Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Young Peace Journalists: When the war is a way to distract people

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The following interview was done by Viktoriia Stepanets, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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Vjacheslav came from Lugansk to Kiev in 2014 and received Internally Displaced Person status. Today he lives in Kiev and is a chief editor in the Informator.media online edition, which highlights the news of Lugansk and the Lugansk region. Vjacheslav shared his view about the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, the present and future of Ukraine, and also expressed his opinion on the decommunization process in Ukraine. [Editor’s note: “Decommunization process” means to take down monuments which are connected with the Soviet Union, to rename streets and cities named after the Russian or Soviet Union heroes.]

How would you describe the situation in Ukraine?

“Everything is bad, everything should be remade”, – I often say these words to the journalists which work on my issue. And today I say the same words to Ukraine. A lot of people make an effort to present the situation in Ukraine as a civil war, where one nation kills itself. It is a manipulation of the citizens’ consciousness. This is not about the internal conflict in the country, but it is about the aggression of one country to another. The situation we observe today is a result of a carefully planned operation. Everything has been prepared for a long time with the help of the local elites.

To what position do the citizens of Lugansk and the Lugansk region adhere? In the case that the referendum on self-determination of Lugansk and the Lugansk region is held, what decision would be taken?

It is very difficult to determine the position of this region. Different opinions on this question depend exclusively on the particular person’s surrounding, and this person can be misled that it is the opinion of the majority. In fact, everything is a bit more complicated. There is no sense to hold the referendum today because everybody is under the power of propaganda, from the Ukrainian and the Russian sides.

I have a question to you as a chief editor. What criteria do you follow to present the information, especially during the period of war, as objectively as possible?

It is very a difficult and painful issue. The journalists do not know how to behave themselves in this war period. One of the principles of objectivity is a necessity to provide the information from different sides, to present the points of view of different parties. But this means to give the word to the terrorists too, and we realize what they can tell about. Also a problem is in writing about military events directly from the places of their development. By having a conversation with the witnesses, by publishing their comments, the media endangers them. Generally, these people are caught in such occasions. Often in such situations the representatives of the media claim that they did not ask anybody to tell anything, and that means that the arrested person is a spy. Thus he is captured, and the more he begins “to make noise”, the more “expensive” he becomes.

Being a chief editor I strictly forbid my journalists to make photos of the places of military events. I suppose that the safety of the journalists is paramount. In such situations I have to be content with the facts the journalists inform by telephone or email without providing any video or photos to confirm their words. When the journalist informed us that during a half an hour in the direction to Lugansk heavy machinery goes, most likely tanks, we published this way: In the direction to Lugansk the heavy machinery goes, probably, tanks. Undoubtedly, it violates the law of information, but when it is a question of life and death, the rules of a game should be changed.

How do you see the solution of the Ukrainian conflict?

It is necessary to switch off the television – and the empire will collapse. The war is not for territory or placement of the military bases. The war helps to keep people in obedience, to enhance the reputation of some representatives of the authorities. Not the United States of America nor Europe has to solve our problems. We must rely on our own strength. But it has to be taken into account that the interests of the Ukrainian people and Ukrainian authorities are not the same. While Ukrainians want to stop the war and to live peacefully, the Ukrainian government aggravates the situation. The war is an effective way to distract people from pressing issues, non-responsibility of the authorities to their obligations, not implementing numerous reforms that the government promised. The escalation of the conflict is favorable to the authorities of the country and it explains a lot. I would say it explains everything. If the war had not begun, it would have been a continuation of the Maidan. [Eeditor’s note: Maidan means the beginning of the revolution in Ukraine, in 2013, when people revolted against the President Viktor Yanukovich.] A military ardor of the people would be directed to the Ukrainian government. It could not be allowed.

What is your attitude to the decommunization process in Ukraine? Particularly, do you suppose that the decision to take down a lot of monuments of Lenin in the Ukraine to be effective?

The decommunization process was necessary in Ukraine. Perhaps it was not the best time for that: taking down the monuments of Lenin, renaming of numerous streets and cities while there were a lot of problems in Ukraine which required a deep intervention and prompt solutions. But we have to realize that Ukraine has to be freed from the Soviet past. It is only formal that Ukraine is sovereign from 1991. In fact, the fight for independence began from Maidan, and decommunization is a part of this struggle.

Don’t you think that such a fight against the Soviet past by vandalism only intensifies a hatred among the people?

