Gevork, aged 31. His house in Novaya Tavolzhanka, in the Shebekinsky district, was partially destroyed by shellfire and shelling and he had to leave. He is currently living in a friend's flat in Belgorod.

Belgorod: supporting people displaced by violence

On Wednesday, October 4, 2023

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In June, Gevork’s family house in Novaya Tavolzhanka, a village in the Russia-Ukraine border region, was destroyed during massive shelling and bombardment in the area. Now the 31-year-old is staying in a friend’s apartment in the Russian city of Belgorod, 42 km from the border. 

Since October 2022, Belgorod has seen the arrival of thousands of people displaced from their homes in the border region. As they say, quite a few people found themselves in a situation similar to Gevork’s and have their homes ruined partially or completely. This reached a peak in May and June this year when shelling and bombardment intensified in the border districts and villages of the Belgorod region.

Following the intensification of shelling and bombardment, the number of displaced people is on the rise in the Belgorod region. In total, since the escalation of the international armed conflict in February 2022, there were more than 1.2 million people displaced by the fighting who arrived in Russia, according to UNHCR; with the full or accurate scale of displacement challenging to discern given lack of reliable data or a coordinated humanitarian response. Large cities in the south of Russia – Belgorod, Rostov-on-Don, Voronezh – have become hubs for those how have fled the fighting, as they wait out the hostilities or decide where to go next.  Many of them have been profoundly traumatised by the international armed conflict mentally and physically.

Before we fled there were constant explosions and there were dead bodies lying in the streets, there was no mobile connection", says Nina* from the Kharkiv region, currently residing in Belgorod.

Another resident of the same region Oleg* had to frantically flee his home to save his mother who had been injured by shattered glass during the shelling.

The worst is that you can call neither an ambulance, nor emergency services, nor a fire brigade, because there’s nobody, you are helpless. I was not thinking about myself, on the one hand I was running and thinking about my mother and on the other hand I was thinking: If I am injured, I won’t be able to help her”.

Essential items at the NGO Path to the Future, based in Belgorod. MSF, in close collaboration with the NGO Path to the Future, is delivering food, hygiene products and medical supplies to displaced people.

In Belgorod, MSF is working in close partnership with the local non-for-profit organisation Path to the Future to help alleviate the burden for displaced people in the region by providing medical expertise and donations of essential items. Many people seeking safety in the city told MSF that despite being away from areas of intense violence, echoes of their traumatic experience cannot leave them, for instance they strongly react to sounds to which that would not pay attention to before.

When I hear bans, I often jump out of bed and start frantically thinking where to run to shield us. Then I breathe out. My pulse is racing… I just spent one month in such conditions, and people live like this for months,” says Anatoly* from the Kharkiv region, and who is currently living with his elderly mother in Belgorod.

When something is constantly flying over your head and exploding, you are under great tension thinking where it will land. You hear it approaching and there is a second when you do not know where it will land. Once there was a very loud explosion and it turned out that it had hit our neighbours’ house.

For some, the shelling and bombardment are a source of constant fear and stress, preventing them from sleeping or going about their daily lives. Others have developed coping mechanisms and regard it as a part of normal life.

If the shelling is really bad, you toss and turn for an hour or two, then you fall asleep,” says Gevork. “In the morning, you have coffee at work to cheer yourself up.” 

Anastasia, 20, (pictured) and Alina, 28, sisters from Novaya Tavolzhanka in the Shebekinsky district, with the Belgorod-based NGO Path to the Future.

We got used to shelling, knew that we need to go to the cellar when it starts. The shelling in Novaya Tavolzhanka has been ongoing since September 2022. At first, we were so scared that we didn’t go out into the street. To go out to the shop – only running because we were afraid that a shell may hit the street. And then we got used to these “bangs”: if it doesn’t hit nearby you start to perceive it as normal,” say sisters Anastasia and Alina.

Similarly to many other displaced people, the sisters claim that they can now distinguish from which side the shelling is coming. “When active hostilities started, we began to navigate that”.

As well as living under the threat of shelling and bombardment, many displaced people have difficulty affording a place to live. After an initial stay in government-provided temporary accommodation centres, most people rent private accommodation. However, the price of housing has increased dramatically due to high demand, and the arrival of newly displaced people from the border area has pushed rents even higher. Many people struggle to afford the daily living costs of rent, bills and food.  

