‘Don’t let this madman force us from our homes again’

Published by The Mail on Sunday (23rd January, 2022)

Ekaterina Pereverzeva is struggling to stop fears of war tormenting her as vast numbers of Russian forces mass across the border near her home in Ukraine’s second city.

‘Any time could be the last peaceful moment,’ she said as we talk in a bar. ‘We could be sitting here with a drink as the shelling starts, unaware that people I love might be dying.’

The 27-year-old tries not to think about the gathering storm clouds – but she knows all too well how life, families and friendships can be instantly shattered by malevolent Russian president Vladimir Putin.

For she was forced to leave another Ukrainian city after it was seized by Kremlin stooges – and is terrified history will repeat itself after she has worked so hard to create a new life in Kharkiv.

‘I try not to think these thoughts, to calm my fears, to carry on living,’ says Ekaterina, who set up an arts and human rights website after fleeing Donetsk.

‘But there’s constant fear with this escalation of hostilities. I know how Putin starts wars, since I have suffered the consequences. So I must live with the fears because of my experiences.’

At the mention of Putin’s name, the thoughtful, elfin woman bristles. ‘I would like him to die,’ she says. ‘Not only Putin but all the people giving the orders to start the shooting, to start wars. I want them all to die.’

Amid the talk of invasion, it is easy to forget that Ukraine has been embroiled in conflict with its aggressive neighbour for eight years after Russian-backed separatists seized control of two self-styled republics in Donetsk and Luhansk.

This was Putin’s brutal response – along with the capture of Crimea – to pro-democracy protests that ousted his ally in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. The Kremlin’s intervention has led to 14,000 deaths and 2.6 million people such as Ekaterina forced from their homes. 

The war on Ukraine’s eastern flank has been largely forgotten outside the country, while even inside, the problems confronting all these displaced people became known as the ‘invisible crisis’ after they melted back into society.

Yet if Putin unleashes a full-scale invasion, the impact would be highly visible and felt far beyond Ukraine.  ‘A major war would plunge the whole of Europe into crisis,’ said Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s Minister of Defence.

‘The sudden appearance of between three and five million Ukrainian refugees fleeing a Russian invasion would be just one of many major concerns facing European society.’

His view is echoed by Tom Tugendhat MP, chairman of the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, who visited the country last week. 

‘We’ve seen already many Ukrainians driven out of their homes in the east as well as Russia’s allies in Belarus weaponising migrants against Nato states such as Poland and Lithuania,’ he said. ‘We can only wonder with concern how many more people that Moscow is preparing to drive over the border into Europe.’

There are an estimated 1.5 million internally displaced Ukrainians in the nation of 44 million, with others migrating to Russia or elsewhere in Europe. 

But aid groups believe the true figure is far higher as many people never registered with officials after settling with friends or relatives. 

Most remained in Russian-speaking eastern parts of Ukraine, such as Kharkiv – areas where there are fears Putin might use his Special Forces to try to trigger some kind of provocation as an excuse to send tanks over the border.

Ekaterina’s position perfectly illustrates the complexities of issues of identity and interwoven ties of communities in this snow-covered corner of eastern Europe.

Born in Russia to a Ukrainian mother, she despaired of being constantly told at school about Russia’s greatness when surrounded by poverty and corruption.

After moving to Donetsk in her early teens, she declared herself Ukrainian. Yet she was forced to flee her new home with her mother and brother after pro-democracy protests led to the arrival of covert Russian troops.

She then watched them operate and the subsequent explosion of conflict in her adopted Donetsk. Ekaterina recalls listening to radio reports of shooting and missiles at the airport, saying: ‘I could not accept in my head that war was coming to my city.’ 

Most of her school and university friends have also left – except for one who now heads the Donetsk regime’s youth party.

She says: ‘He is in charge of brainwashing children with propaganda, telling them lies that Putin is their ally.’

Like many displaced families, hers left with almost nothing. Even today, only one in eight of those who fled have permanent accommodation as they have struggled to rebuild lives after abandoning homes and jobs.

Ekaterina said that, until recently, to dampen the pain of exile, she never talked about her life in Donetsk. Even now, she had to break off from our discussion to shed tears quietly in the toilet.

Another woman said her husband was so disturbed after being tortured by separatists that he beat her, leading to divorce. A third said her daughter needed psychiatric help.

