The enemy within — the Russians filling Ukrainian homes

It’s a pattern repeated in every conflict — displaced people permanently lose their homes to occupiers. But statistics and ‘integration initiatives’ barely hint at the raw human stories of grief and trauma that accompany such losses.

Destruction of an apartment building in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Destruction of an apartment building in Kyiv, Ukraine. Credit: Oleksii Sergieiev / Alamy Stock Photo.

Nearly six million Ukrainians have fled to European countries since Russia’s invasion began five months ago. Another two million Ukrainians have been taken to Russia, either involuntarily or because they’ve concluded it’s better to be safe but unhappy in Russia than dead at home. And Russian forces now control a large chunk of Ukrainian territory — the equivalent of more than half of the UK. That’s a whole lot of homes involuntarily being left by Ukrainian families. Like virtually all victims of war, they hope to one day return. But like many other victims of war, many will permanently lose their homes to the occupiers.

I recently had lunch with a good friend, a diplomat from a Baltic state. ‘The Ukrainians are just like us,’ she said. ‘Russians are moving into their homes.’ Occupiers coming to live, uninvited, in one’s midst is hard to bear. When they take one’s home it’s even more painful. More than three decades after her country regained its independence, my friend still vividly remembers the pain of Russians helping themselves to her country, including the most intimate of areas: people’s homes.

Her fellow Balts, too, remember this painful chapter.  As the Lithuanian historian Arunas Bubnys notes, Soviet occupation of the Baltic states included:

nationalization of all private property, except for minimum personal belongings. The property of all those deported was confiscated. […] Following each mass deportation, migrants from other Soviet republics, mainly Russians, were brought into the Baltic States. The deported were allowed only to take a few personal belongings with them to Siberia, including food for the long road. Property and personal belongings, including their homes and furnishings, were confiscated and given to the colonizers. […] During the first twelve years after World War II, more than 400,000 colonizers arrived in Latvia to settle in the apartments and houses of the deported and executed. Over the next forty years, the number of immigrants reached 708 000.

In the end, of course, all three Baltic states regained their independence. Proper rule of law returned, and with that citizens’ right to reclaim their homes. But even when a dispossessed family receives its home back, the home carries a scent of sorrow.

Perhaps that’s why the Baltic states are now supporting the Ukrainians’ fight against the invading Russians more passionately than almost any other country. Estonia has sent Ukraine military aid amounting to nearly one per cent of its GDP, and Latvian military aid has reached 0.8 per cent of its GDP.

Indeed, Ukrainians have plenty of company around the world. For generations, Palestinian families have lost their homes — often with adjoining farmland, belonging to them for generations. Some two million Palestinian refugees already live in Jordan, about one fifth of them in refugee camps. Among them are many families from East Jerusalem, for whom Israel’s 1950 Absentee Property Law — which was amended in 1973 — means they have no chance of reclaiming their homes. And every day, more Palestinian families lose their homes. In May this year, for example, an Israeli court ruled that some 1,000 Palestinians can be evicted from their West Bank village and the land repurposed for Israeli military use.

When Turkey invaded the northern half of Cyprus in 1974, thousands of Turkish Cypriots had no choice but to flee from their homes in the south, while Greek Cypriots in the north were forced to flee to the south. In a 2001 ruling, the European Court of Human Rights noted that 211,000 Greek Cypriots had lost their homes in this manner. As a 2016 report by the US think tank Brookings notes, negotiations between the two parts of Cyprus are held up by ‘the issue of property, as many people have lived for more than four decades in property that legally is owned by others.’ The picture is repeated in every conflict.

‘Legally owned by others’: that’s what awaits Ukrainian homeowners in any areas Russia manages to permanently control. Indeed, the Kremlin has said it will not leave the southern Ukrainian region around the cities of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, where 2.5 million people live (or rather, lived, before the war). ‘We have successful experience of working in the liberated territories,’ the governor of Sevastopol recently wrote on Telegram. Sevastopol was, of course, taken from Ukraine in 2014 and integrated into Russia. The Sevastopol governor said his officials were already working in the Luhansk region and that ‘we will now help Melitopol, too, with the establishment of a peaceful life, with a referendum and with integration.’ Hundreds of teachers are already being recruited from Russia to the newly captured territories, where they will live in homes that used to belong to Ukrainians.

Even if Ukraine eventually experiences Baltic-style freedom, those homes will be tinged with trauma. Yes, wars are brutal, and losing one’s home is better than being killed. But imagine having the occupier live in your home, going to bed where you once slept, having breakfast where you had yours every morning. It’s a singular kind of violation. No wonder my friend the Baltic diplomat felt such acute pain when reflecting on this reality — and the fact that there’s no end in sight to this war.


Elisabeth Braw