RYBAKI, Poland (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – When Ukrainian construction supervisor Anton Jakuszewski was seized by pro-Russian separatists in the eastern city of Luhansk last summer he thought his life was over.
“I was afraid I would not survive the day. I was afraid I would not be able to say goodbye to my family. That day I understood that I could be killed at any time for any reason,” he said.
The 34-year-old says the rebels accused him of being a “thief and a capitalist” and took him to their commander’s office to decide if he should be killed. The commander turned out to be a former classmate and the terrified Jakuszewski was quietly released. But that day he resolved to leave his homeland for good.
Last month Jakuszewski and his 7-year-old daughter Barbara were among a group of 179 Ukrainians of Polish descent and their spouses who were evacuated by the Polish government in a one-off rescue operation from the rebel-held region bordering Russia.
More than 5,600 people have been killed and nearly a million driven from their homes in fighting between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces. Moscow denies Western allegations that it is helping the rebels.
The refugees told how fear of death had paralysed life in the east since war broke out last April, leaving many too scared to leave their homes.
“I heard constant shooting from my apartment. When I went to the store I feared for my life,” said Artem Karrenko who described how his neighbour was killed by a rocket during a trip to the shops.
Karrenko, a cook in his mid-30s, said people in the large industrial city of Donetsk no longer went to work or school. Houses had no gas, electricity or water. Shops only offered basics like milk, cheese and bread.
“It was clear to us that the situation in Ukraine would not improve. It wasn’t difficult to decide to escape because we want to bring our children up in safety. We only thought about our children,” said Karrenko, who fled with his wife, who is of Polish origin, their baby son and daughter.
Jakuszewski added that he did not want his daughter growing up under communism.
“Nobody dares to say anything against the separatists. They are determined to revive the communist system, have already established the NKWD (Soviet law enforcement agency) and treat all people as possible spies,” he said.
The risky evacuation took place amid high secrecy to avoid being targeted by rebels. The refugees were transported in buses to an airport in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on January 10. Shortly after the operation a passenger bus was struck during fighting not far from Donetsk, killing 12 civilians.
From Kharkiv, military planes flew the refugees to Poland where they were taken to two centres run by the Catholic charity Caritas in the northeastern villages of Rybaki and Lansk.
The evacuees, who include engineers, doctors, cooks, nurses and teachers, will receive healthcare, language lessons, schooling for their children and help in finding employment and housing.
Many told how they had lost everything and would have to start from scratch. They were unable to sell their properties before they left and had been forced to abandon successful businesses and careers.
Their forefathers migrated from Poland to Ukraine after World War II or during the 60s and 70s when they were drawn by work opportunities in the industrial region.
The last census from 2001 estimated there were 6,500 Ukrainians with Polish roots living in the mainly Russian-speaking southeast region. Many have left since the fighting began; a few have made it to Poland under their own steam, but the majority have migrated to western Ukraine or east into Russia.
The refugees told how the conflict had divided society, destroyed relationships between neighbours, and even turned family members against one another.
“Everyone has to keep their thoughts to themselves. Every criticism can have very negative consequences,” said Natalia Mudrijewska, an English teacher who escaped with her travel agent husband and two young sons.
“I have not spoken with my brother in Canada for more than six months. He mostly watches Russian television and believes that Ukrainians from the western part of the country entered the Donetsk region and are shooting at their own citizens. He does not believe it when I tell him that it is the Russians who attacked Ukraine.”
Despite the announcement of a ceasefire this month, the Ukrainian refugees do not believe they will ever return to their homes.
“Even after the end of the conflict it will take 10 or 20 years to rebuild the country,” said Victoria, a mother of three, who declined to give her full name.
“All the infrastructure and the economy has been destroyed – schools, roads and factories. Everywhere there are missile launch pads and mines. How could everything disappear just like that? What kind of a future could my children have there?
“When I was packing our belongings, I knew there would be no going back.”