ROSTOV-ON-DON — When military airplanes started buzzing over Sloviansk on June 3, Liliya Vlasova (a pseudonym) got very clear orders from her husband: “Get the kids and get out of here.”
Piling onto a bus with hundreds of other housewives and children, Vlasova headed to Russia’s southern Rostov Oblast region. Her neighbor who had arranged for the bus ran a real estate agency in peace time, and now is handling the business of evacuating people to Russia.
Vlasova asked not to reveal her real name because “she still travels home.” On the Russian side, Vlasova has already run into immigration and border control as well as volunteers. The only place she’s had trouble was with the Ukrainian border patrol. The refugees say that the border control ordered everyone to get out of the buses. “Then they started to shoot over our heads. We were all on the ground, they smiled and gave us our documents and said to keep going,” she recalls.
Along with another 300 mothers and children, Vlasova is staying at the state children’s camp in the Neklinovsky region. “Somehow I ended up being chosen as a supervisor. When I first got here, I was downing packets of Validol (anxiety medicine), but now I’m getting used to it. It’s ok here, we're by the sea,” Vlasova says, dressed in black leggings with bright make-up in spite of the early hour.
A dark-skinned man comes up to her to ask about the camp’s schedule. “I don’t know, go over there, to that building, and find out,” she says. Annoyed, she turns back to me. “He just arrived and is already hiding behind the apron.”
Indeed, there are only three men in the whole camp, and the women, most of whose husbands are under fire back in Ukraine, despise them. On the other hand, the women are not eager to talk about their husbands, who stayed to fight against the Ukrainian army. Many worry that their husbands could be targeted by Ukranian "Right Sector" nationalists.
Most of the refugee women said they'd had no plans on leaving until the fighting entered residential areas. “Before that, all of the fighting was at blockades on the periphery, we just heard gunshots. But now the army is overrunning the city, there are planes and bombs," says Irina from Sverdlovsk. "My sister’s stomach was torn up by shrapnel."
At 8 a.m., the sound of children crying and James Brown’s “I Feel Good” fill this old Soviet buildings. In the square in front of the dining room there are dozens of signs that say things like “Putin, We Love You,” and “Thank you, Putin.”
They were photographed last week when the Children’s Ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, visited the camp. If you didn’t know that the camp was full of women and children from contested regions in Ukraine, you could almost believe that it was a regular summer camp. The only clues that it’s really a refugee camp come from the constant deliveries of humanitarian aid and the telephone calls the woman make to their husbands in Ukraine.
In Rostov-on-Don — Photo: Pavel Grabalov
In the mornings when they speak with their families in Ukraine, they get an update on the previous night. “There were more bombings? No electricity? What a disaster. Here we eat five times a day, we never ate like this at home.” The telephone calls home are practically all identical.
“We don’t need for anything here. People are very responsive, they bring in loads of clothing and medicine,” explained the vice-director of the Neklinovsky District, Vitally Tretyakov.
Neklinovsky District shares a border with Ukraine’s Donetsk Oblast. There is an immigration office station set up in one of the rooms at the camp, and the refugees are able to complete their residency paperwork there and then start looking for businesses that will hire migrants. Tretyakov says that the region is responding to the current refugee influx much more than it did in 2008, when refugees from South Ossetia sought refuge in the region. Even employees at one of the city’s strip clubs have donated money for the refugees.
Local volunteers are also helping the refugees to get settled in. Anatoli Kotlyarov, the owner of a small construction business, has been going to the train station regularly for the past week to meet refugees from cities in Eastern Ukraine. He then takes them to the homes of Rostov residents who have indicated that they would be willing to host refugees by signing up on a special group on “V Kontakte” (a Russian version of Facebook).
Hundreds of local residents have responded to Kotlyarov’s call for host families. Kotlyarov, a member of the “A Just Russia” political party, is joined by the party’s regional leader, Sergei Kosinov, at the train station. We met them at the train station, just as he was leading another woman from a town near Donetsk to his black minivan.
“We need to discuss the possibility of establishing mobile Immigration Service points along the border with the government," he said. "They are coming not just by bus and train, but they are also crossing the border on foot."
It’s hard even to count the number of refugees in the region. Our reporter visited several camps and asked their leaders for statistics, and as of last Friday, was able to verify the presence of about 600 refugees. But officials say they expect another several hundred arrivals shortly.
At the regional level, officials say that over the weekend the number of refugees in stationary points reached 1,335, including 590 children. It’s hard to reconcile that number with the statistics given last week by Pavel Astakhov, who said there were 7,000 Ukrainian refugees in the region. Then as I got into the taxi to head back from the refugee camp, the local radio announced that there was already 35,000 Ukrainian refugees in the Rostov region who were fleeing the civil war.
There are other things that make it hard to know how many refugees are really in Rostov Oblast. First of all, many refugees just stay for a day before heading off to stay with relatives in another city, while others are planning to return home to Ukraine.
Many refugees we spoke with planned to go to stay with relatives in Crimea. Marina, a resident of Kramotorsk, whose sister was injured in one of the bombings, says she has relatives in the Far East and in Dagestan. “But I don’t have money for a plane ticket, and I’ve heard that Dagestan isn’t any safer than my home. So I’ll stay here for now.”
With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.
When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.
And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.
Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan
The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan
According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.
In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.
The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.
Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.
View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA
Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!
The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.
Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.
Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain
Old Belchite, Spain
Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…
That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.
Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.
If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.
Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan
Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan
The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.
The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.
Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."
Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.
Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden
The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden
After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.
Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia
Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia
During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.
Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.
Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy
Poveglia Island, Italy
Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).
During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.
In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.
Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.
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