Ukrainian refugee: Army mined the roads to prevent refugees from leaving

The war in Ukraine rages on: the fragile ceasfire lasted shortly, and the roar of cannons can be heard again in the east of the country. But while army clashes with anti-Kiev forces, civilians pay the deadly toll in the warzone. Many give up everything they had and run from the bloodshed, pushing to take those they love away from the horrors of conflict. What does it mean to be a refugee? To lose your home? What is truly going on there, in Ukraine? Today we speak one of the families who fled the fighting - the refugees from the war in the east.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:Vadim, Angelina, thank you for being with us today. I am touched you have agreed to share your story with us. Let’s start from the very beginning – when did you decide to leave Ukraine?

Vadim Volotovsky: That was a decision my wife and I took together. After the massacre in Odessa on May 2 when people were burned alive in the Trade union building, we realized it’s time to leave. After the Odessa events the situation kept getting worse and worse. So when we learned that the Ukrainian army was moving towards the border and closer to our town, where fighting is going on at the moment, we decided to take our children away from this nightmare. That was in late May.

SS: Where did you live in Ukraine?

Refugees: In the town of Chervonopartizansk.

SS: It’s a coal mining town?

R: Yes, everyone works in the mines.

SS: You still have friends that are still working in the mines there? Were the mines open till the end? Are they still open?

R: Sure, they were up and running, until the very last moment. Many of the workers joined the self-defense forces. But the mines, all of the processing plants still operated..

SS:Were wages paid?

R: When I was still there, they did pay the salary. But when the Ukrainian TV channels began airing statements by the Interior Minister Avakov and others saying that there would be an economic blockade, that salaries and pensions would be frozen, my wife and I realized we need to flee.

SS: Tell me, how did you flee your town?

R: We packed our bags in the evening and gathered the money that we had. But there was a big problem - our daughter turned 16 on May 4 but because of the unrest in the country she wasn’t able to get her passport. You see, in Ukraine, children are eligible for a passport only when they turn 16. So we handed in the papers and waited. Along with the other papers, we handed over the birth certificate. So our daughter ended up without any documents at all. I went to the head of the registration office. I thought he could speed up the process but he warned me there would be no passports any time soon. So I asked him if I could have the documents back. He said, no problem, and that was it. I hoped that her birth certificate would be enough to cross the border, butthe officers would not let us out saying the birth certificate is no longer a valid document now that she turned 16. She was supposed to have a passport.

SS: So how did you cross the border into Russia?

R: I went to the border checkpoint several times hoping that maybe a new shift of officers would help us. They change every few hours. I hoped somebody would let us pass.

SS: You tried to cross the border all together, the whole family?

R: Right. But it was no use – my wife, my younger son and I, we were okay to pass, but they wouldn’t let my daughter out. Everybody was sympathetic, understood our situation, but still wouldn’t let us pass.

SS: So then what?

R: What happened was that the officers at the border control point in Lugansk gave up their arms after a shootout. The same thing happened in the town of Sverdlovsk - the self-defense forces found out there were Right sector fighters there and surrounded the checkpoint, they surrendered as well. It all happened peacefully more or less. It turned out then that the border was not controlled any more. I talked the situation over with my wife. She was afraid at first. You see, early in May we saw Ukrainian helicopters arrive here with troops who planted mines in the area, mined the roads, installed booby traps. So that’s why we were scared. But, in the end, we made up our minds.

SS: You left your wife and your son at home and decided to cross the border illegally?

R: Yes. I took my daughter and crossed the border with her illegally.

SS: You did this at night?

R: Very early the morning.

SS: You went through the forest?

R: Plains and forests.

SS: How did you manage, as you made your way, who or what were you afraid of the most?

R: Of course it was all very scary. Most of all I was afraid of walking into a booby trap. The bush was thick, there could have been traps. I only saw such things in movies. I was scared. And before that I went to the Russian border checkpoint, there I was told Ukraine’s National Guard could open fire on us…

SS: They hide in these plains?

R: Yes. But thank God, we made it alive.

SS: How long did it take you to get across the border this way?

R: About three hours.

SS: And you were afraid as well?

Girl: Yes…

SS:So then you go back for your wife…?

R: Yes. I took my daughter to the nearest town in Russia and left her with my friends. Then I called my wife to say I’d gotten Angelina across. And then I went back.

SS: Were you able to take anything with you when you were fleeing with your wife and your little boy?

