Arriving often with nothing or perhaps only a small bag and a few personal belongings, internally displaced people in Ukraine desperately need support – from a safe place to stay, water, food, clothes - and time to sleep, rest and recover from weeks of fear and uncertainty before deciding what is next.
‘We meet people where they are and set up counseling posts – on railway stations or as here in this shelter facility that houses hundreds of internally displaced people, most of them being women and children,’ tells Orest Moskva. He is part of DRC’s legal aid outreach in Ukraine and several other countries around Europe. They meet people at key locations such as border crossing points, railway stations of shelter facilities where people arrive for shorter or longer-term stays depending on their options and possibilities to move on.
Today, Orest Moskva and the DRC Protection team - counting legal, health, and related expertise equipped and trained to guide and counsel people in need – are at an interim shelter site in Lviv, western Ukraine, at an undisclosed location to protect people living and working here.
‘We make sure people see us and know that we are present at key points along evacuation routes – among them on the railway station platforms to meet people arriving with the evacuation trains, at aid distribution sites, or in places like this shelter,’ explains Orest Moskva, who like many other DRC employees are internally displaced themselves, but now relocated and working from where they with DRC, coming himself from eastern Ukraine.
‘There are two evacuations trains every day and the people coming in are of course very exhausted and shocked from what they have seen and been through. Some of them would be directed to shelters like this, when there are spaces available. But all too many have nowhere to go.’
The shelter managers announce at the canteen of the sports venue that is now serving lunch for IDPs, that DRC legal aid teams are there and people who need help may go and speak to them.
And the number of people patiently waiting in line demonstrate that legal aid services are badly needed also here.
Oksana, 32, from Donetsk Oblast is one of them, seven months pregnant and traveling with a group of 10 people, six of them children and among them her 12-year-old son. They all left together on 19 July after shelling and active fighting hit their area.
‘I have a house back home but have applied for interim housing offered by the government here. If that does not work out, then I will have to look for a room to rent somewhere.’ Oksana is a single-mother and the breadwinner of her family and explains that she used to work at the bakery factory and has her own house back home. Now, she does not know when, or if, it will be possible to return.
‘I’m in touch with people back home and call them to hear how it is going. Yesterday they told me that five people were killed in our area.’
Oksana wants to speak with DRC lawyers to see how DRC can help her better understand what her options are for help and assistance in Ukraine. She has no plans to leave Ukraine. Her main aim is a safe place to stay for now, not least as she is unable to move around much and expects to deliver her second child in two months' time.
‘Many Ukrainians have lost documents, need for example birth certificates, renewed ID, or are concerned about their rights and options in Ukraine and abroad, and some look for interim shelter, food, clothes or medical aid,’ says Orest Moskva. ‘And it has become even more difficult now to find out what the latest rules and regulations are.’
Legislation is changing fast in Ukrainee since 24 February and during times of Martial Law, with many being worried about rights or new obligations impacting for example access to pension, impact on mortgages, labour law, official documents and much more creating constant needs to adapt. This makes the role of DRC lawyers even more critical.
‘We meet everyday people from the worst-affected areas of Ukraine which have been under heavy shelling for months who have found their workplaces, houses or apartments damaged or in ruins, who have lost all assets, jobs, businesses, farmland etc. or whose passport or documents are expired or gone. Others need help to simply register as internally displaced where they arrive in order to qualify for government subsidies and other emergency aid,’ says Orest Moskva.
Svitlana used to have a flower shop back home for the past 12 years in her hometown 30 kilometers from the border to the Russian Federation. Since the early morning of the 24 February when the first attacks started, there has been no quiet days, she says, explaining that she has been at the shelter since mid-April when she managed to escape along with her mother and father.
For more than a month and a half, they had tried to stay on and cope as best as they could. She tells that she started planting blue and yellow flowers in the garden and wanted to create a flowerbed shaped as the Ukranian flag outside her house. But she never finished the project. There were missile strikes and shelling coming from all four sides of the house. It was a Saturday morning that she will never forget, she says, when she and her parents decided within minutes that it was time to leave as massive shelling started again and came even closer. Svitlana recalls how they had to leave so fast that there was no time to pack or prepare.
Trying to call for taxis that could take them quickly to the train station, nobody was willing to take the risk and all refused to come. Eventually, a friend took them to the station where they got on an evacuation train. Only then Svetlana realised that her mother had not even managed to put on her clothes but were covered only in the winter coat that she managed to grab on the way out.
The evacuation train they boarded were headed to Vinitsya in central Ukraine, but shelling in areas they had to pass, forced the evacuation train to change the route. That is how they ended travelling across the country over several days in the train, from far east of Ukraine to in Lviv in the western part of the country.
‘Two of my friends who are still there and have been to my home. They tell me that there are some damages, but the walls are still standing. I hope it will soon be possible to return to home and I also want to complete the flowerbed with the flag in our garden’ shares Svitlana.