Refugees From Eastern Ukraine Wonder When They Can Go Home

Ukraine and Russia give different estimates of how many have been displaced by fighting in the eastern provinces, but they agree that people are being forced from their homes in battle-scarred cities.

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When Ukraine's former president refused to sign a trade agreement with the European Union, he was driven from office. Today in Brussels, Ukraine's new president signed that deal, as did the former Soviet Republics of Georgia and Moldova. Russia still objects and fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian separatists goes on. The violence has forced thousands of people in eastern Ukraine from their homes. NPR's Corey Flintoff spoke with some of them.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: The sun is shining outside but these children are playing in the dimly lit lobby of the building where they've been staying for the past week or so. It seems safer indoors. The building is a former dormitory for railway workers in the town of Ilovaysk, about 30 miles from Donetsk. The children are refugees. Irina is here with her sister, her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren - all from the embattled city of Slaviansk. She shows the way to a little room with narrow cots and a small radio propped on the pillow.

IRINA: (Through translator) We bought this thing when we got here but we try not to listen to the news, just music to help us go to sleep. My husband's back home with my goats and my vegetable garden. He sent me away because in two or three days, I might have had a nervous breakdown. Our town - it's just not there anymore.

FLINTOFF: Irina asks not to give her family name because she's afraid she might get into trouble with the Ukrainian authorities. She says the family was sleeping in their basement back home in Slaviansk with shells flying over their heads.

IRINA: (Through translator) We're asking God for help to stop the bombing of Slaviansk so we can go home. What a town it was - splendid and beautiful. What they've done to it is just horrible. And why?

FLINTOFF: Evgeniy Shibalov is a member of an ad hoc group in Donetsk called Responsible Citizens. The group raises money for refugees who are taking shelter in eastern Ukraine in safer towns. Shibalov says the main question refugees ask is, when can I go home?

EVGENIY SHIBALOV: We are ready to stay in our temporary houses even if it is just intense for one month, for two months, for all the summer. But we want to know, when can we come back to our houses?

FLINTOFF: Russian officials say many Ukrainian refugees are crossing the border to seek help in Russia. A Russian deputy prime minister said this week that more than 23,000 people are now living in camps in the Russian regions that border Ukraine. But getting across the border isn't always easy because that's where some of the fiercest fighting between Ukrainian troops and separatists has taken place. Drenching rain and wind swept over this Ukrainian border post, where just a day before, refugees had been driven back by fierce fighting. The post was abandoned. The border guard's booth riddled with bullet holes, windows broken and part of the roof shot away. A man and his wife made their way on foot toward the Russian border. They wouldn't identify themselves for fear of retaliation but they did stop long enough for one question. What happened here?

(Foreign language spoken.)

FLINTOFF: The man was middle-aged, big and burly. He said, you see a man crying. That tells you everything about the situation here. Corey Flintoff, NPR News.

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