Refugee Stories: From peaceful protest to no way back

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The following interview was done by Willeke, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. This story is about Vladimir and Valentina, a Ukrainian couple in their sixties, who fled the cruelties of present-day Lugansk. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees.

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It was one of those stuffy warm afternoons. After 4 days of 27 degrees with hardly any wind, the old city centre of Utrecht was breathing the heat it absorbed earlier. And so was the room of Vladimir and Valentina, situated just outside the centre, in one of the shelters provided by the municipality in Utrecht. I would not call Vladimir and Valentina lucky to have this 16m2 room for their own, but the knowledge that even more than 50 people in Utrecht are waiting for a place to sleep, does give a feeling of relief, though I would never say Vladimir and Valentina deserved this penal situation they are in.

I start the interview with the question if they could explain what happened in Lugansk. Valentina takes the lead and tells me the following:

Their story of refuge started in 2014, when the once so friendly city of Lugansk, as Valentina describes it, became the scene of a bloody civil war. Valentina explains that this civil war was the result of several peaceful protests from the Lugansk people against the regime of Yanukovich, in which the Lugansk people demanded more independence to rebuild the once so economically flourishing region. According to this group of protesters the government was conducting corrupt activities, and kept the money earned at Lugansk for itself, instead of investing it in Lugansk’s region.

During one of the protests, near the end of May 2014, the protesters occupied one of the main government buildings in Lugansk. Not in a violent way, since they wanted to protest peacefully. However, shootings by a militia group started to take place in the West of the city, and the elderly people at the border checkpoint at the West of Lugansk were shot. The interim president of Ukraine responded to these events by starting an anti-terroristic operation in Lugansk, in which all the citizens of the Lugansk were regarded as potential opponents to the Ukrainian army and government. Consequently, the protesters also turned to violent ways of protesting and occupied several army points around the city where they provided themselves some heavy artillery. From 2 June on, Lugansk was being bombed and the war officially began. Right at this moment of the bombings Valentina was present in the center of the city. It was the first time she saw the cruelty of war around, and surrounding her everywhere, as she was confronted with the death of lots of her fellow citizens. It was  also that exact same moment when Valentina saw the presence of another, yet at that time unknown, militia group for the first time. We currently known them as the rebels or separatists.

In the middle of this violent scenery, Vladimir and Valentina started to organize protests for peace with their motto being “Peace for citizens of Donbass”. Their protest was not politically motivated, yet since Vladimir and Valentina also believed that more independence to govern their own region would do Luhansk good, they only used Lugansk’ and Russian flags. This sign of ‘disrespect to Ukraine’ led to fights during the protests at which Valentina and Vladimir were beaten, kicked and injured.

In the meantime, the separatists gained more control and authority over the city and fought against the Ukrainian army which was surrounding the outer borders of Lugansk. The frequency of the bombings increased and as a result, many tried to flee the city. With this increasing severity of the war, the separatists were eagerly recruiting young people still inside the city to fight for them. However, soon these recruitments became abductions as young people desperately tried to escape Lugansk. Many young men disappeared and people never heard of them anymore.

During these bombings and fights, the apartment of Vladimir and Valentina in the West of Lugansk was destroyed. Together with their neighbors they collected some of their personal belongings from the rubble, and put their stuff into the basement of the complex, were Vladimir and Valentina lived together with a handful of people that had not fled the city yet.

During these summer months the separatists began to abduct middle aged and elderly people too, during a big attempt of mobilization from their side. Vladimir could escape the mobilization because he showed them the paper which stated he had been a worker in Chernobyl, and that consequently his health was in a bad shape. They accepted his ‘excuse’ and left him to stay in the basement where he lived with Valentina. However, as the separatists left, they told him: “It may not be your time at this moment, but we will come back to get you.” It took them a couple of months before they came back for Vladimir as the war was getting less intense in the autumn months of 2014.

As there was less direct danger during these autumn months, Vladimir and Valentina decided it was safe enough to organize another gathering for those who wanted express their opinions about the violence and war in the region. The separatists were, to say the least, not keen on his kind of activism and during her way to work Valentina was abducted and locked for eight hours by them. They left Valentina in the room for these eight hours without any water and foot, nor sanitary and forced her to sign a document stating she would not participate in these gatherings anymore. Valentina tells me how terrified and desperate she was as she did not know what would happen to her. After these eight hours in the room the men took her out and she was ruthlessly kicked and beaten because of her activism. Eventually they led the lady go and she rushed to the basement of their former flat. As Valentina is telling me this, she cries and tears are mastering her eyes. Vladimir decides to take the lead with the conversation since a hard experience which caused them to leave, is still to be told..

Vladimir explains that after the autumn the war was getting its grip on the city again as heavier fights and bombings were shaping the scenery, and on one Friday in January 2015, as the separatists told Vladimir, they got back to the basement to force him to fight for them. When they entered Vladimir begged them not to take him with, and recalled the fact that he was old and in bad shape. The men did not accept that Vladimir undermined their authority and beat him brutally with their rifles. At that moment, another elderly man, also one of neighbors living in the basement, could not take the violence against Vladimir anymore. He bravely stood up against the separatists and tried to argue with them to stop the beatings and kicking to Vladimir. His perseverance agitated the men and they kicked and beat him till he was not protesting nor moving any more. As soon as the men noticed that Valentina was trying to help Vladimir they turned to her and ripped off her clothes while beating and kicking her with their rifles. One of the men entering the basement fired a shot and told Vladimir that they were coming back for him on Monday.

It was this weekend in January that Vladimir and Valentina decided that there was no way back than to leave the city forever. At one of the queues where the people in the city could get some water and food, Vladimir met a person who could help them get to know others who could get them out of the city for payment. They were told to come to a place on Sunday Morning at 4 am with all their belongings. At that Sunday morning as they stood there, a bus rode in front of them and told them to get in. Valentina and Vladimir stepped into the bus with its blinded windows without knowing what their destination would be.

Valentina and Vladimir are here in the Netherlands from the beginning of the 2015. Their asylum claim got rejected because the Dutch Immigration Office does not believe that Vladimir, an old man, would get abducted to serve on the separatist side. Both have physical but above all psychological scars from all that has happened to them. They do not see returning as a possibility as they are in fear what will happen to them when going back to the country. Currently we are trying to get a temporary residence permit on the basis of the Paposhvili arrest from the European Court of Human Rights.

After our 2.5 hours conversation I leave the 16m2 room and cycle back home to my apartment in an old monastery, also situated just outside the center, realizing what different realities there are in this world.

Willeke is a master student Public International Law at Utrecht University.  She works at Stil-Utrecht, an organization providing for medical and judicial aid to asylum seekers who got a rejected asylum request.

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