“Every morning I wake up feels like a punch in the stomach,” Olena Stiazhkina said during an interview on Oct. 15, 2015 in Kyiv. “I keep thinking, how can this be happening?”
It was hard to believe the attractive, well-put-together woman sitting across from me had lived through so much, and was expressing herself so candidly.
Olena Staizhkina is a history professor. Like me, she’s interested in the Second World War and oral history. But, unlike me, Olena was born and raised in Donets’k, in eastern Ukraine. In the spring 2014, violence began in her hometown. One day a man called Baryshnikov came to her university and declared himself in charge. She had a choice to make: submit to the dictates of a pro-Russian – or leave. She took her son and, along with her husband, they fled.
“If I didn’t have a child, I would have stayed and resisted,” Olena explained. “But I couldn’t risk my son’s life.”
We were sitting in the stylish lobby of the Journalism School at the National University of the Kyiv Mohyla Academy. As we sipped our cappuccinos, the war seemed very far away. But as Olena told me her story, I found it hard to hold back the tears.
Olena is one of more than two million Ukrainians who’ve been displaced from their homes because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and hybrid war in eastern Ukraine. According to a United Nations report from last month, more than half a million of those affected are children. The fate of Crimean Tatars is doubly tragic. After having been deported by Stalin in 1944, they were finally allowed to return to their ancestral homeland during Gorbachev’s perestroika, and had just started to re-build their lives when many had to flee.
I wanted to put a human face on these statistics, so during my half sabbatical in 2015 I travelled to five cities in Ukraine: Kyiv, Odessa, Mariupol, L’viv and Kharkiv. There, I collected interviews with 70 people displaced from Crimea, Donest’k and Luhans’k oblasts. Because the displacement was so recent, they remembered events in great detail. Almost everyone remembered the day they had to leave their home. Some remembered the exact hour.
Mykhailo Horban was one such person. When I asked him when he left, he answered, “On 17 June 2014 at 8:30 a.m.” The 56-year-old geologist was born in Prylulky, and had moved to the town of Makiivka in the Donets’k oblast, in search of work. When he could not find work in his field, he went into the private sector, worked for Siemens, then in the banking sphere, and his last job was as a shopping mall administrator. He now lives in Kyiv.
On June 16, 2014, Mykhailo received a phone call, near midnight, to come to a special meeting at work. “I refused,” he told me. “A few hours later someone started banging on our door, but they didn’t make it inside because we had a metal door. Then they threw a grenade through our window, so my wife opened the door. And I spent a few hours in detention, then they brought my wife. Thanks to some people, we were eventually released. An hour later we were making our way to Chervonoarmiis’k (the closest place not under control of the self-proclaimed ‘Donets’k Peoples’ Republic.)”
Mykhailo had used the word ‘detention’ casually. So I asked him to describe what had happened. This is what he told me:
“Eight armed men charged into our apartment yelling ‘surrender.’ They forced me into a chair, began asking questions, searching the apartment. But they didn’t do this very well. They asked a question then didn’t wait for answer. I think they were from various groups, because they argued where to take me. Eventually they took me to their den, a sports facility. They beat me to soften me up, then stuck a bag over my head. This is standard procedure for police detention. They threatened me with a gun. But it seemed like they were kids, as if they were playing with the guns, like they didn’t know how to handle arms. They were not professionals; there was a lack of system to questions, it felt like they kept waiting for someone to come and take over. As we now know, we got off easily; it could have been much worse. During the two hours when they were trying to bash in our door I phoned everyone I could, including a man who contacted someone in the city administration. I think I was released through this contact.”
I wondered why a shopping mall manager with a geology degree would become a target, so I asked.
“Why did they come after me?” Mykhailo said. “I had a Ukrainian flag on my office door; my views were well known.”
Not everyone who fled had been politically active. Olexandra Nefiodova is a 25-year-old hairdresser from Kransnohorivka in the Donets’k oblast. She now lives on the outskirts of Mariupol, in a former orphanage called Obnovleniye (which means renewal) that has been converted into temporary housing for internally displaced people. That’s where I interviewed her on July 19. She told me when her boyfriend learned she was pregnant, he left her. She was four months along when the mortar rockets began to fall on her hometown. So she ran to her father, who had abandoned her mother years earlier, and was living in Russia.
But when she was close to giving birth she made her way back to Ukraine. “I didn’t want my baby to be born in Russia,” she said. “I wanted my baby to be born in Ukraine.”
She described how difficult it was to move through a war zone in winter while pregnant, going through various checkpoints. How in one place drunk men had forced her to lift her clothes and show them her pregnant stomach. “They said, ‘You could be hiding a bomb under your sweater.’” But she finally arrived in the Obnovleniye centre and gave birth on Dec. 25, 2014.
As it turned out, the oldest person I interviewed was also from Krasnohorivka, 87-year-old Vira Komar. I found Vira, like I did all my respondents, through the snowball method. I simply asked people if they knew anyone who was displaced. Vira is the grandmother of a PhD student at my university, Natalya Domina, who is from Mariupol. Natalya had told me about her grandmother, a woman who was born and lived her entire life in Kransnohorivka, and doesn’t speak Russian. How her grandmother didn’t want to leave her home, but her children eventually evacuated her against her will.
When I travelled to Mariupol and interviewed Vira, she held my hand the entire time she was telling me her story: how she hid in a neighbour’s basement when the shelling started, and how the entire time she was worried about her chickens. “Who would feed them?” she said.
Vira talked about her town being occupied by the Germans during the Second World War. “When the German fascist occupiers came they didn’t bother us. When the ‘Donets’k People’s Republic occupiers came, armed men stormed into my home a gunpoint. They pulled my grand-daughter out of bed in her pyjamas. And forced her father to lie face down on the ground. The Germans didn’t do that.”
Marta Dyczok, a Western professor jointly appointed in History and Political Science, specializes in international politics and history, with a focus on east central Europe and Eurasia, and specifically Ukraine. Faces of Displacement is on display at the Spencer Gallery in the D.B. Weldon Library until the end of this month.