TAGANROG, Russia – Lyudmila V. Ladnik has fled her home in eastern Ukraine fearing rising tensions will force her to return to a bomb shelter like the one she sheltered in seven years ago when his town of Debaltsevo was shelled during fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
But once she entered Russia on Sunday, part of a growing evacuation ordered by separatist leaders, she already wanted to return.
“They lied to us,” fumed Ms Ladnik, 62, referring to Russian authorities. She said she had been told residents of breakaway areas would temporarily stay in Rostov, but on Sunday learned they would be moved further inside Russia, to a city like Kursk. With dismay, she wondered if her evacuation to Russia would take longer than expected.
“We are now calling everyone at home, telling them to stay,” she said.
Confusion reigned on Sunday as more people crossed into Russia following a warning from Kremlin-backed rebel leaders that Ukraine was about to launch an attack on breakaway areas. The Kyiv government has denied any such plans and the rebel leaders have produced no evidence to support their claim. The United States said the warnings could be part of a Russian propaganda campaign to justify military intervention by Moscow.
The situation in eastern Ukraine has escalated rapidly over the past week, with the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed rebels trading accusations of artillery fire in violation of ceasefire agreements. .
While Russia has tried to portray the flow of refugees as evidence of Ukraine’s threatening posture, people who passed through the train station in Taganrog, a Russian town perched on the Sea of Azov near the border with Ukraine, appeared helpless, frightened by warnings of more violence, but unsure of what lay ahead. The commander of the Ukrainian armed forces said in a statement that the refugees were “used to aggravate the situation in order to provoke further bloodshed”.
Ms Ladnik was one of several hundred people who boarded a train in Taganrog on Sunday, bound for deep Russia. Mothers dragged their children and old people carried heavy suitcases in the wagons.
They did not know their destination and rumors spread. Some whispered that it could be Nizhny Novgorod in central Russia, others were less certain. Some disembarked the train once they learned it could take them far away, fearing they could not afford a return trip, despite promises from Russian President Vladimir V. Putin to pay them about $130 each.
27-year-old Vika Zubchenko decided to rely on her own resources. She and her sister-in-law Yelena Sayakina, 45, rented a house in Taganrog for two weeks. Her husband had to stay in their town of Debaltsevo, banned from leaving by separatist authorities who called for a mass mobilization of men of military age.
Ms Zubchenko said she was most frightened by the panic at home in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.
“The stores there are already running out of batteries and candles,” Ms Zubchenko said, expressing a common emotion among people from breakaway lands of Ukraine who lived through heavy fighting in 2014 and 2015. Many those who fled this time said they were worried about their children. .
“In 2015, I didn’t have it,” Ms Zubchenko said, pointing to her 5-year-old daughter, Alisa.