Thousands are fleeing the regions of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, ground zero in the ongoing armed conflict between the Ukrainian army and Russian and pro-Russian separatists.
According to the United Nations, there are now 34,000 internally displaced persons in Ukraine, including many Crimean Tatars who already fled Russian-occupied Crimea.
These refugees, forced to leave their hometowns, hope they can return to their homes when the fighting stops. Meanwhile, however, their homes are being rented out by the pro-Russian militants who are occupying those regions. Separatist fighters in Donetsk have even set up a Twitter account to rent out (or sell) abandoned properties. They claim that the people who left their homes are “traitors” and, therefore, their apartments are now property of the “Donetsk People’s Republic.”
Those brave souls who have stayed in their homes risk being forced to receive unwelcomed “guests.” Russian and pro-Russian fighters have been setting up their positions inresidential buildings, university dorms, hospitals, and churches. A recent news report pictured a flyer issued by the separatists’ “military headquarters” in Kramatorsk. This flyer, posted in an apartment building, calls on residents to “voluntarily” accommodate separatist fighters. If they resist such “houseguests,” the flyer threatens retaliation “under war time law.”
There have also been numerous attacks on people who support Ukraine, especially activists, bloggers, and journalists. Some—such as Serhiy Kosyak, the pastor who leads a daily inter-denominational prayer meeting in downtown Donetsk that is currently the only public event taking place in the city—were beaten and let go. Others are still being held captive by pro-Russian separatists. Some of them don’t make it out alive. A German-owned “Metro” supermarket, the largest in Donetsk, was looted first by separatist militants and then by local marauders. There are also reports of separatist fighters stealing cars from a private dealership.
As Ukraine continues its military operation against Russian and Russian-backed militants, it also faces other economic pressure: Supplies of natural gas from Russia have been cut off, adding to the challenges confronting newly elected president Petro Poroshenko and his Ukrainian government.
These methods closely resemble those that the communists used in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union. Under Soviet law, the property of people deemed to be “public enemies” could be forcefully expropriated. It is now the 21st century in eastern Ukraine, but these attacks on pro-democracy Ukrainian activists and businesses hearken back to the dark times of Stalin in the last century.