“The end is near,” Ukrainian film director and Russian political prisoner Oleg Sentsov wrote in early August on his 92nd day of a hunger strike. Russian occupying authorities arrested Sentsov in Crimea due to his involvement in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and protest against the illegal annexation of Crimea; a Russian court sentenced him to 20 years on alleged terrorist charges. Sentsov demands that Russia release the other 70+ Ukrainian and Crimean political prisoners. But the suffering due to Russian aggression in Crimea and eastern Ukraine (Donbas) has affected much greater numbers: 10,000 killed, with at least 7000 civilian casualties; over two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees.
History of the Conflict: Escaping the Yoke of Russian Control
Ukraine along with other post-Soviet states became independent in 1991 and has seen several waves of “people power” revolutions seeking to push the country westward, away from Russia’s dominion. The Orange Revolution in 2004 was sparked by the electoral fraud.
A decade later, Ukrainians took to the streets again to protest then President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to turn away from a landmark accord with the European Union to sign more deals with Putin instead. The Orange Revolution was an electoral revolution; Ukrainians wanted a fair election, and they succeeded in insisting on one. Yanukovych responded by using force to kill over 100 protesters in February 2014, and then he fled to Russia. By then, Russian special forces were already on the move to occupy Crimea. They then continued to move in to eastern Ukraine starting in April 2014, starting a shooting war that continues to the present.
Current Situation: Over Two Million Displaced Due to War in Donbas
Although the 2014 takeover of Crimea was nearly bloodless, a shooting war has affected the region known as Donbas for more than four years, including two major cities, Donetsk and Luhansk. The majority of IDPs moved to nearby Ukrainian urban centers, such as Kharkhiv, Dnipro, and Zaporhyzhya, but many resettled further away, in Kyiv, Odessa, and Lviv.
Katerina Brukhanova, the deputy head of the Association of IDPs and a Crimean refugee herself, stated that although the official number is 1.7 million IDPs [in 2017], the more accurate number would be 2 million IDPs currently within Ukraine. According to Natalia Karabowska, the Director on Strategic Development at the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, 66% of IDPs in Ukraine are women.
The displacement has affected everyone. Children still close enough to the active frontline fall asleep to the noise of shells being dropped on their homes. Parents have to completely uproot their lives and jobs and move to new areas that may not have available job opportunities. IDP children are given first priority when it comes to daycares and kindergartens, which hasn’t sat well with some local families whose children are now on waitlists.
When they relocate, it is difficult for families who do not have connections in other cities to integrate. According to the head of the Association for IDPs in Ukraine, Katerina Brukhanova, many return back to the conflict zone just after three months. Even with government help in finding apartments, those who are not able to find a job with sufficient income run out of their savings have little choice but to return back to the eastern conflict zone and occupied territories.
The Crimea Antecedent
Many Crimean human rights activists involved in the EuroMaidan Revolution or against the annexation had to flee Crimea for their safety or face persecution and imprisonment like Sentsov. The estimated 50,000 Crimean IDPs and refugees who first struggled with these integration issues after Russia’s occupation and annexation in 2014 formed groups and organizations in order to help Donbas IDPs find their way as well. That is how Crimea-native Katerina Brukhanova became the head of the Association for IDPs in Ukraine. After relocating from Sevastopl to Kyiv, she and her fellow Crimeans created organizations to assist Ukrainians suffering the same displacement.
International Organization for Migration (IOM) Ukraine’s Chief of Mission, Dr. Thomas Lothar Weiss, stated that over 3.4 million conflict-affected people in Ukraine require humanitarian assistance. Ukraine is facing the biggest displacement crisis in Europe since the Balkan Wars in the 1990s. Organizations like Katerina’s, the Association of IDPs, DonbasSOS and CrimeaSOS give IDPs a voice in helping address the integration process even as they hope to return home one day.
Masha Gessen, “Counting Down the Days of the Hunger Strike by Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian Political Prisoner Held in Russia” 2018. The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/counting-down-the-days-of-the-hunger-strike-by-oleg-sentsov-a-ukrainian-political-prisoner-held-in-russia
Adrian Karatnycky “Ukraine’s Orange Revolution” 2005. Foreign Affairs https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/russia-fsu/2005-03-01/ukraines-orange-revolution
Oleg Karpyak. 2013. “Ukraine’s Two Different Revolutions” BBC https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-25210230
“Chronology of Orange Revolution” 2007. Deutsche Welle https://www.dw.com/en/chronology-of-the-orange-revolution/a-2804808
Press Release. “Ukraine ‘Europe’s Largest Crisis’: IOM Regional Director on Visit to Eastern Ukraine” 2018 International Organization for Migration. https://www.iom.int/news/ukraine-europes-largest-crisis-iom-regional-director-visit-eastern-ukraine
- Buckley, R. Clem, J. Fox, E. Herron. “The war in Ukraine is more devastating than you know” 2018. The Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2018/04/09/the-war-in-ukraine-is-more-devastating-than-you-know/?utm_term=.c8cccc3bf3ae
Tanya Cooper And Yulia Gorbunova. 2017. “Crimea not our home anymore” Human Rights Watch https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/05/03/crimea-not-our-home-anymore
Written by [Refugees Welcome!] Intern, Elina Kent