Repeatedly beaten by separatists in temporarily occupied Donetsk, Hennadii refused to join the war, so they burnt his identity documents; he spent years at-risk of statelessness, and he nearly died several times.
Hennadii Orlov now lives in Sloviansk; he recently got his Ukrainian passport. For three years leading up to this point, he was on the verge of statelessness — he had nothing to prove who he was, or even the simple fact that he was a citizen of Ukraine. The journey to get to this point — to be recognized as a citizen of Ukraine, living in Ukraine — nearly killed him. Right to Protection (R2P), a legal advocacy non-profit in Ukraine, recently helped Mr. Orlov prove his identity and re-obtain his documents and his legal status as a Ukrainian citizen.
Hennadii is turning 40 this year. He was born in Horlivka — 90 minutes by car northeast of Donetsk City, and an area currently under occupation by the Russian backed authorities of the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk People’s Republic.’ Horlivka, much like most of Donetsk Oblast, is a region in decline—formerly a heart of industry and mining, and now a conflict zone pockmarked by abandoned factories that once provided steady jobs and shuttered mines that once made Donetsk the wealthiest province in the country. But Hennadii never reaped much advantage from the past industriousness of his home because his family was poor, and his parents passed away when he was young, and he has dystrophy in his right hand which makes it hard for him to perform the physical tasks required in the factories and the mines. He always struggled to find steady work, and this persistent challenge eventually led to some bad choices and a jail sentence in Luhansk.
After serving his time, Hennadii returned home just in time to witness the pro-Russian separatists seize Horlivka’s municipal buildings at the beginning of their occupation. Then, in July of 2014, he witnessed the Battle of Horlivka in which the Ukrainian government attempted to retake the city. The battle lasted over a month and reportedly killed hundreds of civilians and devastated the city, but it made little impact on the demarcation lines. The Ukrainian government and the city’s de facto authorities signed a ceasefire on September 5th of that year, and the separatists maintained control of Horlivka.
The Battle of Horlivka strained the capacities of the separatists, and as the war dragged on and on, it became critical for them to begin recruiting local civilians into their ranks. In the following years, Hennadii was regularly threatened and robbed by the local militias, and several times he was beaten within an inch of his life. Time and again, however, Hennadii refused to join the fighting. One night in December, 2017, the militia once again broke into his house to threaten and rob him, but this time they also burned his passport.
After that, Hennadii’s wife and children fled to government-controlled areas where they moved in with her brother in Svyatohirsk. Hennadii couldn’t accompany them because he didn’t have the documents required to cross through the checkpoints. Instead, he says, he crossed illegally — traversing a minefield where he almost set-off a landmine.
After getting into government-controlled areas, Hennadii travelled to Sloviansk, where he moved in with a friend. His difficulties were far from over, however, because he couldn’t get a job or receive any government assistance because he technically didn’t exist: “I didn’t have anything!” He recalls. “I only had an address in [non-government controlled Donetsk]. They were looking at me like I was a stupid person!”
After having been on his own for years — with no work, no government assistance, and living apart from his family — Hennadii was despaired by the time he heard about Right to Protection’s legal services. He heard about them through a friend, and he immediately reached out to a local R2P office by phone. Protection Attorney Nataliia Ishchenko took him on as a client, and by the summer of 2019 they were able to obtain Hennadii’s birth certificate. Then, in April of 2020, he got his Ukrainian passport.
Things still aren’t easy for Hennadi. His wife is working at a kindergarten in Svyatohirsk, but he can’t find work there, so he’s still in Sloviansk. He now has the documents he needs to obtain legal employment, but coronavirus added a layer of complication — very few companies are hiring, and he faces the uphill battle of getting a job after such a long employment gap. However, he remains hopeful, because his situation has improved: “I don’t know how I survived the past 3 years… If not for my friend, who helped me with housing, food and some small side-jobs, I would have probably died from hunger or have gone back to prison.” He’s still worried about providing for his family, but at least, he says, he has his documents. Now he’ll be legally allowed to marry his wife, and — when the opportunity arrives — he’ll be allowed to accept legal employment… At least he now legally exists.