Destruction from shelling in Summer 2014 during the occupation of Kramatorsk and Slavyansk
A strange separation of cause and effect and of action and responsibility now characterizes modern warfare. The experience of war now is the experience of division, where drones fly in the sky and forces far superior in resources are overwhelmed by miniscule groups. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has rather faded from view in the Western media. To understand this strange war, I travelled to one of the flashpoints of the Ukraine conflict: Kramatorsk, Donetsk Oblast.
Over the last two years since the 2014 ‘Euromaidan Revolution’, the Crimea has dominated coverage, in part because of its immediate significance for other former satellite states. This has led to a curious narrowing of perspective. Instead, let us focus for a moment on the ‘Eastern Front’, the reality of which very few are aware. It is a contact line severing the occupied territories, or Non-Government Controlled Areas (NGCAs), run by a Russian-backed separatist de facto government, from the Government Controlled Areas (GCAs) of Ukraine. A search on google for ‘Ukraine front line situation’ presents very few news items or articles, so frequent now is the shelling and devastation that it has ceased to be ‘news’ and remains very under-reported. Kramatorsk is an industrial city less than a hundred miles from the contact line. Kramatorsk, its quiet, leafy and distinctly Soviet-era feel restored, still bears the fresh scars of its three-month occupation by Separatists in the summer of 2014. Despite significant restoration works to buildings, many apartment blocks in the centre are still-pocked marked with bullet holes, and the statue of Lenin in the main square remains toppled, its plinth unmistakably bare. In the neighbouring town of Slavyansk the former Ministry of Security building, transformed into the separatists’ interrogation and torture headquarters during the occupation, stands discreetly on a street corner. A small and shiny plaque is a reminder of the horrors suffered by those accused of harbouring ‘pro-Ukrainian ideals’.
The residents of Kramatorsk and Slavyansk were the lucky ones: these were the only towns in east Ukraine to be liberated following their occupation by separatists. The reality of daily life in those Russian-backed separatist-controlled areas, also known as occupied territories, may come as no surprise to those familiar with history books’ documentation of life under the Soviet Union. Schools teach a Russified version of events, with Ukraine presented as the enemy – a reflection of the official NGCA propaganda line. The only banks operating in NGCAs are Russian banks and there have been reports of salaries not being paid for months, only for unmarked vehicles to arrive at the workplace out of the blue and hand out neatly-tied bundles of cash to employees. When I asked where the money comes from, I was answered with a shrug and the cynical speculation: ‘Russia. Crime. Theft’. Also unsurprisingly, the Russian Orthodox Church is the church of the separatists, with the persecution of Protestants resulting in the disappearance and murder of many pastors and believers, thus complicating the political and territorial nature of the war with a nasty sectarian mood.
Many inhabitants of the occupied areas have fled westwards into Ukraine, gaining IDP status (Internally Displaced People). Whilst it is theoretically easy to cross the border between NGCAs and GCAs, with very few permit applications turned down and the waiting time typically two weeks, in reality it can often be a perilous and traumatizing experience. With checkpoints open from 08:00 in the morning to 20:00 in the evening, long queues build up on either side during the day and people must wait in line all night for the checkpoints to reopen in the morning. Whilst on the GCA side organisations such as the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières have organised toilets and refreshments for those queueing, on the NGCA side people often suffer dehydration and heat exhaustion resulting, in some cases, in death. The greatest danger though is the shelling which begins at nightfall: many of those waiting in the queue are caught in the crossfire. Whilst this may seem a dangerous route into non-occupied territory, unofficial channels such as crossing the line through the woods by bicycle are even riskier: much of the surrounding landscape is sown with unexploded ordnance (UXO). According to UNICEF, from March 2014-2015 at least 109 children had been injured and 42 killed by landmines and UXO in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions alone.
On the sleeper train from Kramatorsk to Kyiv I met a young IDP who had fled his hometown with his family in January when his school closed. It had become too dangerous for the students to attend. He was returning to his new home in the capital after a trip to visit his grandparents in occupied territory. He looked tired, and admitted to not having slept because of the fighting. Every night, shelling forced the family underground into the damp, dank basement. One morning, when they surfaced, they found the upstairs windows blown out.
This was a story I heard time and again when I visited the front line villages: windows shattered and possessions destroyed. In fact, on one humanitarian aid visit to a front line village I experienced a firsthand encounter with the Ukrainian army myself. They wanted to arrest me and my colleagues: through an error in communication, they had not received the documents we sent requesting permission to be in the village. Therefore we had fallen on the wrong side of military law. Disquieting reminders such as these hammered home the reality of the war in Ukraine.
