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." 

Well fed

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. 

Migratory math

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.”