The plight of Ukrainian refugees forced to flee to Russia and comparison to Haiti
This article originally appeared at CounterPunch
While in Moscow three weeks ago, following a media tour to Donetsk, eastern Ukraine in which I participated, I had the pleasure of meeting Jon Hellevig, a regular writer at Russia Insider. Jon was in Donetsk a few weeks before our group, thanks to the efforts of the same Russian/German citizen group, Europa Objektiv, which organized our tour.
The second of Jon’s articles about his trip was published on April 21 and is titled, ‘Donbas endures’. The article describes one of the settlements in Russia of war refugees from eastern Ukraine. It is located across the border from southeastern Ukraine, on the road to the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don. It’s also on the shoreline of Sea of Azov, prompting an evocative sub-title in Jon’s article: ‘Fleeing the bombs in eastern Ukraine to a room with a sea view’. Our group visited the same settlement several weeks later.
Jon explained, “I have not visited a refugee camp before.” I have, in Haiti. There are some parallels and warning signs between the two places, notably in the calls by the regime in Kyiv for international troops called ‘peacekeepers’ to enter eastern Ukraine.
Displaced by War in Eastern Ukraine
Jon writes, “Tatyana Bolshakova and her family from Donetsk used to travel to the seaside for holidays. They had always dreamt of a house with a sea view, she said, but she would never have thought this is how they’d come by one, pointing out through the window overlooking the Sea of Azov in the room that she and her family occupies at the Primorka refugee camp in Russia’s Rostov region.”
Like Jon, I was struck by how well Primorka was organized and how well the residents were received by their Russian hosts. The settlement is located in a former youth (‘pioneers’) camp dating from the Soviet era. Hence, the camp is known as ‘Pioneer’ camp. Primorka is a small town in an area of agricultural plains. The children attend local schools.
A local woman, Svetlana, had purchased the unused pioneers’ camp just before hostilities broke out in Ukraine last year. She and her husband planned to earn income by reopening it as a summer camp for children and families. Along came a war just across the border with Ukraine, a 45 minute drive to the west.
As victims of Kyiv’s war against Donbas began to flee to Russia for safety, the Ministry of Emergency Situations of the Russian government began to requisition facilities such as the Pioneer camp in Primorka. It received its first displaced residents on June 5, 2014.
More than one million Ukrainians have fled to Russia to escape the war during the past year. We were told that in the Rostov region alone, there are close to 50,000 displaced Ukrainians, many of whom are living in some 30 camps. Hundreds of thousands more Ukrainians have obtained work visas and settled permanently or semi-permanently in Russia.
Svetlana showed no sign of resentment at her life being placed on hold. Or at least, no sign of blaming it on the people who have had to flee their homes in Ukraine. In fact, she has stepped up to manage the place. An easy and friendly relationship between her and camp residents was in evidence throughout our half-day visit. Likewise between residents and medical personnel on hand.
Ah yes, the medical personnel. A jovial doctor, Yuri, from the Russian medical system is assigned to care for the camp residents. It is one of two such camps where he serves, on top of his regular patient load. He is a pediatrician by profession, which is very good because he has lots of children to look after in the two camps in Primorka. There are some 65 at Pioneer camp. They are deeply traumatized by the war conditions they have witnessed.
Last summer, Yuri told us, Ukrainian forces came uncomfortably close to the Russian border. They were advancing through Donetsk in an effort to crush resistance to the seizure of power in February in Kyiv by pro-Europe politicians and oligarchs. As the Pioneer camp began to receive those fleeing the war, a request was made to Russian authorities to stop helicopter flights from passing near the camp. (These were fisheries patrols, I later learned.) The children took terrible fright at any sound of aircraft. Russian officials agreed.
I was impressed with how the camp residents organized themselves. The kitchen facilities are communal. Residents prepare and eat their meals together. The grounds have been landscaped and planted (my, how Donbas people love to plant roses!). Repairs to the buildings are ongoing as needed.
Some residents find jobs locally. But there is not enough work for everyone, and so some of the husbands are away from their temporary home for stretches at a time. Other husbands never left Donbas—they joined self-defense forces.