Such destruction and military activity begs the question of how ordinary Ukrainian civilians are coping on a day-to-day basis. The local response to the conflict has been vigorous. Accommodation and employment are two of the great obstacles facing IDPs and ordinary Ukrainians are putting their skills, resources and goodwill to fantastic use to help them in their struggle to achieve normality once again. A centre for psychological trauma provides therapy for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a youth centre (or ‘Vilna Khata’) encourages creativity and interaction whilst presenting the opportunity to belong to a community once again, and the Kramatorsk Bees, made up of many IDP volunteers, handcrafts camouflage suits and shelters for Ukrainian soldiers. Humanitarian organisations have been mushrooming in towns like Kramatorsk from the start.
Country of Free People began as a group of local people evacuating their fellow residents from an occupied Kramatorsk in summer 2014. They requested government aid, but received only a single fire engine to cope with the hundreds clamouring to be carried to safety. Since then, the volunteers of CFP have never looked back, independently establishing themselves as an inspirational organisation bringing disaster relief to both IDPs and those continuing to live along the contact line.
Whilst there are more than 490 NGOs operating in Kramatorsk alone, according to the Ministry of Justice, it is not just local organisations who have rallied to the cries of these suffering Ukrainians. International NGOs, such as the Norwegian Refugee Council and the Catholic charity Caritas are also making an impact on the ground. Partnerships such as that between local organisation CFP and French NGO Triangle Génération Humaine successfully combine local knowledge and access to the front line with foreign government aid. Resources are limited however, meaning that organisations must select their aid beneficiaries carefully: the elderly, numerous families and the disabled take priority, but tensions arise even among these factions as a result of the selective process. Nevertheless, every Ukrainian I met, whether an aid worker or a beneficiary, affirmed that the response of independent organisations is far more effective than that of the Ukrainian government. According to Human Rights Watch, those regional authorities charged with providing assistance to IDPs do little more than shift the burden to volunteers and NGOs. These latter, including many ordinary Ukrainians, have impressively stepped up to the mark to fill the aid vacuum themselves.
But why isn’t the Ukrainian government doing more? The country’s roads may provide a clue to the government’s apparently lacking response: peppered with potholes ranging from the depth of a bathtub to the circumference of a child’s paddling pool, many see the roads as representative of the deep-rooted corruption within the government, its ineffectiveness and its painfully slow trudge towards Western modernization. Repairs for this basic infrastructure are predicted to cost the country up to $4.8 billion over the next couple of years, a figure which signifies about 5% of Ukraine’s GDP. So notorious is the corruption within government that the IMF temporarily froze a bailout of $1 billion in February, requiring that Ukraine first carry out significant anti-corruption and economic reforms.
The government’s preoccupation with issues such as these reforms and consequential introspection provides convenient fodder for the de facto government’s propaganda in the NGCAs. The Russian-backed separatists’ attempts to persuade the population of occupied territories that the Ukrainian government has abandoned them are worryingly convincing. To many, it certainly seems that way.
Aid is expensive, and the Ukrainian government does not appear to be able to afford it. With a government debt at an all-time high of 79 percent of its GDP in 2015, the poor economic situation is seen by many as aggravated by the endemic corruption. In fact, all the Ukrainians I encountered claimed that the situation is worse now than in the pre-Maidan days of Yanukovych; as an example, none of Ukraine’s wealthy businessmen or oligarchs have been brought to justice since the fall of the President in February 2014. Yet despite this perceived regression, there are attempts at reform and at forward-thinking initiatives. The Ministry of Information Policy is one of these, founded in December 2014 to ‘safeguard information sovereignty of Ukraine’ and essentially to combat insidious Russian propaganda.
Although it may seem a cynical view that the Ministry of Information Policy is the most a struggling, crony government can muster in terms of aid and non-military response to the war, it is a view of which I became aware in my discussions with local people both in Kyiv and in the east of the country. Despite the patriotism apparent in the ubiquitous blue-and-yellow painted railings in every town I visited, I detected great disillusionment among the people, regarding not only the government but also the war. Only 23 percent of Ukrainians think the military is making progress in its campaign against the separatists in the east, according to a survey published in June 2015 by the reputed Pew Global Research organisation. The Ukrainians I met simply want the war to end, with only 13 percent of Ukrainians living in the east supportive of military action. When asked her thoughts on Crimea, a local volunteer told me ‘of course we would like the Crimea to be Ukrainian, but we would rather it were Russian than have a war. People now just want peace.’
We must remember that quiet periods in the media do not equate to quiet periods in a war. Whilst the fighting in east Ukraine may now be an established reality, and therefore no longer a novelty deemed worthy of reporting, people’s lives continue to be torn apart. Just because Ukraine’s refugee problem is an internal one does not mean we have a licence to overlook the plight of the 1.7 million registered IDPs and approximately 3 million people affected by the war on Ukrainian soil. Similarly, we must not compartmentalise and dismiss this war as an affliction of the east with little relevance to us in western Europe. Indeed, many of whom are desperate to join the European Union. However, a recent report by the European Commission on the situation in Ukraine warned that ‘the resilience of the conflict affected populations, including host communities, is steadily depleting.’ It is imperative that we choose to remember the real consequences of this strange and confusing conflict.