Out in the cold


In December last year I visited Donetsk region in Ukraine once again (the towns of Slavyansk, Kramatorsk and Dzerzhinsk) in order to see how half a year of war had changed the life of the local population, especially the Roma people there, as I’m engaged in defending the rights of Roma. Seasonal darkness of damp and warm winter only increased the feeling of anguish after seeing what I saw and contributed to resulting pessimism. There were reasons for gloom, I must admit, and these were rather strong reasons: a year has passed since I first had visited Donetsk coal mining region (Donbass) and by looking at what was happening there now, I could not even say with certainty whether everything has changed for the better or for the worse.

The trip started in Kharkov, a city where there is a lot of Roma displaced persons from Donetsk and Lugansk regions. When their towns and villages became part of the zone of heavy fighting, Roma people left everything and fled, but most of them had not been able to establish themselves in a new place, to find appropriate dwellings or to become “settled” in the new city. Personal stories of these people sound very similar to each other, but at the same time each of them is unique. All of these people have lost their homes and property, moreover, they have lost any hope of returning home in the near future. Some people have nowhere to return to, as their houses were looted after their departure or were occupied by the military since. Someone’s homes were destroyed by shelling, some people are simply afraid that they would be killed or enslaved by the separatists, given the horrible history of atrocities against Roma by separatists in Slavyansk.

A mixed Russian-Roma family from Makeyevka lives for a year now in an abandoned country cottage on the outskirts of Kharkov. The house has no heating and running water; monthly social benefits, which these refugees receive for their children, make them last for only a couple of weeks a month; they cannot get jobs because in most cases employers prefer to take people with “Slavic appearance” even for the most low-paid jobs. After talking to these people I have learnt that their house back in Makeyevka had been virtually stolen brick by brick by looters, who took windows and radiators, not to mention the valuables, and then simply disassembled the house. Now, no matter how desperately they want to come back, they simply have nowhere to return to. They are forced to live – six of them – cramped in a strange place, in an abandoned, ramshackle hut of very old age, which at first did not even have electricity or fire stoves. “We came here and became paupers”, mother of the family told me. “We have nothing to feed the children, there are no means to buy firewood. The house is freezing, but we were not even allowed to collect dry wood in the forest for heating. We regularly go to social security services to ask for help, but in response we only hear reproaches that we are unemployed”, she said.

As it turned out later from conversations with other displaced persons, over the last year the situation with humanitarian aid has not changed much: aid is being collected and distributed only by volunteers, NGO activists and various church organizations, while Ukrainian state bodies of authority limit themselves to issuing short-term benefits, at the same time providing official reports based on the activities of non-governmental activists. One of the Kharkov dwellers, who is involved in aid work for displaced persons, told me, the authorities prefer not to officially recognize displaced persons because in case of such recognition they will have to spend budget money for aiding them. Some of the displaced persons interviewed by me in Kharkov complained that after registering with a local social security office, they had to live for a few weeks at the railway station and literally went to beg from door to door, while there was no lodging provided for them by the authorities and the social benefits for which they were entitled were delayed.

As we moved closer to Donetsk region, we found out that those who had to flee from their towns, but later had decided to go back, faced numerous problems upon their return. The war here seems to be over, but there is still some strange oppressive spirit in the air. Houses destroyed during the fighting, poverty, hunger and complete indifference of the local authorities are only a fraction of the ordeals that local Roma people residing on the Ukrainian territories “liberated from separatists” had to go through. In Slavyansk, for example, I saw houses which had been habitable once, but since then had been turned into piles of bricks and rubbish due to shelling by the Ukrainian army. Broken windows sealed with polyethylene, bullet holes still visible on the walls… This is a very common sight in Slavyansk and other nearby towns bordering on separatist territories. One can only wonder how people can live – or, rather, merely survive – in such horrible conditions.

After failing to get any help from the local authorities, after numerous unsuccessful visits to various local offices in order to get compensations for damages caused by the army, they do what they could to patch up the holes in the roof and repair cracks in the walls of those rooms, which remained more or less intact. But to live in such a room, you need to constantly keep warm, because the wind still blows through the cracks in the walls. Firewood is expensive, so residents are forced to heat the room by burning wooden beams of their own house. “You see, my son, first the “militia” came to us and took out all that was valuable, even a shelf, where we kept our documents”, one of the residents of the house told me. “They were stationed here, outside of our house. [Ukrainian troops] tried to shoot at them from planes and they hit our house. They were fighting between themselves, but it was us who were caught in the crossfire”, she said.

Residents of another large private house in Kramatorsk have been living in a small summer kitchen instead for over a year now, seven people cramped into a small space, after a shell had pierced the roof of their house. I asked them whether there had been any assistance from the local authorities, but they told me with a sad smile that the local mayor came in person, assessed the damage and promised to help, but only a few sheets of substandard slate for the roof were provided to them over the whole year.

After travelling through several towns and villages and seeing how people lived there, I once again felt ashamed for those who had promised to rebuild the houses and help the victims of warfare. Hundreds of people remain abandoned in the cold winter weather. And no arguments concerning the lack of funds in the Ukrainian budget, the unwillingness of Roma people to work and earn money for repairs of their homes or references to the economic crisis can serve as a justification for violations of the human rights of these people and inactivity of the local authorities. Ukraine has adopted the concept for integration of the Roma population over a year ago, but the concrete results of the state’s activities in this field yet remain to be seen, at least concerning those who had suffered from the war. The vast majority of Roma displaced persons and of Roma people residing in the areas affected by the war, continue to live in extreme poverty and in need of urgent assistance. It appears that official declarations about the development of public policy for the protection of rights of ethnic minorities have not helped the Roma population of Eastern Ukraine as their problems remain unresolved in spite of Euromaidan and the reforms aimed at making Ukraine a European country.

Sergey Mikheyev