Notwithstanding the safety and relative comfort in which people are living, life is hard. That’s because of the uncertainties. Will peace return to Donbas? When will residents be able to return home? No one knows for sure, and this is a great source of frustration and anger–at Kyiv for starting a war, and Western governments for supporting it.
Some anger is reserved for Western media, too. One mother and camp resident told us, “We don’t know why our story is not being told. Only the smaller, alternative media in the West comes to speak to us or tell our story. The larger media simply tells the Ukrainian government’s side of the story.”
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have moved to Russia permanently. The residents still in displaced persons camps such as Pioneer aren’t quite ready for that wrenching change in life. “We hope for peace,” one told us. “Those of us still here have hope. We have homes that we don’t want to abandon or relatives remaining in Donbas who need our support.”
Overall, there is great uncertainty over the future of the homeland they call Donbas. It turns out, this is not an entirely new story. Many residents told us that the political crisis in Ukraine which came to a head in late 2013/early 2014 involves longstanding and unresolved issues.
The Donbas region became part of Ukraine several years after the Russian and Ukrainian revolutions of 1917-18. This was an effort by VI Lenin and the other revolutionary leaders to assist the development and self-determination of Ukraine. The idea was that the industrialized region of Donbas would bring more rounded economic development to the newly independent Ukraine, which was largely agricultural and economically underdeveloped.
That part of Ukraine’s history seemed to fade over the years. But the historic memory has remained (like the memory of the decision of the Soviet Union in 1954 to transfer Crimea to Soviet Ukraine authority). The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was founded in 1922. Soviet Ukraine was a founding member of the union.
The USSR’s economy transcended national and language borders. Donbas, that is, southeastern Ukraine, became one of the most industrialized and prosperous regions of the USSR. Ukrainian became a state language and schooling was freely available in either Ukrainian or Russian (though Ukrainians suffered language and other discrimination in the several decades surrounding WW2).
Dissatisfaction with economic and social development in the Soviet Union grew in the 1980s, to the point where much of the population was indifferent to the dismantling of the state-owned economy that began in the late 1980s and 1990s.
Upon its second independence, in 1991, Ukraine became an officially unilingual state. Pioneer resident and mother Xenia told us that ‘Ukrainianisation’ policies which followed came to infringe on the rights of people in Donbas. For example, schooling in Russian became less available and more complicated to arrange. English became more difficult for students to learn because it began to be taught via the Ukrainian language.
Measures to promote Ukrainian language services in education and state services seemed overly zealous and wasteful. A galling example was that names in official documents such as passports were ‘Ukrainianized’, leading to endless and costly confusion and bureaucratic foul-ups, Xenia said.
We heard particular resentment over how historical interpretation changed in independent Ukraine. Xenia explained, “Since 1991, there has been a rewriting of history. My children began to be taught that Russia was an enemy. This was bound to erupt in trouble one day.”
A lot of bitterness came out in our conversations with residents. We learned that many felt deeply betrayed by Ukraine. They feel they gave independent Ukraine a fair chance since 1991, but now say bitterly, “What kind of a country and government bombs its own people?”
“I am Russian,” said one woman resident. “After 1991, they came to us with their plans to make Ukrainian the only language of government services Ukrainian. Why? We speak Russian, not Ukrainian. We never had any conflicts between Russian and Ukrainian people. Why did they want to start that up?”
What of Europe? The word brings sneers. One resident told us, “What sort of values does the European Union have? It supports a government in Kyiv that despises the Russian language.”
Refugee Camps in Haiti
I made two trips to the Caribbean island of Haiti during my ten years of advocacy and solidarity work for that country and people. My first trip was in 2007. I visited the capital city, Port au Prince, and the north of the country. The second visit was in June 2011, 17 months following the catastrophic earthquake of January 12, 2010.