R: To tell you the truth, our escape was spontaneous, and we didn’t believe it would all work out. So all we packed was our IDs, documents and things for our children. We ended up with two bags, that’s it.

SS: Who do you have left back there?

R: At the moment, my cousin and my uncle.

SS: They didn’t want to leave?

R: They couldn’t leave. The Ukrainian side wouldn’t let them pass. My mother, my brother and his family, my in-laws – they were fleeing under bombardment, mortar fire. Thank god they made it. My cousin helped my mother get out, but he himself wasn’t allowed through.

SS: Why didn’t they let him through? I heard they don’t let men cross the border...they only allow women and children to leave..

R: Yes, that’s right.

SS: Why is that, what does Kiev want of these men who aren’t allowed in to Russia?

R: From what my friends back home are telling me, there are people making house calls in cities such as Kramatorsk, or parts of the Lugansk Region. They force young men to enlist in the Ukrainian Army, to defend the country – what country? Who are they supposed to defend? I don’t know. If you refuse - they shoot you.. to scare others. They just shoot men.

SS: They shoot people?! ..

R: Yes.

SS: For refusing to serve in the Ukrainian army?

R: Yes.

SS: You knew someone? Or were you told this is going on?

R:I’ve been told. At least there hasn’t been anything like that in our town.

SS: You must be in contact with you cousin, with your uncle – what are they telling you about the situation back home, what is going on?

R: I can tell you the city was under shelling yesterday, the border checkpoint was bombed. There used to be a female prison next to it, but it got burned down. Our checkpoint has been burned down, too. The bridge linking the Ukrainian and the Russian border control have been bombed. It was a 400-meter-long bridge going over the railroad, and now it’s been destroyed, so I don’t even know how people will be able to get across now.

SS: Does the shelling continue non-stop, or does it get more intense at night, or does it happen suddenly, or once a week… how intense is the fighting?

R: I can’t even tell you. They usually open fire early in the morning. On June 27th, fighting started at half-past-ten, right after the peace agreement ended..

SS: The ceasefire…

R: Yes, the ceasefire. So they started bombing at 10:30, and it went on for hours. Then it went quiet, and later on the shelling resumed.

SS: And at night?

R: Shelling continues at night. There’s also drones. Before we fled we would see drones and helicopters every night.

SS: They were bombing the area? Or these drones were monitoring the situation?

R: I guess they were monitoring. But can you imagine the stress people feel when they hear aircraft circling in the area? Especially with what’s been going on in Slavyansk. To tell you the truth, no one reads or watches Ukrainian media here, because they simply lie about what is going on.

SS: Is there any place to hide? What do people, your relatives do when there’s shelling, are there any bomb shelters, or everybody hides in their basements…Where do they take cover?

R: Some stay at home. There is a bomb shelter in our town, located in the basement of the local community center. But not everybody was even aware of its existence. And people weren’t prepared for all this, nobody imagined we’d be bombed.

SS: Your personal opinion, what do you think, why did all this unrest break out? Some say the West of the country is to blame, others blame the East Ukrainians.

R: I definitely think it’s the West. I’ve been thinking about it. You see, Donbas is a completely working class region. When protests kicked off in the Independence Square in Kiev, people in Donbas were busy working. Even those who weren’t happy with Yanukovich and his government kept doing their job rather than take to the streets. People here liked the stability they had. And then, when unrest broke out, when protesters vandalized central Kiev, the new government imposed wage deductions on miners from East Ukraine to finance its cleanup and reconstruction. It’s true, my wife also worked at a mine. And miners have all got families to support, so who would be happy to give up part of their wage? Noone. Wenevercared what they were doing. We didn’t go to their parts of the country. The people of Donbas have an opinion of our own, so why should they impose their views on us? Ukrainian media is saying a lot of negative stuff about our region, they say people in Donbass are a bunch of alcoholics, junkies and social parasites. If we’re so bad, then why do you need us? We’ve held a referendum to declare independence and establish the Lugansk People’s Republic. My brother was Chair of the local election committee in our town, by the way.

SS: What changed in your town since the self-defense forces were formed?

R: Self-defense forces appeared in our town, some of them have gone to Slavyansk to help defend it. Some have gone to Lugansk, and others to Donetsk. There’s self-defense forces in our town, controlling the situation.

SS: Who are these people – just miners, farmers, workers? …

R: Just miners.

SS: Do you personally know anybody who’s in the self-defense forces?

R: Yes.

SS: Any of your friends?

R: Quite a few. One of them has been wounded, and is in a hospital right now. He’s been wounded in the leg and lung.

