Eastern Ukraine: the humanity behind the headlines

The government in Kyiv, aid organisations and the international community must work together to address the humanitarian crisis created by the fighting in the east.

Nils Muižnieks
17 December 2014

Commissioner for human rights hears plight of IDPs in Ukraine from open Security on Vimeo.

News reports from the conflict in eastern Ukraine are full of grim increases in the statistics of the dead, injured, and displaced, of ceasefires which quickly break down and movements of heavy weaponry. The headlines make one aware that Ukraine is at war but they do not always show the effects on ordinary people.

I recently visited the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine. I went to Krasnoarmiysk, a town of 70,000 people in a mining region, 30km from the front line. I also went to the smaller industrial town of Kurakhove (population 20,000), 15km west of rebel-held Donetsk, the regional capital. Each town was without running water for five months this year, including the summer, and the clatter of shelling nearby still keeps people from sleeping. Krasnoarmiysk itself experienced serious unrest in the spring and two men were shot dead during incidents near City Hall on 11 May.

Those I met, who included displaced persons—many of them pensioners—and the local officials and others working to help them, told me that there was much weariness from months of insecurity and fighting, and that some people had become too indifferent to their fate to bother going to the shelters. Most longed for peace.

I also went to Dnipropetrovsk, a large city in a region which has received some 50,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). The country’s capital, Kyiv, and its surrounding region are hosting some 60,000 more. There are now at least half a million IDPs in Ukraine and the figure keeps growing.

Centres and camps

While some have moved in with friends or family, thousands are living in collective centres hastily adapted from company hostels and schools or rapidly winterised summer camps. Some have already found work, but most survive on the goodwill of volunteers and donations from Ukraine’s civil society.

I praise the relentless efforts of those providing much-needed assistance to these vulnerable groups but their efforts alone will not be enough to ensure durable solutions for the increasing number of displaced persons arriving from the conflict-affected regions. Many are waiting for the Ukrainian government to begin paying promised allowances and put forward a plan for their long-term integration.    

Little attention has been paid to the lives of those traumatised, uprooted and abandoned.

 We still have only a fragmentary picture of life in rebel-held areas. The primary sources of information are individuals fleeing from the east and the reports of a few international organisations and humanitarian groups which have intermittent access on the ground. In the context of an information war, media reports are often contradictory.

From the people I met, I heard stories of extreme hardship—even hunger—among vulnerable groups in those regions. They include the elderly and persons with disabilities, as well as those living in prisons, psychiatric hospitals and care homes—some of which have no running water, heat or electricity and very few remaining (and unpaid) staff. Imagine living in an unheated building when temperatures are 18 degrees below zero Centigrade, which was the case when I was there.

This deprivation explains the appalling conditions the monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and Reuters journalists recently encountered in the psychiatric hospital in Slovyanoserbsk (Luhansk region), where 49 patients have died since August. Only six of the 180 staff remained in the hospital, and they had received no salary nor their patients any pensions for six months. Apparently, dozens of similar cases can be found in institutions in the conflict-affected areas.

Not forgotten

These are the people behind the headlines and they must not be forgotten. The conflict in eastern Ukraine and its geopolitical dimension echoing the cold war have been the main focus of chancelleries, businesspeople and media outlets in Europe. Little attention has been paid to the lives of those traumatised, uprooted and abandoned. It is time to turn to them and help them live in a dignified manner.

What can be done? As the Ukrainian government has no access to the rebel-held territories, it should work with the international organisations and humanitarian groups which do have such access to reach the most vulnerable. It should also adopt a flexible approach in paying pensions to persons arriving from the rebel-held areas.

The international community, including all those who are involved in providing aid to the affected regions, should do its utmost to ensure that aid reaches those who are in need, and generously assist Ukraine in meeting the humanitarian and integration needs of its IDPs.

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