Increasingly, Donbass refugees are returning home from Russia, but wherever they now go in Ukraine, they face problems.
"Life in Russia was unbearable," says Wassili from Mariupol.
Once heavily bombarded, the southeastern Ukrainian port city on the Sea of Asov is under Kyiv's control, and is regarded as tranquil today. In January 2015, Wassili's neighborhood was massively shelled, prompting the 30-year-old, his wife and four children to seek refuge with relatives in the Russian town of Ryazan.
According to Russian reports, more than a million people fled the eastern Ukrainian Donbass industrial regions since the beginning of fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists.
Ryazan local authorities only granted the family temporary asylum, Wassili says. There was no financial support, no humanitarian aid, he adds. "I went to a lot of offices, but everywhere I went, I was told, we've got no money for you," Wassili says.
He took on all kinds of jobs to survive, but after paying the rent, there wasn't much left.
"We were only able to feed our children with the help of our parents, who in turn got into debt," he remembers the family's eight-month stay in Russia.
Kirill, 35, has a similar story to tell: he also stayed with relatives in Russia, and survived thanks to his parents. Today, he, his wife and his child are back in Donetsk, a town in the hands of the separatists.
But Kirill would like to return to Russia. From one of the refugee shelters, their friends were sent to northern Russia, he says. "They're doing well, they have jobs and an apartment, and don't want to come back to Donetsk." And why would they, he asks. "One business after the next has been going bust." He believes refugees might be more welcome in northern Russia than in densely populated areas, where they were "unwelcome guests."
Natalia fled to the southern Russian Krasnoyarsk region a year and a half ago. "People often asked me why I had come, saying Russia was providing so much humanitarian aid," she remembers. The 30-year-old and her three children have meanwhile returned to Shakhtarsk. "My mother persuaded me, she said our house still stands and instead of sending money to Russia, she could help us here at home," Natalia says. She says she made a little bit of money working on Russian farms, but she was also granted regular humanitarian aid and given a simply appointed apartment. But like many refugees, she just doesn't see a future for herself in Russia.
It's difficult to say how many refugees returned to the Donbass region as there are no Ukrainian statistics, says Oksana Jermischina of the "Ukrainian Organization for exiled persons."
People fled to Russia with exaggerated expectations without being familiar with the situation there, she says. The reason they returned is the reason why many people left this area for other parts of Ukraine, she adds: "They had no work, no place to stay."
But Tatjana Lomakina says that many of her friends couldn't abide life in Russia "despite good jobs and apartments." The activist with the "Council of Women of Donetsk", a Mariupol-based aid organization, says wherever her friends went, they were told Ukraine is ruled by a junta. "The Russians rejected all attempts at making them understand that this isn't true and to explain the actual situation in eastern Ukraine." In Russia, she says, many refugees experienced mental stress, but few returnees were able to openly discuss what they had encountered.
Explosions rattled the windowpanes
Anastasia from Mariupol is one of them. In Russia, some people said the Ukrainians "should go home to Ukraine, but a lot of people were prepared to help, too," the 24-year-old says.
Back home, the situation is difficult for the returnees, they are scorned for having fled to Russia. "We're regarded as separatists and traitors," she says, remembering how the windowpanes rattled during bombardments. "But I betrayed no one, I simply wanted to save my child's life."
When her father fell ill, Anastasia returned to Mariupol with her husband and child. "Sooner or later we would have returned anyway," she says. The Russian city Oryol was beautiful, but it was a foreign city, the family had little money and missed their relatives, Anastasia says.
Wassili and his family returned home for similar reasons, but he doesn't feel quite at home and comfortable yet. "From time to time, you still hear faraway explosions," says Wassili, a crane operator. "There's little work."
Whether in Russia or here, the problems are the same, he says: "How do we feed our children?"
"It makes you want to scream for help, but no one would hear you anyway," he sadly concluded.