SS: Were you called to join the self-defense forces?

R: Yes, but my wife wouldn’t let me go. She told me I have children to take care of, to look after. I think she will calm down, maybe later I could join the fight.

SS: You want to return and join the self-defense forces?

R: Of course.

SS: So this is completely voluntary?..

R: That’s right.

SS: Nobody is called upon, forced to join the self-defense forces?

R: No, in no way.

SS: These are all your local men, whom you’ve known for a while..

R: Yes. At first, they would just patrol the town. Chervonopartizansk is a small town, everybody knows each other there. Once the unrest started, we began seeing a lot of strangers in the city. As soon as fighting broke out in our area, snipers appeared. Maybe they arrived earlier, maybe they came to identify good firing positions. But they had been there before the fighting started.

SS: Are you in contact with your friends that are in the self-defense forces, what are they telling you now?

R: I mainly keep in touch with my brother. I call him once in a while. There’s fighting going on there. It didn’t even stop during the ceasefire.

SS: Why is Kiev calling these people terrorists?

R: I think Kiev finds it convenient to label the people of Donbas as terrorists and separatists. So the people in Kiev’s Independence Square were not terrorists , and the people of Donbas – they’re the terrorists. Just because we don’t agree with what Kiev is trying to impose on us, and stand by our own convictions.

SS: Have you thought about this –the Ukrainian army, it is large and well-equipped, why can’t it defeat the self-defense forces?

R: It’s not just Ukrainians, they’ve got others, too.

R: Yes, this is 100% true. From the very start, there were advisors working with the Maidan from Poland, other EU countries and the US. I think it’s common knowledge.

SS: Even more so – if the Ukrainian army is being helped by U.S. mercenaries, why can’t they defeat the self-defense forces?

R: I think it’s going to be extremely difficult to defeat people who are fighting for a cause, who are defending their land, and their rights. Whatever they do, the will of the people can’t be broken.

SS: Is it important that your region is regarded as an independent state – Novorossiya?

R: Yes, it’s very important to me.

SS: Did this become important now, after the conflict erupted, or was it always like this?

R: The West and the East of Ukraine used to live somewhat peacefully, but deep inside they probably had issues with each other… I wouldn’t say there was hatred, but I can definitely say we didn’t quite like each other.

SS: Do you consider yourself Ukrainian?

R: You know, I’ve been thinking about this. I was born in the USSR, and I was taught by my parents to love my country, my great country. And the things I’ve always been proud of were for example hockey – I was proud when the Russian team won the World Hockey Championship. I root for Russia when I watch the Eurovision song contest… I am always cheering for Russia. My passport says I am a citizen of Ukraine. But after all these events, especially after the Odessa tragedy, for me Ukraine doesn’t exist anymore as a state.

SS: What do you expect from the new President, Pyotr Poroshenko?

R: For me he’s not a President.

SS: Can Ukrainians solve this conflict themselves? Will they be able to mend ties, or is involvement of foreign powers like Russia, U.S., Europe needed for this to end?

R: I think people in the East have become extremely angry, anxious. A couple of days ago, a 10-month baby was laid to rest in the town of Antratsit. I am sure his parents would never come to terms with their tragedy, they will never forget that their child was lost in a war that had been unleashed by Kiev and the West of Ukraine. The East of Ukraine would never come to terms with this. At least that’s what I think.

SS: So you need foreign help, or will you manage on your own?

R: Of course we need help… Novorossiya is a strong young state but it’s very fragile. We definitely need help. I really hope Russia will help us. At least, I am sure no-one is looking to the West for any help.

SS: The West says that Russia is financing the self-defense forces, that most of the self-defense forces are Russian, who’ve crossed the border into Ukraine... Is that so?

R: I used to live in a border town. I never saw any Russian soldiers or military equipment crossing the border. I am not lying. I am telling the truth. I have another cousin, she is from the Ukrainian city of Zhitomir, in the West of the country. She supports the Maidan movement. I didn’t want to argue or try to convince her she’s wrong to do so. Now we simply don’t talk to each other, we’re divided by different views. But I know what I am talking about when I say my town is being bombed, just like Slavyansk – I was there, my family was there.

SS: Do you want to come home, or you want to stay in Russia?

R: I would like my children to stay here. I don’t see any future for my children back in Ukraine. My daughter needs to get into college next year. I don’t want to live in fear. I never thought of going back, really.

SS: Thank you for this interview, thank you for sharing your story with us. Good luck with everything.