| Amelie Herenstein |
IZVARYNE, Ukraine (AFP) – Thousands of Ukrainians congregate every day at the border post of Izvaryne, one of the main crossing points between Russia and the breakaway eastern region of Lugansk, shellshocked by months of fighting.
On Ukraine’s side of the frontier in the Lugansk People’s Republic (LPR), as it was christened in May by pro-Russian separatists, a line of cars stretches down a crumbling road leading to the border.
Sasha sits behind the wheel of one of the stationary vehicles, preparing to flee with his family to Russia.
“I’m leaving because of the bombing. The Ukrainian (army) kill peaceful civilians and everyone has fled,” he says, adding that half of his village was destroyed in the fighting.
Sasha says he and his family will stay in Russia for the time being.
People are seen through a bullet hole on a broken window as they wait in line to cross the border to Russia on September 12, in Izvaryne, a border post near Krasnodon, eastern Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainians congregate every day at the border post of Izvaryne, one of the main crossing points between Russia and the breakaway eastern region of Lugansk, shellshocked by months of fighting
An armed pro-Russian militant stands guard in front of the destroyed Lugansk International Airport, eastern Ukraine on September 11. The UN refugee agency estimates that at least 260,000 people have been displaced within Ukraine by months of fighting – PHOTOS: AFP
But Olga – who has spent the last two months in Russia with her husband, two children, her mother and a cat – is one of many travelling in the opposite direction.
“We came in from Russia and are heading back to (the city of) Krasnodon now that it is peaceful,” she says.
She admits, however, that she fears for the future of Lugansk, which under de facto rebel command is unlikely to be recognised by the international community.
“But what can we do?” she sighs.
“We hope things will be better and calmer, that we are able to work and the children can go to school. If things get worse, perhaps we will go back to Russia.”
Valentyna Gorbova, a Ukrainian hospital worker, is taking the same route as Olga.
“We are going home but we have nowhere to go because both of our houses were burnt down, as well as my son’s apartment,” she says.
“But it’s unrealistic for us to stay in Russia” using Ukrainian currency, she added. “Our salary is low and we haven’t received our pension for three months.”
Following a ceasefire agreement between Kiev and pro-Russian rebels last week, between 7,000 and 8,000 people cross the border at Izvaryne every day, according to Konstantin Samsonov, deputy chief guard of the rebel-controlled frontier with Russia.
At the peak of hostilities in June and July, up to 10,000 people crossed every day, he says.
Although the relative calm ushered in by the ceasefire has prompted many to return to east Ukraine, the lull in fighting is just one of many factors drawing people back from Russia, according to Samsonov.
“People are tired of running from one place to the other,” he says. “At this moment more people are coming in to the territory of (east Ukraine) and less people are going out.”
Travellers arriving from Russia are greeted by the red and blue flag of “Novorossiya” – a term employed by Russian President Vladimir Putin to denote several regions of eastern and southern Ukraine – as well as the LPR’s tricolour standard. The flag of Ukraine, whose leaders are deemed “fascists” by the rebels, has been removed.
The UN refugee agency estimates that at least 260,000 people have been displaced within Ukraine by months of fighting, with a further 260,000 having sought asylum in Russia.
Although the fighting has died down, rumours still abound that Russia is sending military personnel and equipment into eastern Ukraine to bolster rebel positions, including a column of dozens of Russian tanks that reportedly crossed recently at Izvaryne.
“This is a lie,” says Samsonov, who jokingly adds, “We had a good laugh with our Russian colleagues asking them how they managed to get such a column through without us noticing.”