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25,000 Displaced East Ukrainians Take Refuge in Soviet-Era Resort Town

Known as the “Little Switzerland” of the Donetsk region, Svyatogorsk is also known locally as a children’s resort and a place of pilgrimage.
June 11, 2014, 9:10pm
Photo by Harriet Salem

Called the “Little Switzerland” of the Donetsk region, Svyatogorsk is also known locally as a children’s resort and a place of pilgrimage.

But now, with fierce fighting between pro-Russia rebels and the Ukrainian army in the surrounding areas, the history of Soviet-era holiday encampment has taken a tragic turn as thousands flock to the isolated enclave of safety.

At least 25,000 displaced east Ukrainians have taken refuge in the Svyatogorsk, which normally has a population of less than 5,000, Elena Petryaeva, the Deputy Governor of Donetsk province told VICE News.


Sitting in the reception area of a retreat that usually hosts children with tuberculosis, Irina Andrusenko, a 37-year-old mother of two, is close to tears as she describes how her once quiet neighborhood is now subject to a daily bombardment of gunfire, shells and other heavy artillery.

Irina and her family decided to flee their hometown, Sloviansk, on May 29 after shrapnel killed one of the residents in their apartment block.

"We were living day-by-day" Irina told VICE News. "Shelling would start at 4AM. We had [rebel] sniper positions on our building — we chased them away…we don't know who is bombing who anymore.”

Catch up on VICE News’ latest Russian Roulette. Watch the latest dispatch here.

Many who have fled echo Irina’s sentiments.

Local support for the pro-Russia rebel movement was strong in the city at first, with thousands voting in favor of a poorly defined “independence” last month.

But now with war raging at their doorsteps locals feel trapped in the midst of events that have rapidly spiraled beyond their control.

“Nobody listens to us now it is not our choice, we are just caught between these two sides that just shoot at each other,” said Svetlana, a retired schoolteacher, who is staying in one of the town’s resorts.

“We didn’t vote for war” interrupts her neighbor, Ludmila. “Nobody thought it would end like this.”

Svetlana fled her home in Sloviansk after heavy shelling in her neighborhood. Now she lives in a Soviet-era resort in Svyatogorsk with her family, neighbors and pet parakeet.

On the table the family pet, a yellow and green parakeet, which they evacuated with them chirps in his cage.


In Svyatogorsk, which is 18 miles from Sloviansk — the epicenter of a Kiev-backed anti-terror operation aimed at ousting the pro-Russia militia groups operating in Ukraine's east, the dull booms of explosions landing can be heard in the distance.

As the military have tightened their circle on the rebel-held city, the campaign of shelling has caused serious damage to residential areas on the outskirts the city, including Andreevka, Artyema, Cherevkovka and Semenovka, turning them into near ghost towns.

Explosions have also wrecked parts of the city center. Today, shop and homeowners picked through the wreckage to retrieve what they could of their properties.

“There are only pensioners that can’t escape and corpses left there [in these areas] now,” Irina’s husband, Andrey Vorobyev told VICE News.

Sloviansk's 'People’s Mayor' rumored to be detained by own forces in Ukraine. Read more here.

Life in Svyatogorsk
Several of Svyatogorsk’s faded Soviet-era resorts are now full.

In the picturesque gold-domed monastery, nestled on the riverbank, hundreds of cots have been prepared for the new arrivals. The town is still clearly struggling under the weight of the influx.

Svetlana Polishuk and her mother Galina — both from the heavily shelled Artyema suburb of Sloviansk — were greeted by locked doors at the town’s administration building as they tried to find somewhere to stay on Tuesday afternoon.


On the entrance to the building, a sign asks locals to donate food to the refugees.

Like many who have fled Sloviansk, Svetlana and her mother left with just a few of their belongings.

“Trying to get out was terrible, there are a lot of checkpoints,” she told VICE News. “Now I need a place to live and work. My office was closed after being hit by a shell…I don’t have any money to live. I need a house and a job.”

Heavy shelling has devastated parts of Sloviansk city center, including shops and apartment buildings. Areas near factories and state administration buildings were targeted.

Yulia Krasilnikova, a volunteer of NGO Vostok SOS, told VICE News that in the beginning people were “afraid to move, choose where to go carefully, but now they are happy to just go anywhere that is not there.”

The need to find work is driving many further away.

Kiev and other big cities in central and western Ukraine, where work can be found, are becoming destinations of choice and housing stock is running low NGO workers told VICE News.

Most of those staying in Svyatogorsk are from Sloviansk and neighboring villages and towns where damaged infrastructure has cut off water, electricity and mobile phone signal for a nearly a week.

In Donbas Pearl, a summer camp decorated with multi-colored bunting and a "magic garden" complete with kitsch figurines of Snow White and the seven dwarves, children from the affected areas wait outside the administration office to try and reach their families by telephone.

The children staying here all came from Sloviansk and nearby Kramatorsk on a regular summer break, but now they won’t be going home.


“It’s too dangerous for them to return” the camp’s director told VICE News. “We are not sure whether they will stay here or go somewhere else, but for sure they will not return to a warzone."

Heavy shelling has devastated parts of Sloviansk city center, including shops and apartment buildings. Areas near factories and state administration buildings were targeted.

On Tuesday, Ukraine’s new president Petro Poroshenko, who was inaugurated on Saturday, promised that a humanitarian corridor would be formed to allow those who remain inside the city to leave safely. But with multiple militia groups operating in the area, an agreement will be hard to reach.

So far, there are no signs of any concrete preparations underway, but today people continued to flee the city with loaded cars via the only open Ukrainian military checkpoint to the city’s south.

Order from Chaos: Moscow’s men raise a rebel army in Ukraine’s east. Read more here.

Red Cross, and other international aid organizations, said they have been unable to access the Sloviansk and surrounding area as neither of the warring sides can offer a guarantee of their workers safety.

The rebels detained 11 Red Cross representatives earlier this month in Donetsk. After several days, they were released.

The difficulty of accessing Sloviansk means that precise figures on the numbers of deaths and injuries are unknown.

But in a press statement issued today, Ukraine's Minister of Health, Oleh Musiy said that at least 210 people had been killed during the anti-terror operation. Musiy did not provide information on how many of these were civilians, but stated that at least 14 children had died.

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem