Yekaterina Sergatsova, UP.Life
Ukraine has never had a real war, and when military action started in the country, it turned out that there is not a single state structure or social institution which could have taken responsibility for the processes that follow war.
De-facto nobody knew how to free the hostages, how to organise the evacuation of the people from the anti-terrorist operation zone and give them temporary accommodation.
As usual, activists came to the rescue, who learned a lot during the battles on Maidan.
“Just imagine, a woman calls me and asks to help with the documents regarding her Donetsk apartment, and suddenly informs me that she got my phone number from the People’s Republic of Donetsk hotline,” says human rights activist Olexandra Dvoretska, one of the initiators of the coordination centre to aid Donbas citizens “East SOS.” “So it turned out that they are using our resources, and the people unwittingly continue to view Kyiv citizens as ‘banderites’ and the ‘junta’.”
It looks like the government of the ‘people’s republics’ does not have enough hands to help their citizens. However they have other troubles: their ‘volunteers,’ the ones that the PRD army takes off the streets and sends to ‘labour camps,’ are digging trenches and mining objects on locations that ATO forces had not yet reached.
“We are, of course helping everyone who has ended up in a tough situation regardless of their political views,” Sasha adds.
25 people are permanently at work in the centre of “East SOS,” as well as about ten volunteers, which come from time to time to relieve the permanent workers. The centre works on a round-the-clock basis, calls are constantly being made to the telephone lines from the citizens of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. They are mainly interested in where the forced refugees may find temporary shelter and how to register on their new location, in order to continue receiving pensions and children’s payments.
The centre works in three main directions.
“The care service” engages in collecting and distributing humanitarian aid, accommodating the refugees, issuing free medicine and hygiene products, paying money to children from the orphanage. The initiative that emerged back in the winter, the fund “Rehabilitation centre Maidan Hospital” helps issuing medicine.
“The main problem of the eastern citizens of Ukraine at the moment is the issue of moving,” says Olexandra Dvoretska. “Many don’t understand how to move, how to come. But we have a rule – not to speak about methods of escaping the roadblocks, as we cannot be held accountable for this: the information about the situation in the military action zone changes rapidly. Therefore, we advise everyone to get out of their cities using railways, it is the safest means of transportation.”
The second important direction is legal aid to the refugees. “East SOS” specialists consult them using all available means of communication regarding issues of pensions, payments, reissuing documents, registration and judicial aspects of employment.
Besides, right activists participate in developing normative acts which are passed by the government, demand to make necessary amendments to the bills.
“Poroshenko vetoes the bill regarding refugee status, and many were indignant: why?” Says Dvoretska. “But he did the right thing. We also wrote letters to the Ministry of Social Policy for this bill to be edited. It needs serious additional work.”
Besides coordinating help for the needy in the east of Ukraine, the activists engage in reporting. In the end of May Luhansk human rights activist Kostyantyn Reutskiy and his team created Informator website, a platform that gathers information regarding the events in the ATO zone.
An editorial committee of several people is working on the website in the Kyiv office, which gathers and verifies messages regarding what is happening on location. Informator is already being cited by Ukrainian law enforcement, as the messages are coming from people that are located directly in the military action zone.
This platform is also used by activists to gather information on the hostages. The fates of these people are best tracked on location.
“In the future we want to use this platform to talk not only about the anti-terrorist operation but about the eastern region in general,” says Dvoretska. “And we also want to inform the citizens of Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts about the decisions made regarding them in Kyiv.”
Refugees to refugees
Workers of “East SOS” centre are mostly activists which became forced refugees from Crimea and Donbas. Before May many of them gave legal aid to Crimean refugees.
Kyivans helped them organise the headquarters.
Natalya Trenina, head of the coordination group is from Luhansk herself, however she has been living in Kyiv for a long time. After the annex of Crimea she started organising humanitarian aid to the Ukrainian army in the East, and then decided to engage in broader activities.
“My friends from Luhansk that volunteers during the events on Maidan first lamented that they were left for dead,” Natalya shares. “They can be understood: they ended up in a much more difficult situation practically without any support. And after my friend was kidnapped in the Luhansk SSU, it became clear that it is dangerous to remain there. The majority of the activists moved to Kyiv and organised their volunteer initiative here.”
“We spent a long time creating the necessary infrastructure, and many people helped us, which stated donating money for our work. We were given an office, free internet connection and phone lines. Someone started bringing office equipment and furniture. We settled in quite quickly thanks to the people’s help.”
Now “East SOS” has over four thousand contacts with the families from eastern Ukraine and several hotlines, which are bursting with phone calls.
“We became not only a service for legal and humanitarian aid, but a psychological centre as well,” says Natalya. “We are trying to calm everyone, as the people are very worried about everything that is happening, and it is important for someone to listen to them.”
Besides “East SOS” the problems of the people that ended up in the antiterrorist operation zone have been taken up by other volunteer initiatives. The bravest ones are the volunteers that are working on location, engaging in evacuation of the citizens from the territory of military action.
As strange as it is, the majority of these volunteers are priests. One of the heroes, who established the work in moving people from the ATO zone is a pastor of one of the Baptist churches Sergiy Kosiak.
Together with several other Donetsk citizens he evacuates people from Donetsk, Horlivka, Snizhne and other cities where they are shooting.
According to him, mainly women, the elderly, and children are moving away. The men are scared of leaving, as they are afraid that at one of the PRD roadblocks they might be taken to the “army.” Meanwhile Sergiy himself has been the PRD mercenaries’ hostage several times, however he continues his work regardless of everything. He knows that there is nothing more important at the moment and few can conduct evacuation besides himself, as the majority of the activists have already left Donetsk oblast.
“We get many calls, and mainly we get calls from people who are badly informed about the situation in their city,” says Sergiy. “Many think that they can only get out by car. I explain to them that there is still public transportation left – buses, trains, it is safe to use them. However recently we received false information, as if all men were taken off the Donetsk-Kyiv train. The people are panicking and coming up with things and blowing them out of proportion.”
As of today the volunteers have organised an intermediary base for the refugees in Chervonoarmiysk, where they are accommodated at the church hotel. From there, the refugees go to other regions of Ukraine.
Sergiy Kosiak and other priests started evacuating the civilians right after the first shots were fired. At first he helped transport people from Slovyansk and Kramatorsk, and now he organises evacuation everywhere where it is needed. The only difficulty so far is Luhansk oblast, as there are practically no volunteers there.
“We have literally just now established communication with an activist from Luhansk. The evacuation there is difficult indeed,” Sergiy laments.
“But there are no global difficulties as of yet,” he thinks. “They are created by the people themselves: they are afraid, shaking when crossing the roadblocks. Yes, it is frightening, but fear should not hold one hostage. All the risks should be accounted for and we have to move slowly. What else can be expected in a city where there are about 30 thousand armed people?”
The Donetsk volunteer team is helped from all over Ukraine: they receive money transfers for tickets for the needy and humanitarian aid, given accommodations for the refugees, caring for the children from orphanages.
“Ukraine proved to be a country of solidarity which united the people,” says Sergiy. “We have a common trouble, it is not only the pain of Donbas. It is the pain of all of Ukraine.”
Translated by Mariya Shcherbinina