According to United Nations data, an estimated one-third of the Ukrainian population has been displaced from their homes since Russia invaded in February, including more than 7.1 million people displaced in the country. the war rages on.
The number of internally displaced persons surpasses the 4.8 million Ukrainians who have fled to Europe as refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency, which has described levels of displacement unprecedented since World War II.
While large parts of the country suffered the brutality of the Russian invasion in the early weeks, most of Ukraine’s displaced persons now come from the east, as that region becomes the center of the conflict.
Citizens from towns and villages in eastern Ukraine are getting on trains and buses, fleeing the relative safety of the western and northern capital Kiev. Some have taken off in humanitarian convoys, navigating treacherous roads amid the threat of gunfire or shelling. Others have left on foot, literally running for their lives.
And as Russian troops now train their artillery in the Donetsk province to the east, with the aim of taking the entire industrial Donbas area, more people are being displaced from their homes every day.
“The state was not ready for such a volume of displaced persons in many areas,” Vitaly Muzychenko, Ukraine’s deputy minister of social policy, told a news conference this week, announcing new plans to register displaced persons for state benefits.
Accounting for those in need is challenging: only three million people are officially registered as displaced persons, although the actual number is believed to be more than double. A shortage of international humanitarian aid has further strained local resources.
This mass displacement has reshaped communities across the country, even those spared the physical devastation of war. Shelters in public buildings have been erected, university dormitories have been converted and some modular houses have been set up to accommodate the displaced.
The majority of internally displaced persons, like refugees, are women and children, and many face shortages of food, water and basic necessities, UN experts say.
Oksana Zelinska, 40, who was director of a kindergarten in the southern city of Kherson, now occupied by Russian troops, fled in April with her two children, a colleague and that woman’s children to the western city of Uzhhorod, nearby from the Slovakian border. Her husband has stayed behind in Kherson and would like to return, but she said she will stay in the west for her children.
“When we got here I had to do something, it was hard and I didn’t want to get depressed,” she said. “I wanted to be useful.”
She began volunteering in the communal kitchen she had used when she first arrived, peeling potatoes and preparing food for the dozens of people who come in daily for a hot meal.
Helping the displaced to return to their homes – or find new ones – looms as one of Ukraine’s greatest challenges, regardless of the outcome of the war. Some of their birthplaces may not come back under Ukrainian control. Others recaptured could be almost completely destroyed, with homes, water pipes and other vital infrastructure pulverized by the Russian military’s scorched earth tactics.
The Ukrainian government estimates reconstruction needs at $750 billion. This week, President Volodymyr Zelensky called on allies to describe support through the effort as “a joint task of the entire democratic world.” On Tuesday, the United States, along with more than 40 governments and multilateral organizations, signed a framework agreement at a conference in Switzerland to mobilize hundreds of billions of dollars for Ukraine’s recovery, including long-term reconstruction.
It was far from clear whether those pledges would be converted into funds, and how soon. But the meeting’s host, President Ignazio Cassis of Switzerland, said the pledges “should give the people of Ukraine hope and reassurance that they are not alone.”