24th Mar 2018


Ukraine: humanitarian disaster as fighting continues

  • The Ortinsky family has Polish roots and hope to settle in Poland (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

Thirty-five year old Alexandr Ortinsky moved into a 24 square-metre container on the outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, earlier this year.

“As soon as they started shelling we moved,” he says, after fleeing an area held by separatists in Luhansk last summer.

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  • Clinic in Semenivka, shelled by Ukrainian army last year to chase out rebels (Photo: Nikolaj Nielsen)

His wife and six children, including one disabled son, are with him.

Together, they share a space that includes a small kitchen, a bathroom, and toilet. The German built-unit is part of larger modular city for nearly 400 refugees.

The Ortinskys get a monthly government grant of €102 (2,400 Ukrainian Hryvnia) for expenses and another €170 for their children to help make ends meet.

The family can count themselves lucky.

Conflict erupts again

In a conflict where some 5 million people are now, according to the UN, “in need of life-saving assistance”, most have nowhere to turn.

In December, it was 1.4 million.

OCHA, the United Nations Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, revised the figure after intense fighting with the Russian-backed rebels gripped the country throughout January and most of February.

Fighting has now erupted once again, with reports emerging of killings and massive shelling in the past week.

Monitors from the OSCE over the weekend described the security situation in the Donbas region in east Ukraine as "fluid and unpredictable and the ceasefire does not hold everywhere."

Some 550 explosions of 120mm mortar and heavy artillery rounds were cited at the start of last week, as well as military movements on both side of the contact line.

Families from towns inside the conflict zone are starting to stream into the industrial city of Kramatorsk, located some 100 km from the frontline on the Ukraine side.

“People in Gorlovka [a city in the Donetsk region] say there is no ceasefire. Artillery is being fired every 15 minutes,” Tatania Lugovia, an aid worker in Kramatorsk told this website.

Fears are mounting that a broader conflict could erupt in the lead up to or following the World War II memorial in Russia on 9 May.

On Saturday (2 May), approximately 30 motorcyclists - some wearing vests with symbols of the Night Wolves, the pro-Kremlin motorcycle club - were seen entering Luhansk city, carrying banners and flags commemorating the end of World War II.

Eight T-64 and T-72 tanks and six howitzers on the pro-Russia side also moved into areas which are “non-compliant with the withdrawal lines”, the OSCE says.

According to Caritas charity, the UN recently asked aid organisations to consider contingency plans and to start stockpiling emergency supplies.

The charity has since quadrupled its annual Ukraine budget for 2015 to around $8 million, around half of what the EU has pledged.

Millions displaced

The conflict has, on paper, displaced some 1.2 million people, although experts says the real number is likely much higher. Around a quarter are children.

Not everyone has the same needs. The more well off are renting apartments, with demand driving up prices and, at times, brewing resentment among locals who compete for the same jobs and housing.

"People turn you down from work just because you come from Donbass," says Ortinsky.

Unable or unwilling to move, another 3.2 million people need help. Most of them are inside the rebel-controlled territories of Donetsk and Luhansk.

The more vulnerable are concentrated within a 15km-wide strip that runs along the length of the contact line between the two warring sides. Pensions and other social service payments have been severed in the separatist-controlled areas.

"When you see elderly people that have been in those dungeons for weeks in a row and when the bombings stops or subsides they are still too traumatised and too afraid to leave," says Barbara Manzi, who heads the OCHA office in Ukraine.

Tortured in Donetsk city

Some prefer to never return, after enduring shocking violence.

Twenty eight-year old Fedor Menskavo, along with his girlfriend, says they were tortured by separatists. Menskavo, a pro-Ukrainian who now helps Caritas with food deliveries, says seven masked men broke down his apartment door in Donetsk city last year.

They dragged him and his girlfriend to the basement of a police station and accused of them of belonging to a right-wing nationalist group. They were then beaten and tortured by a low-ranking officer.

"I had accepted death on day one," he says as he unrolls the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a deep scar across his left shoulder. Other scars are on his back.

The torture ended when the station's captain realised what was happening. The offending officer was reprimanded and the two released a week later.

Parts of Donetsk city are now described as a moonscape from all the artillery impact, as residents try to get by on skyrocketing prices.

Basic items in the region cost twice those in towns on the government-controlled side of the border. In some areas of Luhansk the price multiple is six, with people relying on a dwindling supply of donations and aid to survive.

Last week, the office of the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a US refugee organisation, in the rebel-controlled city of Donetsk was shut down, with foreign staff expelled by separatist authorities who accused them of spying.

Unlike in the government controlled areas of Ukraine, aid organisations are advised not to give families in the rebel zones the entitled €268 cash assistance for fear of driving up inflation. A non-existant banking system complicates the matter.

Instead, people increasingly rely on small parcels of food and hygiene products donated from private individuals, such as Donetsk-region oligarch Rinat Akhmetov.

The businessman owns major industries in the rebel-held zone.

But some locals, such as Vadim Cherkass, a lawyer chased out of Donetsk for his pro-Ukrainian views, hate him for his ties with Russia and with Ukraine’s former regime.

A perfect storm

The humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country is at risk of spiraling out of control as the government maintains its focus elsewhere.

“The Ukraine government is silent on the scale of the problem,” says Mamar Merzouk, who heads the ECHO bureau in Kiev, the humanitarian branch of the European Commission.

“Ukraine faces a perfect storm. You have budgetary issues, you have reform issues, you have governance issues. And in the middle of all this, you have a conflict with huge needs.”

The country requires around €282 million for humanitarian aid alone. So far, just over €60 million has been pledged. Russia has contributed more than the European commission and any other member state.

Refugees in Russia return to Ukraine

Not everyone goes to the western part of Ukraine. Several hundred thousand have ended up in Russia either in refugee camps along the border or elsewhere.

The Kremlin is sending many to the far east of the country, an impossible distance for many who may wish to return home one day.

Vova and Natasha Amvrosievka, a young couple, arrived at Kharkiv’s main train station after having first sought help in Russia.

“Our house was destroyed and everything was stolen,” he says.

The family decided to return to Ukraine but the DNR, the separatist forces in Donetsk, tried to recruit him into their ranks.

Despite recent bombings and a low level insurgency in the city, the couple say they want to stay in Kharkiv. But the lack of housing means authorities will purchase them a ticket and send them further west.

“At least there is no fighting,” said the 23-year old father of four.

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