DONETSK, Russia — Tatiana Poludnitsina fled her home in the eastern Ukrainian town of Luhansk in her robe and flip-flops after artillery shells hit it in mid-August.
With the help of strangers, she crossed the border into Russia, where she now resides in a temporary refugee camp outside the small border town of Donetsk.
“I have nothing anymore, nowhere to go, no apartment … and all my documents and personal belongings were burned,” said Poludnitsina, 25, as she sat in a tent she shares with a family of four.
It is a story that echoes among the tens of thousands of Ukrainian residents who fled their homes when fighting intensified in August between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian government forces.
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An estimated 814,000 Ukrainians have entered Russia since the beginning of the year, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, citing data from Russian migration authorities.
It is unclear how many of them are ethnic Russians, but local humanitarian workers confirmed that most aid recipients appeared to have ethnic or family ties to Russia.
The number of residents displaced within Ukraine doubled during three weeks in August to 260,000 since Jan. 1, the U.N. agency said. But the number is probably higher since many people were “staying with families and friends and had chosen not to register with the authorities,” the agency said.
The camp in Russia near Donetsk is one of four temporary settlements opened by Moscow since separatists seized cities across Ukraine’s eastern region and Ukrainian security forces fought back. About 100 tents are meant to house 1,000 people, camp administrators said. At times, however, the tents have held 3,000.
The population dropped to 130 in recent weeks as many refugees found shelter with friends, relatives or host families or managed to rent apartments. Most who remain lack passports or other official documents that would allow them to move on or be resettled by the Russian government in cities elsewhere, said Natalya Vyacheslavovna Kim, a senior camp manager.
“They are waiting for their document situation to be resolved,” Kim said. “Then it’s up to them to decide whether they want to be here permanently. They can decide whether to keep their Ukrainian documents or apply for Russian citizenship.”
As refugees wait, flies swarm the stuffy canvas interiors of tents, where the temperature some days soars to nearly 90 degrees. Stifling heat and frequent wind gusts make it nearly impossible to stay clean.
“We wash our hair with cold water,” said Yevgenia Melikyan, 35, who arrived at the camp from Luhansk in early August with her 76-year-old father and teenage son and daughter.
There are no books, no television, no Internet. Youngsters play in the dirt. Many appear frightened by loud noises, camp administrators said.
“There’s not a day that we don’t hear explosions,” Melikyan said.
Meals include millet porridge enhanced with stewed canned meat. Poludnitsina said she longed for a hot dog.
Forced to share tents, strangers bond over stories of near-death and escape.
Melikyan, whose family camps with Poludnitsina, said they left Luhansk after food became scarce, the water supply was shut off and electricity became sporadic. Most nights the family huddled in the basement of their home, terrified by the sound of gunfire and bombs exploding above.
Melikyan said she feared for her husband, who chose to remain in Luhansk. The family has had no contact with him since they left.
Many of the refugees in Russia blame their plight on Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, President Obama and leaders of other Western nations that have sided with the government in Kiev.
“I wish they could live for one day like we lived, hiding from shelling in the basement,” said Irina Pavlenko, 30, who arrived at the camp Aug. 26 with her husband, Maxim; 9-month-old son Kostya; daughter Darina, 5; and other relatives. “I wish their children would suffer the same way our children have suffered.”
A common sentiment conveyed by many of the refugees was that the pro-Russia fighters were ordinary citizens, volunteers who were fighting to protect the lives and interests of ethnic Russians who live in Ukraine. They express gratitude to the government of Vladimir Putin, whom Ukraine blames for backing an invasion of the country.
“America and Ukraine did not take in any of us refugees or give us any humanitarian assistance. It’s only Russia that’s helping us,” said Poludnitsina, who wants to remain in Russia and become a citizen.
Citing data from the Russian migration services, Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the U.N. agency on refugees, said at a recent briefing that 121,190 Ukrainians had applied for refugee status or temporary asylum in Russia since the beginning of the year. An additional 138,825 Ukrainians had applied for other forms of legality such as residence permits under a “resettlement of compatriots” program, Edwards said.
Seeking work, safety
Many Russian citizens have stepped forward to help. In the Russian town of Rostov-on-Don, about 100 miles south of Donetsk, Anatoly Kotlyarov started sheltering friends four months ago. Word spread and soon friends of friends and strangers were being sent his way.
So Kotlyarov helped establish a volunteer organization that provides emergency help to refugees through private donations. They set up shop in his construction office, where baby formula, disposable diapers and other goods are stored.
The group has helped 5,000 refugees relocate to various parts of Russia by providing tickets for transportation, Kotlyarov said.
“The biggest problem for them is money and information,” he said. Refugees “arrive here and they’ve lost contacts. They don’t know what they’re going to do or where they’re going to go.”
On a recent afternoon at Rostov’s central train station, dozens of refugees curled up in chairs or slept on the floor as they waited for trains to take them to destinations across Russia.
Marina Dolgopolova, 29, and her fiancé, Constantine, were preparing for their Sept. 12 wedding when their home in the Donetsk region of Ukraine was bombed. Dolgopolova said the couple, both former mine workers, sold their wedding rings to pay for bus tickets to Rostov.
She arrived with a pair of jeans, two T-shirts and a laptop computer. Constantine appeared nearly comatose as he lay nearby on an inflatable mattress, where they took turns resting. Sleeping on the air bed was better than the three nights they spent in the basement sheltering from shelling, Dolgopolova said.
Tears welled as she spoke of the parents she left behind. Her mother refused to abandon her dog and seven cats. Four of the cats belonged to a neighbor who fled.
The young couple was headed to Samara, about 650 miles from their hometown. It was one of three towns that Russian emergency services allowed them to choose from to resettle.
They don’t know anyone in Samara.
But that didn’t matter, Dolgopolova said. “The main thing is to find a job and somewhere safe to live.”