Tales of Internally Displaced Persons in Ukraine
It is in Odessa city that we meet the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM). They explain that there are some 2,800 — 3,000 Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Odessa Oblast. These are the numbers confirmed “by regional officials and at the local level”, says David Milliman, Monitoring Officer of SMM Odessa. The trouble is that most people have not registered in their new constituency — many ignore the fact that they should do so. The administration can only measure the number of IDPs through “people who have come to them for support in one way or another”. It is therefore hard to give any specific details about the number, gender or age of IDPs.
Most of them are staying with family members or friends. Others, are accommodated in so-called sanatoriums, rest and recuperation resorts that seem very popular in Ukraine. “People with disabilities and kids are given priority”, explains Anna Gay, also Monitoring Officer of the SMM Odessa.
We travel to a sanatorium in a town 15 minutes away of Odessa, Kuialnyk. Known for its salty estuary and for being located on the Northwest of the Black Sea, it is formed by 6 buildings, one of which has been dedicated solely to IDPs. Initially, it was filled with soldiers from Crimea that did not want to join the Russian forces when the annexation occurred. They are now a minority though. The director of Kuialnyk, Sevak, says that 83 IDPs from the East are given free accommodation, food and health treatments in the salty springs. They are having to finance most of it themselves and are in consequence perilously close to bankruptcy. The government and the Ministry of Defense, who promised to pay for the stay of all soldiers and IDPs, have failed to meet their oath.
While kids run around us and some adolescents browse the web on their laptops, we meet Yelena in the lobby to take us through the installations in more detail. With some difficulty, she calls the lift that takes her to the double bedroom with a balcony and bathroom that she shares with her seven year old son since the 18th of June. Although a bit run down, the room is big and tidy. As I learn later of Sevak, the linen gets changed twice a week and rooms are cleaned daily. The bathroom is narrow, however it used to be worse: they removed the doorframe so that Yelena’s wheelchair could get through.
“The children were very afraid when they saw soldiers and planes flying over their houses in Luhansk”, remembers Yelena. She mentions with preoccupation how her son used to hide constantly, yet when he gained more confidence with the new situation he took the streets to play with his friends always carrying a knife “just in case”. A comment Anna Gay of OSCE made a day before bounces around my head: “many IDPs suffer of distress or insomnia”. Indeed, many kids (and adults) have needed the attentions of psychologists and social workers after experiencing first hand a military conflict in their home towns.
Luckily, there seem to be enough doctors and nurses available. Generic medicines are, too, though David of the OECD mentioned that there is a shortage of insulin. Some other prescription drugs seem hard to access as well.
On the other hand, Kuialnyk is home to one of the three most famous treatment centers for disabled people in Ukraine. The other two are in Slaviansk and Saky (Crimea, Russia) and have been closed down temporarily. “This place has much potential therefore”. In fact, “almost 60 people with disabilities have fled here”, voices Helen, a young and smiley judoka that takes us around a common room in Kuialnyk sat on her wheelchair. She explains that a local association of young people with dissabilities in her town of procedure, Mariupol, in Donetsk Oblast, arranged an accessible train for people like her to move to Kuialnyk about a month ago. With an admirable strong and determined voice tone, she tells me that her family is actually still in Mariupol. She left earlier because she didn’t want to be a burden for them when their time to move somewhere else arrives. But, “if necessary”, she says defiantly, “I will come back and fight”.
“It would be great if the government would invest some money in making the infrastructure more accessible”, voices Helen. Only 50% of the facilities are wheelchair-friendly, she further annotates. “All of the support is of individuals or foundations, NGOs. There is very little support of the government.”
Other than that, she seems happy with the treatment they are receiving. Apart from the salty waters, there are Marshrutkas (yellow minibuses that used to be popular in the Soviet Union) that take IDPs to the nearest beach; and even movie screenings and parties are arranged. Kids run around the fields and play with their new toys, mostly donated by people from Odessa. When I finally meet Yelena’s son, who comes with some new friends he has made in Kuialnyk, I ask them whether they are happy here. “YES!”, they shout without hesitation.
As we walk back to the car, I feel positively surprised by what I have experienced. All IDPs I have met have won the battle against depression with resilience and positivism. The sanatorium seems more like a holiday place than a shelter full of IDPs! But I wonder how long this situation is sustainable. “We can make it until the end of the month”, says Sevak. “I don’t know what will happen then if the government doesn’t pay its debt back.
See the full interview with the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission for more information:
Story by Marta García Aliaga
Photo credits: Rowan Farrell