
Anya with her husband at the doorms, Kharkiv, Ukraine 2022.Credit: Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky
Liza Rozovsky

A fence surrounds the little trailer enclave on Lev Landau Boulevard, on the outskirts of Kharkiv, which is populated by some 170 displaced persons from the breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.

Most fled in 2014, as soon as the pro-Russian separatists took over and war began with Ukrainian forces. Others joined a few years later. Within the compound, across from metal and plastic shacks, a girl with Down syndrome swings for a long while, as two guards make sure that the Israeli journalist souring their sunny, snow-covered morning isn’t wandering the pathways of the compound unattended.

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One of them, who calls himself “Uncle Misha,” is not at his most sober. He spares no criticism of the authorities, the Donetsk and Luhansk people – or the Jews. “This is his last shift,” promises Artur Statzenku, the compound manager on behalf of the Kharkiv municipal authorities, half an hour later. “It’s not cool that he can’t stand up straight in the middle of work.”

The compound includes two types of shacks: the ones divided into private one-bedroom apartments, and dorms. Each of the shacks includes 16 spaces – a room per family. Half the rooms are equipped with private bathrooms. The other tenants are forced to share. The kitchen, with four ovens, is shared by all households in the shack. Artur points at a crack in one of the walls and explains that the shacks were put up with no foundation. They sink in the ground and fall apart over time. Nobody thought people would live in the temporary neighborhood for eight years, but now there’s hope: The deputy prime minister visited the compound in recent weeks, and in the spring the city plans to start building modest housing to replace the makeshift shacks.

“We’re basically used to It here. It’s all right – it’s hot here,” says Anya, who lives in the dorms. She came with her husband from Alchevsk, near Luhansk, in 2016. “When we left there was a curfew, no people in the streets. There was anarchy there. Scary. Now it’s scary there too because there isn’t really any government. Nobody thought we would get stuck here. We thought it would be over quickly and we’d go back.”

Natalya, also from Alchevsk, is not going anywhere. She found herself in the trailer compound in 2015 with her granddaughter, who is disabled. A strong stench of mold rises from the chamber holding a toilet and shower stall, and the narrow corridor barely allows passage for the girl’s wheelchair. But to Natalya this is a significant upgrade over the dorms – and there is no alternative anyway. “We won’t go back. There’s nothing there. Not for the young nor the old.”

Anya with her husband at the doorms, Kharkiv, 2022.Credit: Liza Rozovsky
Natalya outside her apartment, Alchevsk, Ukraine, 2022.Credit: Liza Rozovsky

‘I acquired survival habits’

Some 150,000 refugees from Donetsk and Luhansk currently live in Kharkiv Oblast, of whom some 100,000 are in the city itself. They are known in officialese as “internally displaced” and receive an exceedingly modest government stipend – rent assistance to the tune of 400 hryvna (some 44 shekels) per month.

Elena Znatkova is angry over this policy. She herself risked it all when she left Luhansk. Elena is an activist for the refugees from the breakaway regions (as one of them herself) and works as the regional manager of the veterans affairs ministry. “I left with no money or belongings, but that’s only because I love my country very much,” she says, choking up.

In 2014 Elena worked at the higher education division of the Luhansk Oblast administration, coordinating the activities of all academic institutions in the region – seven universities and dozens of colleges. She says that the higher education system served as a tool of the Russian takeover. “After the Maidan revolution [in Ukraine, 2013-14], we began to receive instructions to prepare the system to transition to the Russian language, calculate all economic activities in rubles. The Oblast administration was in complete coordination with Russia. We didn’t know who we could trust. Some of us supported the Maidan revolution and automatically became enemies to everyone around. Many of my colleagues baked bread to welcome the Russian tanks – since February of 2014,” she said, referring to when Russia invaded the Crimean peninsula.

Natalya's apartment, Alchevsk, Ukraine, 2022.Credit: Liza Rozovsky

Elena, a single mother of a 9-year-old girl, found herself in an acute and covert conflict with her surroundings. She tells of attempts to recruit her in favor of the pro-Russian separatists, the checkpoints spread all over town, nightly deployments of military units in the streets and unmarked Russian combat troops who, she says, replaced the separatists “whom we knew as homeless, drunks and thugs.” She tells of men demanding that passers-by “donate” money for the militia. “I went to work, downloaded the universities’ database on a disk-on-key, deleted the data from the computer, and the next day I no longer went to work.” Meanwhile, the fighting between the Ukrainian forces and the separatists drew nearer to the city. The Oblast administration building was bombed (according to research by the European Organization for Security and Cooperation – by the Ukrainian side.)

Power and water were cut off and Elena fled with her daughter to the tiny town of Sukhodilsk near the Russian border, where her parents live. “During the official ceremony to mark the end of the fourth grade we could hear shooting in the city and the principal gave a fiery speech that soon we would have a different president and a different world – the Russian world. We took off the festive clothes, duct-taped the apartment windows and ran away.”

At the border town, Elena says, she saw the flood of weapons sent from Russia to the separatists. At some point, units of Chechen fighters entered the town. “It was like a safari. You couldn’t raise your head. I had to walk around with my eyes down. Not show any presence. Men with guns flooded the town.”

Two months later, in August, after a Ukrainian military aircraft was shot down near her parents’ house, Elena and her daughter fled first into Russia, reaching Moscow, and from there, with help from friends, managed to return to Ukraine and settled in Kharkiv. “I had my phone, passport, birth certificate, and my daughter’s medical records in my bag. I had almost no money because the banks weren’t working,” she tells me. “We crossed the border on foot and then by bus, hunched over, under empathetic or hateful gazes of Russian passengers, we rode to Moscow.”

Elena Znatkova in her office, Ukraine 2022.Credit: Liza Rozovsky

After returning to Ukraine, Elena contacted various government ministries. The university databases she downloaded enabled her to formally transfer many of the higher education institutions of the Luhansk Oblast into the Ukrainian-held territory, and aided in the evacuation of many students in the region. Now the way to Luhansk is closed to her. “I’m considered an enemy there,” she says.

“We all experienced very severe trauma. Maybe not everyone is aware of it,” she says of herself, her daughter and other refugees from separatist-held areas. “We all lived under bombardment and gunfire.

Are you afraid you’ll have to run away again in the face of a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine?

“It takes my breath away. I literally stop breathing. A few days ago I thought it was the last quiet evening in Kharkiv. I saw the foreign delegations evacuating the diplomats. I saw people withdrawing cash, and I know how it all began [in Luhansk.] But alongside the lump in the throat, I also know that I’m ready. I know what I have to prepare, where to go, I have a huge amount of experience with residents during wartime. I acquired strong survival habits, endurance, and knowledge. My daughter knows where she and I will meet up if there’s a bombing. Where the documents and the cash are. We talk about everything.”

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