ORLIVSHCHYNA, Dnipropetrovsk Oblast – It doesn’t look like a typical camp for internally displaced persons.
Once a place to unwind and enjoy nature, the Lisovyi resort located on the Samara River near Dnipro, a large city in south-central Ukraine, was turned into a shelter when Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
It now houses over 100 Ukrainians, mostly families from the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, who fled Russia’s relentless bombardment and hostilities.
For several months, internally displaced persons were able to stay at the camp for free. But at the beginning of summer, the management of the resort allegedly started charging them.
As many of the IDPs are struggling to make ends meet, they now fear that the management may raise the price which they won’t be able to pay, risking to get kicked out of the camp, with nowhere else to go.
Since Feb. 24, about 17% of Ukraine’s total population, which amounts to nearly 7 million people, became internally displaced.
After they officially register to receive an IDP status, the government gives Ukrainians monthly wire transfers of Hr 2,000 ($55) per adult, and Hr 3,000 ($82) per child or an individual with a disability. IDPs can also apply for help from global non-profits operating in Ukraine, like the Red Cross, or reach out to volunteers.
The government also started recording damages to people’s homes, with a goal of financial compensation. But those payments haven’t begun yet due to budget limitations.
IDPs also have a right to free housing, but the process of getting it from the government is often slow and disorganized, forcing volunteers to pick up the slack.
“There are many problems. At the level of local communities, there is actually very little housing available which could be used by IDPs for up to a year,” Taras Scherbatiuk, an expert from the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, told the Kyiv Independent.
Scherbatiuk also pointed out that one of the key issues is the government’s communication on policies regarding IDPs – often, people just don’t know where to seek help, he says.
Although the IDPs living in Lisovyi share the resort’s territory with some vacationers, the group of about 120 is its own community.
There is a young family with a newborn. There are two little girls whose parents are soldiers. There is “the activist,” a woman who makes camouflage nets for the army.
All rely almost entirely on volunteers and humanitarian aid. Every Friday, volunteers from World Central Kitchen, a global non-profit that provides meals in zones of conflict and disasters, arrive with food packages. Yet resort buildings have no kitchens, so people either stockpile basic goods like oil and cereals for the future or pass them on to the resort’s cafeteria, where meals are cooked twice a day.
Doctors Without Borders, another global nonprofit that provides medical help, also comes to Lysovyi every week. Displaced Ukrainians told the Kyiv Independent that doctors give basic consultations, offer free medication when necessary, and even hold therapy sessions.
IDPs also treat their temporary home as their own – many volunteer to help the resort’s kitchen staff, while others mow the lawns or clean up the territory.
Klara Bondarenko, 62, continues organizing volunteer work to help the Ukrainian military after evacuating to Lysovyi from Luhansk Oblast.
Bondarenko, together with other women, used to cook food for soldiers. Then, she found volunteers who shipped to her used fabrics that she uses to make camouflage nets, cloaks, and helmet covers.
Nowhere to go
Oleksandr Bryk, 55, and Nataliia Bryk, 51, escaped Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, back in April. They say their 19-year-old daughter Valeria could no longer take it.
Valeria has cerebral palsy – a disorder that impairs one’s movement, and often also leads to other related conditions like seizures, problems with vision, hearing, or speech, intellectual disability, or scoliosis. When Russia shelled a military base close to the family’s home, Valeria panicked.
“Her eyes were frantic,” Nataliia told the Kyiv Independent, as Oleksandr put Valeriia into a wheelchair for their afternoon walk. “We couldn’t explain anything to her. So we left.”
Valeria’s anxiety wasn’t the only reason for the family to flee.
Due to her condition, the girl must regularly take dozens of lifesaving medicines, which ran scarce quickly when Russia launched a full-scale invasion. The family’s doctors fled the city too, so Oleksandr and Nataliia had to leave everything behind to save their daughter.
Another family at the camp, Serhiy Shuba, 22, and Svitlana Buhkalo, 19, fled from Kharkiv Oblast in March, as they were expecting a baby when Russia invaded. At first, the young couple was reluctant to talk, avoiding questions about their painful past.
“We left because it became unbearable,” Shuba finally opened up.
The Russian military occupied their native Chuhuiv, a city southeast of Kharkiv, almost immediately after beginning its eastern advance – by Feb. 25, Russia controlled the city. Intense fighting ensued, and Ukraine liberated the city some two weeks later. But the family was gone by then.
