WARSAW — More than 60 Ukrainians of Polish descent in the breakaway region of Donbass have asked Poland if they could be evacuated there, a request Warsaw has refused. Instead, it offered a modest aid package.
"Many of us are elderly people. There are single mothers too. It's not possible to live here any more. There is no work. The streets are occupied by armed bands. We are all of Polish descent and it's enough for our neighbors to look at us with hostility," says Jerzy Prykolota, who lives with his wife, 18-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son, in Luhansk, which along with Donetsk, makes up the region of Donbass.
Prykolota, along with 60 other residents of Luhansk, signed a letter sent to the Polish foreign ministry, requesting evacuation. They said they wanted to escape the ''nightmare of living in the occupied territories where more or less intensive battles take place. We fear for our lives and health, and that of our families. Many of us are jobless."
Many of these people also have Polish nationality or a Karta Polaka ("Pole's Card") — an official document that confirms their connection to the country. The previous Polish government had organized evacuations from Donbass twice, the last time being in January 2015. That decision was criticized by the Law and Justice party, which is currently in power in Poland.
As a result of that evacuation, 178 people arrived in Poland, which gave them medical care, accommodation for six months, and language courses. The local government organized meetings for them with potential employers. The whole undertaking cost 4 million Polish zlotych (nearly $950,000). The ruling Law and Justice party does not intend to organize a third evacuation campaign.
"The Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Kharkiv is in constant contact with the mentioned people. The institution helps and supports them. These people can benefit from the rights they have as Pole's Card holders as well as from the additional, individual support from the Consulate, for example, in the form of aid," Poland’s foreign ministry says.
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"The government told us that we can only expect help in obtaining visas in a shorter time and eventually aid. But what do we need 100 or 200 euros for? We won't be able to rent a flat for our families with this money. And we need help at the beginning, to be able to get back on our feet. At a later stage, we will definitely manage on our own," says Prykolota.
Prykolota decided against joining the Polish evacuation campaign last year because his wife was being treated for cancer. "I did not want to jeopardize that — she managed to recover here. Some Poles did not want to go and leave behind their whole life. They thought they would mange somehow," he says.
Oleks Zyrafski, who works in construction and has been living in Luhansk for 20 years, wants to escape to Poland with his son and wife. "Life here became unbearable. The situation is not very stable. We have all lost hope that anything will change. The shops and factories are closed. We have electricity and water for only a couple of hours every day," he says.
In the self-proclaimed Luhansk People's Republic, the situation is worse than in neighboring Donetsk People Republic, which is also controlled by pro-Russia rebels. Going to the West from Luhansk is only possible through one checkpoint in Stanytsia Luhanska. Bringing supplies from Ukraine is practically impossible so Russia brings in goods. Rebels looking for a source of income, impose import duty on them, so some products have doubled in price since the war in Ukraine began.
Even before the war, Luhansk was considered the poorest part of eastern Ukraine. The situation there has not changed since the fall of the Soviet Union. People were forced to work as illegal miners that brought profits to local oligarchs with political connections. The monthly salary of a miner in Luhansk is about 7,000 rubles (about $114).
A coal mine in Luhansk — Photo: Ukrainian Emergencies Ministry/Xinhua/ZUMA
The Luhansk ''republic'' has been controlled by Igor Plotnicki, a previously little-known businessman and clerk, since August 2014. Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Plotnicki graduated from a military academy. He was in the army, which he left in 1991 with the rank of major.
Witnesses in Luhansk say that they can see the nervousness of separatists every day, who from time to time intensify their street patrols and monitoring of local people. There is gunfire exchanged daily on the front lines between the rebels and the Ukrainian army. Households face water shortages because Ukrainian government cuts electricity supply to water-pumping stations. Rebels don't pay for the electricity they use.
Jaroslawa Syczynska, one of the people who signed the evacuation petition, did not wait for Poland’s response. She left Luhansk with her husband and 4-year-old son for the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
"We are staying with our family but we would like to work in Poland. We are young and strong. We are looking for a language course now to improve our Polish. Later, we hope to find work and an apartment in Lesser Poland or Mazovia. We cannot stay too long in Lviv," she says.
Prykolota says that people from eastern Ukraine are not welcome in central and western Ukraine. "They view us as supporters of the rebels and treat us with hostility. It's difficult to find a job or an apartment when we say that we are from Donbass. On the other hand, they don't like us here because we have Polish roots. We want to live in Poland, be loyal residents and pay taxes there," he says.
After Poland’s foreign ministry rejected their plea, the petitioners requested the intervention of Poland’s president, and both houses of parliament.