There are an estimated 180,000 displaced people in Kharkiv, the former capital of Ukraine located only 30 miles from the Russian border. Little wonder that many are terrified by the Kremlin’s military build-up so close to their new homes.

‘People who ran away from the war feel uneasy. They say, ‘we lost Donetsk and Luhansk, we can’t lose Kharkiv’,’ said Eugenia Levinshtein, manager at Ukrainian Borders, a charity providing financial and psychological support for displaced citizens. 

She added: ‘These are people who lost all their property – sometimes family members – and started life from scratch in a new city without any help from the state. It’s very scary to think that the new lives they have created could be taken away again.’

The charity is preparing for a fresh flow of traumatised people, with funds arriving from foreign partners to buy vehicles for emergency evacuation missions. ‘We are getting ready for the worst-case scenario,’ Eugenia said.

So is Alina Foklina, 38, as she mentally prepares a list of possessions to grab if forced to flee again with her daughter. ‘Putin does not look a sane person,’ she said. ‘I feel tense all the time – as if I want to curl up on the floor like a child.’

Alina had to leave Stahanov, a town in the Luhansk region, after joining small pro-democracy protests with friends who waved Ukraine’s blue and yellow flag near a statue of Lenin.

‘I wanted to keep the country united and become European – less corrupt, more open,’ she said. First, they faced jeers from pro-Russians, then threats and finally violence.

Her friends were beaten in the streets, their cars were damaged. Her boyfriend was kidnapped and tortured in a basement. One man was shot dead in his garage.

Alina left after the region held a widely discredited self-rule referendum. ‘In our town, there was our small group of pro-Ukrainians, a slightly bigger group of pro-Russians – but most just wanted their lives to carry on with no warfare.’ 

It was heartbreaking to flee the town where she grew up, went to school and built a car-painting business – but she believed it would be for just a fortnight until the tensions cooled. ‘We only had one suitcase with a few summer clothes.’

She has never returned – having discovered that she had been sentenced to death for participating in protests. Nor has she spoken since to her father, a supporter of the separatists.

For her, life in Kharkiv has been a struggle – relying on piecemeal work, moving apartments several times, unable to visit dying friends and seeing her teenage daughter suffer mental health problems that led to hospitalisation last year.

Yet Alina has no regrets, despite telling me she sees only ‘a fog’ when she thinks of the future. ‘If I watch the news or see pictures of the Russian military equipment, it feels like my whole body is in a state of danger again,’ she said.

Moscow denies its troops are in the breakaway Donbas republics, but one woman who witnessed the takeover from the inside is Olena Znatkova. 

As a senior local government official overseeing seven universities, she watched in dismay as colleagues fell for Putin’s propaganda about the supposed Ukrainian ‘threat’. She said the beliefs of the pro-democracy protests ‘resonated’ with her.

‘It was a wake-up call for me when people came on to the streets to try and change their lives, create more freedom and open up the country.’

But most colleagues disagreed. She was ordered to ensure universities stopped such protests and did not fly their nation’s flag. 

After being presented with a loyalty statement to the new republic, and knowing she would be deemed an enemy of the state for refusing to sign, Olena fled into hiding at her parents’ home.

Their house was three miles from the Russian border, so she saw Kremlin tanks roll past – then decided to escape after the fighting intensified and debris from a downed Ukrainian aircraft landed on their property.

‘It seemed there was fighting everywhere and everything was on fire,’ said Olena, 50. ‘I felt we could all die. So I said my goodbyes and left.’

Taking no possessions except for her passport and nine-year-old daughter’s birth certificate, the pair eventually reached Kharkiv.

Since then, this civil servant – who once owned a three-bedroom home in Luhansk – has stayed at friends’ flats and university dormitories with her daughter, relying on donated clothes and eating student meals.

Meanwhile, she has helped move 1,500 people and those seven Luhansk universities back into Ukraine, including about one-third of their academics and students.

As she stocks up on coffee, tobacco and water in her office, steeling herself for another conflict, she tells me defiantly: ‘After starting a new life here and moving all these people, I will not run away any more.’

Rather than being afraid, she says: ‘I feel angry, very angry. At first I was very emotional. But now I’m emotionally drained.’

Yet when I ask her about Putin, the reply of this gentle, middle-aged bureaucrat is the same as the one I heard from website creator Ekaterina Pereverzeva: ‘I hope he dies.’

Such words express the anguish of their silent suffering – along with the pain that their traumas are being stoked again by the sabre-rattling thug in the Kremlin.

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