Yes, intensifies, and moreover, wound a lot of people for whom Lenin is still a hero. Personally for me, these monuments are not an historical or cultural value. Therefore, the taking down of Lenin’s monument does not hurt me. I suppose it would be better to collect the monuments of the controversial heroes in one place, for instance, in the special park. But it requires much financing. And money, as always, is not enough. My conclusion: the decommunization process began to be implemented at the wrong time, but everything that has been done had to be done.

Today we observe that there is being built a high wall between Ukraine and Russia. Do you suppose this way is correct? How do you see the development of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine in the near future?

I consider that Russian troops must be withdrawn from the territory of Ukraine. About the development of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine, I am convinced that the decision to break all ties and to build a fence even higher is a way to nowhere. The world has to be without borders, especially in the 21st century. We have to be able to know what happens in Russia, Europe, the United States, and they have to realize what situation is in Ukraine. We have to travel around the world and gain experience from each other, to interact and build strong international relationships. And even if one country is at war with another country, it needs to be understood all the reasons of this conflict, and not to make only one side guilty in all that happens. We do not need to fence ourselves off from each other; rather we have to find a compromise for the benefit of our country. Another issue is that media manipulation imposes us different information, and it is impossible to find the truth. People have to travel, speak with witnesses, analyze. And we, journalists, have to state the facts and speak about different issues, not only about what we want or what is advantageous.

How do you see the future of Ukraine?

I am a sad optimist: I observe that we began to build a civil society, and, as a result, we will have built it. And even if we have to go through all these difficulties, I believe we will cope with it and prove to everybody, first of all ourselves, that Ukraine is a strong, worthy and self-respecting country.

Viktoriia Stepanets is a journalist born in Kiev, Ukraine. She studied multimedia journalism in the High School of Economy in Moscow, Russia. Viktoriia took part in various projects related to peacebuilding, including LofC Caux and Peace Tour around Ukraine. Now she works as a journalist in the cultural sphere and participates in the Young Peace Journalists project trying to learn more about the situation of internally displaced persons in her country and refugees in the larger world.  

Refugee Stories, Young Peace Journalists

Young Peace Journalists: What it is to be an internally displaced person

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The following interview was done by Viktoriia Stepanets, a member of the Young Peace Journalists. It is the latest entry in the Young Peace Journalists project featuring the stories and voices of refugees. 

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We are different from non-internally displaced persons (IDPs) by not making plans for tomorrow.” – Natalia, an internally displaced person from Sverdlovsk, and the director of the Department of Protection of IDPs’ rights in Kharkiv

The tragedy of Ukraine today is a widespread topic for discussion abroad. There are different interpretations of what is really going on in Ukraine. Each country adheres to the position on this issue which is favorable for it, or to be exact – for its government. The manipulation of consciousness has reached such an extent that even people who live in the territory of military actions (Donetsk and Lugansk regions) cannot give a clear and confident explanation of what is happening in the eastern part of Ukraine. Even they have a lot of questions about it.

The war in Ukraine is manifested in all forms: information, civil, international. In addition to the deaths, loss of houses, injuries, and the breaking of family ties, the war has necessitated a change of places of residence for a huge number of people whom we call refugees, migrants and displaced persons (depending on the area of their resettlement and the presence or absence of the certificate that determines their status). Today the problem of refugees is acute in many countries. Thanks to this interview with Natalia, an internally displaced person from Sverdlovsk city which is situated in Lugansk region and the director of the Department of Protection of IDPs’ rights in Kharkiv, I was better able to get to know the way IDPs live in my country, what are the benefits of this status, what major difficulties do they face, and what is the attitude toward them from local people.

Viktoriia Stepanets: Natalia, what are the advantages of having the status of “internally displaced person”?

Natalia: I have not felt them for myself. I decided to move to Kharkiv after I witnessed a bus with Chechen armed forces in my native city of Sverdlovsk city. (The first time Chechen armed forces were mentioned in the Sverdlovsk city was in 2014 when they took part in the hostilities.) It was the last straw. I went to Kharkiv in June 2014, where my son studied. I wanted to be near to him. I had no need for the status of an internally displaced person until I had decided to start my own business in 2015. For this reason, I needed this certificate. Also this status allows one to register in the Employment Centre and to get monthly financial assistance of $15. But when you pay 200 euro for the rent apartment, this sum does not make life easier.

How long is the status of IDP given for?

Previously, the status of IDP was given for six months; now it is termless.

Does the government provide a place to live for internally displaced persons?