The most vulnerable people are older people and those with chronic diseases or disabilities. Anatoly’s mother, who is in her 70s, has drainage catheters in her stomach after extensive surgery and is in need of complicated medical follow-up and medicines. Several years ago, mother and son had to sell their house in the Kharkiv region to afford the surgery. Anatoly takes care of his mother, helping her to keep the catheters in her stomach in a proper condition, devoting at least one hour a day to care for her, closely looking after her medical needs.

Anatoly himself has a health condition that prevents him from finding manual work to earn some money, which is how many other people displaced by the international armed conflict in the region survive. He has had two heart attacks and surgery in the past. He has now found a way to make a living by singing in church choirs, which also gives him time to take care of his mother.

Elena* from Donetsk. She lost her eldest son, who was killed by shellfire and shelling. Her son was a doctor and was involved in humanitarian activities in their region.

Elena* is not so fortunate. Separated from her beloved husband, she brought her children to Belgorod from Donetsk. The hostilities have had a serious impact on her family mental health and wellbeing.  The death of her eldest son has changed their lives into ‘before and after’ and added tragedy to the situation the family found themselves in. For Elena, faith and creative writing are a major support that help to cope with her tremendous grief.

My son was a cardiologist. During COVID-19 times, he worked in the restricted area of a hospital... On the day he died, he went to help with humanitarian aid. He always went there to help. Until then it was safe…,” tells Elena. “It becomes easier for me a bit, when I start writing. There are times, when I feel really bad..”

Because of their circumstances, the displaced people’s needs for medical care and mental health support in Belgorod are significant, yet often they are unable to access these essential health services. Many displaced people hope to return to their homes in the near future, which can complicate their legal status and affect their access to services and care in Belgorod.

In Belgorod, MSF is helping the local volunteer organisation Path to the Future to provide free medical consultations and mental healthcare and covering the costs of medical prescriptions and medical supplies. MSF also provides supplies of urgently needed items such as food, underwear, personal care products and basic household items, which are distributed by volunteers of the local organization. Together, since October 2022, MSF and Path to the Future have provided more than 2,800 displaced people with medical assistance and more than 9,600 people with humanitarian aid.

At the same time, displaced people across the Belgorod region are also organising themselves to help each other, by joining existing volunteer organisations or starting their own help centers.

First we were helping refugees from Ukraine and then we found ourselves in the same situation,” says Svetlana, 50, who volunteers for a local voluntary organization in Belgorod that helps people displaced by the fighting, focusing on those residing in or transiting through the Belgorod region.

Svetlana moved to Belgorod from Shebekino, an area that has been experiencing continuous shelling and bombardment for over a year. Back home in Shebekino, she owned a pharmacy.

Oksana*, aged 42, from the Kharkiv region. Hostilities have forced her to move twice in the last two years.

Oksana* from the Kharkiv region, founder of one of the help groups in a messenger, would understand volunteer Svetlana better than anyone. Oksana had spent four months with her family in the basement due to the hostilities and had no other choice but to move to the region as she was nine months pregnant. 

The childbirth was complicated. Psychologically, it was very hard – you get stressed a lot because you’re going into the unknown and you’re pregnant. You give birth – and you have nothing for the baby, because everything was left at home.  You do not even have a pram for a newborn. But kind and fair people are everywhere! Volunteers are here and there. Now I understand that you cannot go through it alone. It just happened that I became a volunteer myself and started helping others.”

After fleeing her home, Oksana settled with her family and her newborn baby in Shebekino, where she started helping other displaced people who found themselves in the same situation. Oksana established contacts with donors and organised a warehouse, where displaced people could get urgently needed relief items, e.g. blankets, pillows and tableware. However, due to the intensified shelling and bombardment in Shebekino in May-June 2023, Oksana had to move with her family once again. As of today, she is residing near Belgorod and continues helping other displaced people.

“We are all human beings. The situation is obviously hard for everyone — it's hard for them, and it is hard for us. We're just trying to survive holding on to each other. Without the help of others it would be impossible to overcome.”

*The names have been changed.