Exiled during Soviet times and repatriated to Ukraine 22 years ago, Susanna Yagyaeva is on the move again as Russia’s military returns to her homeland.
A week after abandoning Crimea as President Vladimir Putin’s forces overran the Black Sea peninsula, the Tatar mother of one was scrubbing pots at a makeshift hostel in a Soviet-built sanatorium 800 kilometers (500 miles) away in Kiev. As parts of eastern Ukraine now agitate for a split, the United Nations said tens of thousands more Ukrainians may seek shelter, jobs and aid because of fear of violence and discrimination.
“We left everything behind,” said Yagyaeva, 47, tugging at her silk headscarf as a lunch of borscht beetroot soup and buckwheat was prepared in a cramped kitchen. “We don’t want a Russian passport. We want to live in peace and friendship with everyone. So we came here.”
The upheaval risks mounting pressure on a country that’s struggling to avert bankruptcy and stay intact. Ukraine is straining under $10 billion in debt this year, owes Russia $2 billion in gas import costs and needs a bailout of as much as $18 billion led by the International Monetary Fund.
With army vehicles flying Russian flags clogging the streets of the Crimean capital Simferopol, Yagyaeva was shocked by the support for the Kremlin among her neighbors and feared harassment for being a Muslim and a Ukrainian patriot.
As many as 150,000 Crimeans who back Ukraine may depart for the mainland, according to the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies, Ukraine’s largest public-policy research institute. The UN warned an even larger wave of displacement amid new violence would require a “substantial international response.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said today that the military is not conducting any unusual or unplanned activity near the border with Ukraine that would have any military significance.
“We cannot dismiss the potential for a much bigger movement if violence erupts,” said Oldrich Andrysek, the regional representative for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said in his office in Kiev. “I see the potential for this trickle to become a destabilizing factor.”
At a 1960s-era social security office in Kiev, laptops and printers sat amid red rotary-dial phones, staplers and scribbled reference cards. Staff said they had processed more than 900 arrivals since the center opened last month.
They were busy with a new wave of migrants, some fresh from the journey and still toting scuffed plastic shopping bags stuffed with papers, clothing and other personal belongings.
“This will become quite a big challenge to Ukraine’s budget, especially considering the very tense situation,” said Volodymyr Sidenko, an analyst at the Kiev-based Razumkov Center. “Most likely it will be gradual, and if we have time to regulate this, we can keep it from becoming a social disaster.”
Holding his left arm, which was still bandaged from a wound he received during demonstrations at Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital, 55-year-old Mykola Naumov flashed his military credentials and said his life has boiled down to a cot at a local children’s shelter.
“I cannot go back to Crimea now,” he said. “I am not going to be welcome.”
While he was talking, Olha Luneva, a children’s clothing designer who runs a charity for children with HIV and cancer in Simferopol, fled the office in tears, her face smeared with mascara. With her bank account in Crimea blocked, leaving her with no access to any other funds, Luneva is unable to continue with her charity work and is afraid to return to home as long as it’s under Russian control.
“I am a Ukrainian and I am homeless now,” she said. “I am a patriot, but I couldn’t stay in Crimea.”
Almost 4,000 Crimeans have registered with a private agency or government body and there may be thousands more uncounted on mainland Ukraine finding refuge with family or friends.
Ukraine’s government is trying to keep the country together after pro-Russian protesters seized administration buildings in the eastern cities of Kharkiv and Donetsk. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on April 7 that Russia’s government was trying to split up his nation.
Most of the 60 hostages taken yesterday by pro-Russian protesters in the city of Luhansk were freed without injuries after lawmakers entered a seized government building and held talks, Ukraine’s Security Service said today.
Many Crimeans may “feel Russian, clearly, many of them are very happy, but there are also many who don’t feel so Russian,” said the UN’s Andrysek. Others “cannot be blamed if they feel threatened and flee to the mainland and become displaced in their own country,” he said.
Some Crimeans who left are without key documents and their livelihoods are at risk because they don’t have proper Russian licenses for practices such as legal, financial or educational services, said Alim Aliev, 25, a Tatar, who set up a Facebook Inc. page to help people locate one another.
“I understand from the stories they are telling that they have been so pressured, that unless they leave, they would be broken,” said Aliev, whose Crimea SOS project now has 60 volunteers and helped link up 400 displaced people. “They are afraid to speak Ukrainian in the streets.”
Russia reclaimed Crimea, which was ceded to Ukraine in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, after months of demonstrations in Kiev led to deadly clashes and the ouster of the pro-Russian government in February. Apart from the Muslim Tatars, families of Ukrainian military personnel and supporters of the revolution are also seeking asylum, Aliev said.
“For non-Tatars, the main reason for leaving Crimea is fear,” he said. “Crimean Ukrainians are the most exposed to pressure. For them, it is very dangerous.”
At the Kievpastrans Sanatorium, built under Soviet times in a leafy Kiev suburb for vacationing state transport workers, Ivan directed donations of everything from chocolate to refrigerators to unused hallway space for cataloging.
A Crimean resident, Ivan, who declined to use his last name, jumped in a car in Sevastopol with three friends in late March to make his way to the capital, where he found work helping others settle into shelters.
“Everyone is afraid of war, afraid Russia may invade further,” said Ivan, after showing two UNHCR representatives around the sanatorium. “But we are living in hope that one day we will go back.”
Two floors above, as lunch was getting underway and children played with donated trucks, dolls and bicycles, Yagyaeva wiped her hands on a kitchen apron and recalled how her family returned to Crimea from deportation to Uzbekistan when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
Now she faces another generation of exile from her homeland because of decisions in Moscow. With a grown-up son opting to stay in Crimea, she considers herself fortunate as many families in the region were unable to pack up and leave and now contemplate a life under Kremlin control.
“This has been very depressing,” she said. “But I know things will get sorted out. All the world is supporting us.”