Hungry and in fear, with their homes destroyed, thousands of people fleeing from the war in Donbass have found refuge in Russia. How do they live now? What prospects do the homeless have far from their own land? Thanks to the precious record of Eliseo Bertolasi from the heart of a refugee camp in the province of Rostov, we uncover their stories and destinies, uprooted by a war in the middle of Europe.
Santi: Eliseo, You’ve been in a refugee camp in Rostov, at Taganrog. What are the living conditions of the refugees there
Bertolasi: In the town of Taganrog about two hours from Rostov-on-Don I visited two residencies laid out for refugees that have arrived from southeast Ukraine. Someone got lodging in a hotel, but most are in a “lager” as they call it, though having nothing to do with the “lagers” of Nazi memory! They are like the colonies, you know, like the ones in Italy some years back where kids would spend their summer vacations.
There are mess halls, gardens, places where the kids can be together. I saw children watching cartoons, doing their homework. Most of the refugees are women and children and the elderly.
Santi: What have they told you? Do they intend to get back to the Donbass?
Bertolasi: Many of them have confirmed that they have no home, that their homes have been flattened to the ground. Of course, they would love to get back, because it’s their original home and the land of their parents, yet they realize they have nothing. The desire to return is nevertheless, very strong.
Santi: What got to you most of all during your visit to the camp?
Bertolasi: Oh, so many moments, so many stories. The director of the mess hall told me that right after the kids got there, they took shelter under the tables, because they’d lived through the terrible psychic trauma of seeing stuff collapsing, bombs raining on them. Another touching moment of that day: An old woman, veteran of the Great Patriotic War at the Belorussian Front, was awarded a medal, delivered in person by the camp director, sent from President Putin, in prospect of the May 9 celebration of the 70th anniversary of Victory Day.
Santi: What prospects do they have, these refugees now living in Russia, particularly those whose homes have been demolished? We know very well that when the deep cold of the Russian Winter comes on, hosting refugees in tents is just unimaginable.
Bertolasi: As you already know, when the heavy bombardments began on the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, there was an enormous flood of refugees into Russia. I recall at first the various options that the Russian Federation hypothesized were refugee status, temporary resident status, and in the future, simplified procedures for obtaining Russian citizenship.
I can recall for you an illustration from my travels: a few months back in the Rostov-Moscow train, I met in my compartment a gentleman from Murmansk who informed me that several refugees were already installed in the social structure and housing arrangements in his city.
Santi: So the refugees are being settled throughout the Russian territory, and are not just here in Rostov?
Bertolasi: Certainly. This was a necessity arising from not having the refugees stay in the original tent cities that they set up when the refugee-stream began.