There are three special camps: two of them are in Kharkiv, and the third one is in the neighbouring Kharkiv region. But I did not consider the option to reside there. I have never been there. I was told that everything needed is available there, but the atmosphere is depressing. You feel like a social outcast. My goal is to catch on in one of the largest cities of Ukraine, in the first Ukrainian capital, to develop my business, to give a future to my child, to get on my feet, as far it is possible in the current economic and political conditions of our country. Once I have reached Kharkiv, I was looking for a room to rent; I had not even thought about the camp. Within two years I have changed my apartment more than three times. At first I was evicted because of differences in political views with the owner of the apartment; then I moved out by myself due to rising rents (as the hostess said, “As IDPs come here in large numbers, rent sum will be increased twice”). For a while I was living at the filling station where I worked as a cleaner. The most significant issue that IDPs face today is accommodations. And our organisation does its best to solve this problem at least partially.

How long has your organisation existed and what goals does it set for itself primarily?

The Department of Protection and Assistance to IDPs (via the international public organisation, “European Police Association” or EUROPOL) was established in May of this year. Our organisation is financed by membership fees. The government does not support us. We are the only organisation in Kharkiv which consists entirely of internally displaced persons. We work in three directions: IDPs’ business development, their accommodations, and the restoration of constitutional law. We run a special campaign, “I have the right to choose”, which has the aim to amend legislation, namely to change “to vote according to the registration” to “to vote according to the place of actual residence”. The idea of this action came to us after we had faced an official refusal of our request to the administration of the areas in which we are registered to be included to the voters list. We have also created a business incubator which is intended to bring all businesses together, to accumulate money for further development of the organisation.

Did you think about moving abroad and obtaining refugee status there?

No. I have never had such plans. I always wanted to live in my own country. Ukraine has enough problems right now, and I want to help in the development of its present and future.

What were your expectations from moving to Kharkiv and obtaining IDP status? Are they fulfilled?

I expected a great deal in June 2014. I hoped that Ukrainian troops would come and the chaos would end. When nothing was over but only aggravated, I stopped waiting for anything, pulled myself together and realised that my tomorrow depends on me — that my problems should be solved by myself. And the state will not help. When I moved to Kharkiv, I did not have any expectations.

What, in your opinion, should the Ukrainian government do to improve the situation of IDPs in our country?

The main problem which has to be emphasised is that we need to settle somewhere permanently. To live in a camp for several years is unreal. There are a lot of abandoned and deserted buildings in Kharkiv. In my opinion, it is a rational choice in current circumstances to give them to IDPs. In our turn, we will be able to address the issue of their reconstruction (by applying for grants or by our own efforts). We will cease to exist as a problem, and we will begin to pay taxes to Kharkiv. Taking into account the current economy and political situation in Ukraine, I suppose it is impossible to compensate the housing we had lost in the war zone. There is a discussion now in Kiev about the issue of preferential housing loans, under which the cost of apartments is repaid by an IDP, while a percentage of the loan is paid by the donor. The state should and can take part in this matter. We agree to consider a variety of ways to address this issue. We do not ask for free housing because we are perfectly aware that it would lead to a wave of indignation from the side of local residents.

What is the relationship from Kharkiv people to IDPs?

Ambiguous. It was hard to get a job and rent a house. “We do not rent the apartment for convicted persons, with dogs, and from Lugansk” is written in the ads. The rent is increased twice (which I also faced personally). Despite the level of my education and work experience, I have not been taken even as a dishwasher. The reasons for refusing were: “We cannot trust you,” or “You will not stay here for a long time. You will work and leave again and we need the employees for the long term.” There are those who are sympathetic, and intelligent people do not distinguish; they treat locals and IDPs equally, looking at the person, not at what is written in the passport.

Do IDPs prefer to stay in Kharkiv or plan to return home?

Based on my experience, elderly people tend to return. In our organisation, everybody prefers to stay, regardless of future Ukrainian development. Perhaps someone will change the decision if the legislation system improves in our native region. Now there is a complete mess with it.

How do you see the future of internally displaced persons in Ukraine?

I see that that a diaspora is being created. IDPs cooperate with IDPs. And hardly ever will we be able to stay in one line with Kharkiv people. We are different from non-IDPs by not making plans for tomorrow. We do not try to predict, to plan, to hoard. We live “today”. Somehow. But still we live.

Viktoriia Stepanets is a journalist born in Kiev, Ukraine. She studied multimedia journalism in the High School of Economy in Moscow, Russia. Viktoriia took part in various projects related to peacebuilding, including LofC Caux and Peace Tour around Ukraine. Now she works as a journalist in the cultural sphere and participates in the Young Peace Journalists project trying to learn more about the situation of internally displaced persons in her country and refugees in the larger world.