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JElla Fyodorova’s first stop after fleeing her home in eastern Ukraine was a windblown tent camp just across the border from Russia, as part of an evacuation effort which observers fear could become the pretext for Russia to launch an official intervention in Ukraine.

“I wanted to stay, but my husband came home and said, ‘Gather your stuff, we’re going,'” she said as she donned her two-year-old son in a blue snowsuit to head out. in public toilets. close.

The recent escalation in fighting did not affect her hometown of Starrobesheve, she said, but warnings from the Russian-backed separatist government of an imminent attack from Ukraine had many families gathering their children and flee. Her husband, who dropped her off at the border, had to turn back.

Now she sat in the dimness of a medical tent alongside other mothers holding their children, all waiting for the next bus to take them further to Russia. Many left with just the necessities: clothes, medicine, a little food.

‘All you can do is cry’: Donbass evacuees face uncertain future in Russia |  Ukraine
A woman sleeps in a car on the Russian side of the Avilo-Uspenka border crossing. Photograph: Andrey Borodulin/AFP/Getty

“I don’t know where we are going,” she said. ” I know nothing. Tomorrow we have to start looking for a place to live.

Other evacuees who spoke to the Guardian on a recent trip to the Rostov border region said they left due to renewed heavy artillery fire which reminded them of the most dangerous phase of the war in 2014.

“It’s dangerous. I live near the airport, so I heard gunshots all night…until four in the morning I couldn’t fall asleep,” Natalia said. Klimchuk, 35, who was there with his three-year-old daughter. “I had my daughter and I said, ‘It’s time to get out of here. “”

There is evidence to suggest that the sudden evacuations from Russian-controlled areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions were planned and likely designed to prepare the ground for an official Russian intervention in the east of the country. Leaders of Russian proxy states in eastern Ukraine filmed their evacuation announcements days before they were made public, according to video metadata.

Map: separatist territories in eastern Ukraine

But for the women, children and other evacuees, the result is undeniably real and traumatic, as they arrive by the hundreds in a nearby area that seems unprepared for the tide of evacuees.

At the start of the chaos of this effort, some said they felt like pawns in a bigger game.

“Maybe they will shoot and then it will calm down,” said Viktoria from Donetsk, who was also at the tent camp on the border. “I think it’s a prank, though. Like when there’s a commotion and then that’s it… a staged event.

More than 300 evacuees were sent to Krasny Desant sanatorium just 20 miles from the border. Inside, children ran through the halls while their parents filled out admission forms and received small documents such as SIM cards. The grounds were patrolled by police, including at least one officer with an automatic rifle (they forced a Guardian correspondent out of the sanatorium).

‘All you can do is cry’: Donbass evacuees face uncertain future in Russia |  Ukraine
Evacuees from Donetsk to a children’s health center in Krasny Desant, Russia. Photo: Maxim Grigoryev/TASS

At a nearby church, Natalia Chetveryakova, 61, said the seaside camp housed evacuees in 2014 when war started in eastern Ukraine and even took in refugees in 2008 after the war from Georgia.

Some said they were happy to be placed so close to the border and were grateful for the 10,000 ruble (£95) allowance the Russian government has promised to give evacuees. Others expected better conditions.

Waving us into her bedroom, where she was staying with her daughter and granddaughter, seven-year-old Sonya, Lyudmila Barskaya showed the spartan but livable conditions with a look of resignation. “Here are the beds, and that’s all there is,” she said. “All you can do is cry. I understand that’s how it is for us. But nothing more for children?

Organization was a problem. A day earlier, 150 evacuees from Donetsk arrived at a nearby sanatorium to be told there was no room for them. “We made a mistake choosing to leave,” one told a reporter from Meduza. A similar scene took place at the Congress Hotel in nearby Taganrog, where buses full of stressed and tired evacuees arrived to be turned away.

Other residents of Russian-held territories decided to ignore the evacuation order and stay at home. “We’ve been hearing about Ukrainian attacks for years – I don’t think it’s any different this time,” said Tamara Fomina, 64, a retiree from Donetsk, the region’s largest city.

Nearly half of the pre-war population of 3.8 million left separatist-controlled areas of Donbass after the 2014 unrest, and those who remained seemed oblivious to separatist warnings of an invasion Ukrainian.

“This is my house; we have been through a lot. If I die, I die, then let it be! But I am not leaving this house to go and live in a tent in Rostov,” Fomina said in an interview. telephone.

‘All you can do is cry’: Donbass evacuees face uncertain future in Russia |  Ukraine
A bus carrying evacuees arriving in Krasny Desant on Friday. Photography: Erik Romanenko/Tass

But many are taking steps to prepare for an uncertain future. After the mass evacuation was announced, photographs showed people queuing to use an ATM in Donetsk.

On Saturday, the central bank of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk announced a maximum withdrawal limit of 10,000 rubles per day from ATMs.

“There are lines everywhere. Lines for gas, for money, for food. People are worried that stores will buy new supplies,” said Vlada Vologina, 34, from Donetsk.

Some men in Donetsk have expressed concern after receiving appeal papers ordering them to report to local militia headquarters on Sunday.

“When I came home from work last night, I saw the paper in my mailbox. Everything is going very fast,” said Vadim, who asked that his surname be withheld.

‘All you can do is cry’: Donbass evacuees face uncertain future in Russia |  Ukraine
Elena Kravchenko, an evacuee from eastern Ukraine, at the Krasny Desant sanatorium. Photograph: Andrew Roth/The Guardian

“I don’t know who is responsible for all this, but I don’t want war. My wife is pregnant and going to war was never in my plans,” he added, saying he still hadn’t decided whether he would go to militia headquarters.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Russia is stepping up its evacuation efforts: a local sports facility has been converted into a makeshift center for more than 300 evacuees and buses are taking more to a local train station, where they have been placed on a train to Nizhny Novgorod on Sunday. Some of those who arrived at the station did not realize that they were being sent hundreds of miles north.

Some have said they believe the latest events will force Russia to step in and formally recognize, or even annex, the territories it has held as proxies since 2014.

“All of us who left think and hope that this is the last time,” said Elena Kravchenko, a post office worker from the Starobesheve district. “This [Russia] will come in and clean them.



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