Carpathian Mountains, 13 May 2022 – Sasha, Masha and Dasha* are playing hide-and-seek under the table in an accommodation centre for internally displaced persons (IDPs), where they are living with their parents, Oksana and Andrii. When the war started, Sasha had just turned one; her sisters are four and six years old.
The family fled from a village in the Sumy region, only a hundred metres away from the border with the Russian Federation. For several weeks, all roads around the village were cut off by the Russian offensive. At the first opportunity, the family packed into a car and headed to western Ukraine.
“We did not know what was more dangerous – to stay, or to take a risk and drive through the areas with active fighting. We managed to escape. Like many other displaced persons, we thought that we would stay away for a week or two. Now, more than a month has passed since we left, and nobody knows when it would be possible to return home. Sasha and Masha are too little to understand, but Dasha is aware that there is a war,” says Andrii.
Now, the family is staying in a remote location in the middle of the Carpathian Mountains, over a thousand kilometres away from their home. They were lucky to find refuge at a shelter in a natural park. When the war started, several other national parks opened their doors to displaced Ukrainians, offering them a temporary home surrounded by the serene mountains.
In partnership with the Ministry of Environmental Protection and Natural Resources of Ukraine and with funding from the United Kingdom’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) supported these newly established collective centres for IDPs. Rooms and bathrooms were upgraded; solar-powered streetlights erected; an improved water treatment and sewage system installed; and furniture, bed linen, kitchenware, and hygiene items distributed.
“Initially, we planned to open our accommodation for tourists in May – but when the war started, we had to act fast,” explains the director of the natural park, Mykhailo Nechai. “There was no appropriate sewage system, and that was our primary concern, as more and more people were arriving every day. IOM procured all equipment and helped us to install the system.”
In the kitchen, Viktoriia prepares a meal for her family. She arrived in the Carpathians with her sons, Mykola and Ivan, and her elderly mother. They fled from the town of Berdiansk in the Zaporizhia region, which is now under the control of the Russian military. Their trip took four long days. “We stayed in occupied Berdiansk as long as we could, but the situation was getting really scary. There have been reports about many people disappearing, being arrested and held in detention. I was afraid for my sons. When we left, it was a road to the unknown as we drove along the minefields and military checkpoints where we were stopped each time. My 18-year-old son was forced to take his clothes off as the Russian military were searching every man, looking for signs of affiliation to Ukrainian armed forces,” recalls Viktoriia.
This sense of unknown and uncertainty stays with them. Having found a relatively safe space to live in, Viktoriia is now focused on her family’s well-being. Her sons continue their education online, and the family intends to stay in Ukraine. However, as the war has now entered its third month, their displacement might become protracted. Soon, they may need to find a longer-term housing solution.
Since 24 February, the western regions of Ukraine remain the top destination for IDPs and already host up to 3 million displaced Ukrainians. Local capacities are strained. Almost half of IDPs (47 per cent) currently residing in the western regions are considering further relocation, according to IOM’s latest survey on displacement.
“I am scared that Berdiansk will be left behind the curtain, if you know what I mean. We are praying for our return home. At the moment, it feels like our lives, and our mental state, have been put on pause. Hopefully, not for long. I have faith. I want to believe in this very much.”
*Names have been changed for protection reasons.
Written by Iryna Tymchyshyn, IOM Ukraine.