The visit in 2011 confirmed our worst fears from abroad that the massive, international “aid” effort supposedly delivered on Haiti’s behalf following the earthquake was a massive failure. The aid was like a large band-aid pasted over all the existing social, economic and political inequalities and injustices that made Haiti so poor and so vulnerable to the earthquake in the first place. I described those pre-existing conditions, the results of Haiti’s exploitation by colonialism and then imperialism, in an article I co-authored in May 2011: Haiti’s humanitarian crisis: Rooted in history of military coups and occupations.
What confounded me already in 2007 and then became magnified one thousand fold upon visiting in 2011 was the glaring contrast between the incredible wealth and resources in North America and Europe which could assist Haiti’s development but which the governments there refuse to make available. The wealthy powers squander their wealth, devoting enormous resources to all manner of foreign political and military intervention. What could be more scandalous that the waste of resources devoted to military posturing and war in Ukraine and eastern Europe at a time of humanitarian and ecological emergencies?
Haiti is a rich country in human and natural resources. It has a proud history, one of the hallowed places on Earth where modern civilization, such as it is in its unfinished state, was forged through the sacrifices of its people. Haiti was the ‘Vietnam’ of its era when it won independence in 1804. It staged the first successful slave rebellion in modern history. Barefoot Haitians who barely spoke a common language rose up and defeated the largest empire of the day—Napoleon’s France. The final victory was won at Vertières (Cap Haitien) in northern Haiti in November 1803.
Yet there Haiti sits today, one of the most economically deprived countries on the planet, a mere 90 minute flight away from Florida. It is mired in the harsh and unequal world capitalist economic system. Every time the people there have tried to bring about progressive change, they have endured violent opposition from the wealthy countries of Europe and North America, including overthrows of their elected presidents and governments, economic embargos, “aid” with a million strings attached and all other manner of foreign intervention.
I was pleased to see in the Rostov region of Russia that aid to victims of human-made or natural catastrophes can be properly provided and administered. Granted, that is easier for Russia compared to countries with fewer means. But the U.S., Canada and Europe have far more resources than Russia. If they were to assist countries like Haiti and Ukraine, rather than trying to subjugate them, we would be moving towards a much better world. Instead, economically deprived countries are left to languish and eastern Europe threatens to become another theatre of permanent war, thanks to the same powers that are busily destroying the Middle East.
Among the pertinent lessons from Haiti for Ukraine today is that of the role of international ‘peacekeepers’. There is much talk from the Ukrainian government that an international ‘peacekeeping’ force should be sent into the east of the country. Maybe Ukraine’s pro-Western leaders have studied Haiti’s eleven-year experience with the United Nations Security Council peacekeeping mission (known as MINUSTAH). It is understandable that this would appeal to them.
MINUSTAH has been a mission of intervention and occupation, conceived for the express purpose of consolidating the overthrow of Haiti’s elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in February 2004. He was overthrow in a coup by right-wing paramilitaries with the support of the U.S. government, Canada and Europe.
Since the 2004 overthrow and the creation of MINUSTAH several months later, Haiti’s social development has stalled and gone backwards. Even the catastrophic earthquake in January 2010 could not convince the big powers to change course, loosen their tight control over the country and allow some meaningful development to take place. [See Haiti's promised rebuilding unrealized as Haitians challenge authoritarian rule, by Roger Annis and Travis Ross, Jan. 12, 2015.] The most egregious of MINUSTAH’s sins was its reckless conduct in introducing a cholera epidemic to Haiti in October 2010. More than 8,000 people have died from it. To this day, the UN Security Council refuses to acknowledge its actions and take responsibility.
I am pleased that the leaders of the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics are rejecting the idea of foreign military intervention into eastern Ukraine under the guise of ‘peacekeeping’. Intervention and war cannot bring meaningful development, not for Donbas and not for Ukraine as whole. Only deepgoing political and social change in favour of the working class majority of the country can do that. That requires breaking the stranglehold which the class of billionaires hold over the economy and ending the war they are waging.
Roger Annis is an editor of The New Cold War: Ukraine and beyond. In mid-April 2015, he joined a four-day reporting visit to the Donetsk People’s Republic. This is his third article from that visit. All his articles can be found on his author page on ‘The New Cold War’ website.