Some Ukraine refugees in Russia yearn to return, others settle

PRIMORKA, Russia - Marina Balatskaya watched as her three children played in the Russian holiday camp that has become their home since they fled the fighting in east Ukraine.

For some seven months the single mother, 35, and her family have been living alongside refugees from the conflict in the government-run settlement on the shore of the Azov Sea.

And despite the Ukraine border being just 50 kilometres (31 miles) away, with deadly clashes rumbling on there and east Ukraine in turmoil, she has no idea when they will be going home.

"We want to go home of course. I want to go home, my kids want to go home. Whatever problems there might have been, it is still our home," she told AFP.

Her sister is still living in Ukraine and she hopes she can take her kids back but, despite Ukraine's insistence she is free to return, she says she is scared to head to government-held territory.

"I can't go back because the Ukrainians are in control of my town," she says.

"As I decided to come to Russia to seek refuge, that means that I would be considered an enemy of the people."

Some stay, more move

Since the fighting in east Ukraine - that Kiev accuses Moscow of instigating - erupted last April, local officials in Russia's border region of Rostov say some 260,000 people have crossed into the country and not gone back.

In the district where Balatskaya's camp is, of the 15,000 refugees from Ukraine who passed through here just 600 - mainly elderly couples or mothers with young children - are now left.

While a significant number have gone back and those who remain hope to follow them some day, thousands of others have signed up for a government programme to settle them across Russia.

Pensioner Galina - along with her 90-year-old mother, husband, daughter and granddaughter - chose to stay put in the camp because she can't bring herself to cut the threads with the life she left behind.

But - much to her disappointment - the retired teacher's younger daughter and her husband opted to head to a remote region in Siberia, over 5,000 kilometres away.

"I told them not to go but they went," she told AFP, sitting on a bed in one of the rooms her family occupies.

Now her daughter's family is living in a camp for refugees as her husband tries to eke out a living as a part-time plumber.

"They had some distant acquaintances who convinced them to go but it hasn't worked out."

Applying for citizenship

Some from Ukraine, however, have managed to set themselves up in Russia and say that they are not planning to return to their homeland.

Roman Bobrovnikov, 51, sits in his new office in a poultry plant some 60 kilometres from the border where he managed to find himself work independently.

Despite the fact that he's gone from being a director of a similar factory in Ukraine to a bookkeeper now, he says he feels "lucky" to have a job that provides a house for his wife and 26-year-old daughter.

"I have just handed in our documents to the migration services to start the process of getting Russian citizenship for us all, hopefully something will get done in a year or 18 months," he said.

"What is waiting for me back in Ukraine? A pension? My parents don't receive their pensions there now." But while Bobrovnikov has decided to make the shift definitively, others insist they will go home one day.

Ksenia Kanashina, 33, has made herself the unofficial head of the refugees left behind in the holiday camp.

Kanashina's husband is fighting with the pro-Russian rebels against the government in east Ukraine and she says she wants to be ready to return when she can.

She has seen ceasefires between the two sides signed and collapse and a current truce has not stopped shooting at frontline flashpoints.

But despite her earlier hopes of going back being shattered - she still believes she will return one day soon.

"The war can't go on forever," she said.

"It has to finish somehow and then hopefully we can go back."

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