Local volunteers in Chuhuiv tipped them off about Lisovyi, and they made their way here with Serhiy’s parents, who settled in the room next door. Buhkalo’s parents couldn’t be persuaded to leave their belongings behind.
For months, the couple traveled to a hospital in nearby Novomoskovsk for specialized medical check-ups during Buhkalo’s pregnancy. They got many of the necessary baby products from volunteers. Just an hour before the interview, a van full of humanitarian aid arrived at the resort, with a stroller delivered specifically for their family.
On Sept. 9, Buhkalo gave birth to a baby girl, named Eva, in the nearby Novomoskovsk.
Half a year after arriving at the camp, and with a newborn baby now, the family has nowhere else to go and hopes to return home soon.
Ukrainian forces have recently liberated most of the Kharkiv Oblast during its lightning counteroffensive, but the region that borders Russia continues to be heavily bombarded.
“We are just waiting until we can go back home,” Shuba said.
“We used to ride our bikes and count dead bodies,” recalled Rimma Cherepakha, a 20-year-old who escaped Mariupol after surviving three months of the brutal Russian siege.
Sitting in the shade of Lysovyi’s trees with her 12-year-old sister, she told stories after stories for hours. Their family – consisting of Cherepakha, her three siblings, and parents who both serve in the military – has seen it all.
When Russia began its all-out war on Feb. 24, Cherepakha’s mother left the military to take care of the kids. Her father stayed with his unit and fought, before retreating to a different region of Ukraine.
“We basically starved for a month,” Cherepakha told the Kyiv Independent. As Russia ferociously bombarded Mariupol for months, hundreds of thousands of people lived with no utilities, and extremely scarce food or water.
The family’s neighbors even used blackmail to demand food from them, threatening to tell Russian soldiers about their father.
While in Mariupol, Cherepakha filmed everything she saw using one of the two phones she had “to show people the truth.” Trying to avoid trouble with Russian soldiers at checkpoints, she smashed the phone’s screen before getting out of the city, pretending that it’s broken.
Cherepakha’s 10-year-old sister Arina tried to avoid the trouble by literally eating the pages of her own diary. Every day of Mariupol’s siege, Arina, just like many others, wrote about the war in her little pink notebook. At one of the checkpoints, she remembered that her recollections mentioned her parents serving in the military. Panicking, the girl chewed and swallowed pieces of paper, so the Russian soldiers wouldn’t find out.
“I watch my videos from Mariupol 10 times a day. Eventually, I begin to cry,” Cherepakha told the Kyiv Independent. “I still haven’t proccessed what happened there.”
Risk of being ousted
Despite the relatively comfortable conditions of Lisovyi, the place has its pitfalls – the resort’s generosity may not last long.
For months, all internally displaced Ukrainians could stay at Lisovyi for free.
But at the beginning of summer, the resort’s management demanded that each person pays over Hr 5,000 ($137) a month, according to one woman who asked to remain anonymous for fears of being kicked out.
The sum was unbearable for most displaced people, who were left without any profit and relied either on their savings or the government’s aid. So they asked for a meeting with the management, the woman told the Kyiv Independent.
“We told them that we don’t have the money,” she said. The resort’s director spoke to “whoever was above him” and lowered the price to Hr 2,000 ($55) – a manageable, but still difficult price tag.
The people above – the owners of Lysovyi – are a state-owned design office Pivdenne, a large enterprise that develops missile and space rocket systems. The woman said that Lysovyi’s management told the IDPs that Pivdenne is dealing with large debts that need to be covered, hence the prices. Multiple families were even forced to leave the resort because they couldn’t afford to pay, she said.
Another woman that lives at the resort, who also asked for anonymity, confirmed that Lisovyi’s prices have forced people out.
“Many people left because they couldn’t pay, because it is too expensive,” she told the Kyiv Independent. “We pay, but what else is there to do?” she said.
The Kyiv Independent wasn’t able to reach either Lysovyi or Pivdenne for comment at the time of publication.
One of the women believes that the resort wants IDPs to either pay or leave so that they can go back to business.
“They are waiting for vacationers because those are profitable,” the woman said.
But many IDPs staying at the camp have nowhere else to go. And as it gets colder, finding adequate housing with stable heating can become even more difficult.
“We have no idea where to go from here, especially with the winter approaching,” Oleksandr Bryk said.
He said they are ready to go anywhere, with only two conditions.
“Just as long as it is quiet there, and it’s Ukraine-controlled territory, then we would survive there,” he said.
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