TAGANROG, Russia — Lyudmila V. Ladnik fled her home in eastern Ukraine fearing that rising tensions could force her back into a bomb shelter like the one she took cover in seven years ago, when her town of Debaltsevo was shelled during fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed separatists.
But once she crossed into Russia on Sunday, part of a growing evacuation ordered by separatist leaders, she already wanted to go back.
“They lied to us,” fumed Ms. Ladnik, 62, referring to Russian authorities. She said she had been told that residents of the separatist areas would stay temporarily in Rostov, but on Sunday she learned that they would be moved farther inside Russia, to a town such as Kursk. With dismay, she wondered whether her evacuation to Russia would be longer than she had expected.
“We are now calling everyone back home, telling them to stay,” she said.
Confusion reigned on Sunday as more people crossed into Russia following a warning from Kremlin-backed rebel leaders that Ukraine was about to launch an attack on the separatist areas. The government in Kyiv has denied any such plans, and rebel leaders have produced no evidence to support their claim. The United States has said the warnings could be part of a Russian propaganda campaign to justify a military intervention by Moscow.
The situation in Ukraine’s east has escalated rapidly over the past week, with both the Ukrainian government and the Russia-backed rebels trading accusations of artillery fire in violation of cease-fire agreements.
While Russia has tried to portray the flow of refugees as proof of Ukraine’s menacing posture, the people who passed through the train station in Taganrog, a Russian city perched on the Azov Sea near the border with Ukraine, appeared helpless, frightened by the warnings of more violence but uncertain about what lay ahead. The commander of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in a statement that refugees were being “used to escalate the situation in order to provoke another round of bloodshed.”
Ms. Ladnik was one of a few hundred people who boarded a train in Taganrog on Sunday, bound for deep inside Russia. Mothers dragged their children, and older people carried heavy suitcases into train cars.
They did not know their destination, and rumors spread. Some whispered that it might be Nizhny Novgorod in central Russia, others were less certain. Some disembarked the train once they learned that it could take them far away, afraid that they would not be able to afford a trip back, despite promises by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to pay them each about $130.
Vika Zubchenko, 27, decided to rely on her own resources. She and her sister-in-law Yelena Sayakina, 45, rented a house in Taganrog for two weeks. Her husband had to stay in their town of Debaltsevo, barred from leaving by the separatist authorities who called a mass mobilization of men of military age.
Ms. Zubchenko said that she was mostly spooked by the panic at home, in the eastern Ukraine region of Donetsk.
“Stores there are already out of batteries and candles,” said Ms. Zubchenko, expressing a common emotion among people coming from Ukraine’s breakaway lands who lived through heavy fighting in 2014 and 2015. Many who fled this time said they were concerned about their children.
“In 2015, I didn’t have her,” Ms. Zubchenko said, pointing at her 5-year-old daughter Alisa.