Thousands of Ukrainians Flee to Russia as Army Attacks

Friday, July 11, 2014

MOSCOW -- Last week, Natasha decided she had seen enough. Her hometown of Kramatorsk, in east Ukraine, was pocked by airstrikes. Dead bodies lay in the streets.

With the Ukrainian military's pursuit of pro-Russian fighters intensifying, the mother of three fled, crossing into Russia on Friday. Natasha, who declined to provide her last name for fear of being targeted if she returned to Ukraine, and her children are now among nearly two dozen people crowding into a volunteer's dacha, or country house, outside of Moscow.

They are part of a growing number of Ukrainians who have left their homes as Ukrainian forces step up a fierce fight against rebel forces.

In recent weeks, Russian officials have sounded the alarm about a growing humanitarian crisis along their border.

"We are really on the brink of a humanitarian disaster," Vasily Gobulev, the governor of Russia's Rostov region, said on Wednesday, according to Russia's Interfax news agency.

Yet, like much of the conflict, the scope of the refugee problem remains murky. All that is clear is that many have fled and that the trend appears to be accelerating.

Figures provided by the Russian government have been disputed by independent activists who have visited camps along the border.

Top Russian officials claim around 500,000 Ukrainians have crossed the border since the start of the year. Of that number, some 180,000 are said to have registered as refugees, including nearly 21,000 children. Over 20,000 have reportedly applied for asylum in Russia.

Perhaps in a bid to bolster the credibility of Russia's claims, state-run media have begun to cite figures from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which says over 100,000 Ukrainians have fled to Russia. But the U.N. has no permanent presence along the border and Dan McNorton, a UNHCR spokesman, said that his office is only repeating figures cited by Russian officials. The U.N., he said, has no independent confirmation.

It is a difficult population to count. Many who cross the border spend only a few days in camps before being transferred to other regions around the country. Others may skip the camps to stay with friends and family, potentially leaving their presence uncounted.

The independent observers that are on the scene, however, say the government's figures appear to be high.

Svetlana Ganushkina, a human rights activist who runs the organization Civic Assistance, says her colleagues working along the border report the total number is only in the "tens of thousands."

She said some lack adequate medical care, but gave credit to authorities for providing aid for refugees, unlike past humanitarian crises in, for example, Chechnya.

Ganushkina said that, when interviewed, few of the people who fled across the border can say they witnessed bloodshed, but were instead frightened by the increased airstrikes by the advancing Ukrainian forces.

Many, she said, expressed hope that eastern Ukraine would follow Crimea in becoming part of Russia, suggesting they had political reasons for fleeing east to Russia.

Other Ukrainians, meanwhile, decided to flee west to other parts of the country.

There, too, estimating the scale of the displacement is difficult. There is no centralized count and the Kiev government has left the problem up to local authorities.

The latest figures from UNHCR, published early last week, said the number of internally displaced Ukrainians had spiked to over 50,000. This week, a UNHCR spokesman had no updated numbers, but estimated it had continued to rise.

Yulia Gorbunova, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, just returned this week from a trip throughout the country and estimated the figure to be around 100,000 people.

"It's definitely a huge problem," she said in a phone interview.

She estimated about 75 percent of those internally displaced came from east Ukraine. The rest came from Crimea, the bulk of which are Crimean Tatars who fear persecution now that the region has been annexed by Russia.

Back at the dacha outside Moscow, Natasha expressed no interest in the battle for power in Ukraine. She only hopes it will be over soon so that she can go back home.

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