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Forgotten conflict in Donbas

Author : Pierre Avril

Mathias Eick, the European Commission Humanitarian Aid: People are still dying, but no one is talking about it anymore
09:45, 20 December 2017

Read the original text at Le Figaro.

Open source

For the last few weeks, the roar of cannon sounds in Krasnohorivka is somewhere far away. The specter of war follows Lyudmyla Sidonka unceasingly. She tells about soldiers running around, tanks, endless explosions, nights in the basement, and burning houses. During the respite, her 14-year-old son Vadym unearths fragments of shells and shows the guests as the trophies. He still goes to school (the school director did not leave this facility), the only place that connects him to the real life, his past life.

Related: 2017 was cruelest year for Donbas, - Volker

Over three years of conflict, about 200 people left this village (Ukrainian side of the front), that is, two-thirds of the entire population. The settlement itself looks like a ghost. The abandoned houses were occupied by the military, who defended their positions there. Before the war, most of the inhabitants of Krasnohorivka worked in Donetsk, which is now unattainable for them, since it is under the control of the separatists. Lyudmyla recalls the nightmares she had to go through: "The father is very scared. If something unexpected happens, he starts yelling: "Let us go to the basement!" The son also screams in his sleep, wakes up and hides. They are still in panic."

Practically in all villages along the front line, visited by Le Figaro this fall, public services do not function anymore. In Avdiyivka, which has now become the center of the clashes, a recent blow to the gas pipeline has called into question the rapid restoration of heating. "Hundreds of thousands of people can remain without water and heat in winter, while temperatures is  -20 ° C" the group of NGOs said to the "international community" on November 22.

Related: Ukraine to appeal to NATO due to arrival of Serbian mercenaries in Donbas

All the sources of the local economy are exhausted, leaving those people, who have nowhere to hide, in the cold houses without supplies. Donbas war that began in the spring of 2014 took more than 10,000 lives. Since the beginning of the year, the rate of appearance of new dead and wounded has declined: their number is currently estimated at 420, according to the partial OSCE estimates. The truce is broken daily. Ten days before our arrival, two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 17 injured, while the leadership of the rebels have published statistics on civilians (one dead and five wounded during the same period). "People are still dying, but no one is talking about it anymore. The political decision is taken yet, and the media is losing interest in the conflict," Mathias Eick, European Commission Humanitarian Aid official spokesperson for the European Commission's humanitarian assistance program, bitterly admits. With a budget of 890 million euros, the organization has become the main donor in the region, but almost all of the money goes to the population of the western part of Donbas.

For several months, separatists have been denying to accredit the majority of the Western journalists, and in 2015 they expelled the main foreign NGOs. Oligarch and Donbas steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, who helped almost 100,000 people, had to close the fund because of fears of asset confiscation. Today, the self-proclaimed "Donetsk" and "Luhansk" republics "could not survive without humanitarian assistance from Russia," said Alain Eshlimann, head of the delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ukraine (the ICRC is one of the few international organizations that are present on both sides front lines). Even irregularly, huge white trucks with a double-headed eagle cross the border, heading west, but the contents of their cargo are hidden from the Western governments. "People have developed a certain strength, but I do not know how long they will be able to endure this," said the ICRC representative.

Related: Germany calls for cease-fire in Donbas

It sometimes take a whole day to get to the mobile clinic, located in Zolote village (in mid-November, there was an increase in tension), "Doctors of the World". And they go not only for medicines, but also for words of support. "Probably, I am still alive only just occasionally," says aged woman Tetiana Hryhorivna through tears. She lives in a house in the forest with her son-asthmatics, who does not go outside, because he is afraid that Ukrainian citizens would call him "separatist." In the corridor, a psychologist (before the war, people did not recognize the usefulness of this profession) gives advice to the embarrassed people: not to watch the "annoying" programs at night, to measure the pressure every day... Eye-witnesses and locals from the front-line territories exhausted by the conflict are no longer worried about the origins of the conflict and the responsibility parties. Only everyday consequences for their nutrition and health are of interest to them. "To some extent, people are accustomed to it. They work in spite of shooting and explosions, risking losing the instinct of self-preservation," said Valery Konovalov, director of a severely damaged water treatment plant in Avdiyivka.

The only tangible link between "eastern Ukrainians" and their country is the pension received from the state. In view of the restrictive (according to the European sponsors) law, Kyiv requires citizens to present a residence permit from the western side of the front line in order to receive a pension. Their presence in the residence place is checked by the Ukrainian officials, which does not prevent the emergence of an increasing number of "shuttles". Every day they gather at the checkpoint in Mayorsk, which became the main point of the passage between the west and the east. Last year 1.1 million people were registered there; sometimes they had to wait for eight hours (especially in the summer) to cross the border.

Related: Bill on Donbas de-occupation to be adopted in second reading

In late October, the chronic traffic congestion issue was accompanied by another problem. As a symbol of loyalty to Moscow, the rebellious "republics" did not begin to move to winter time. On the western side, the working hours of the checkpoint were shifted by an hour (opened from 8 AM to 5 PM). At night, the sides again uncover their weapons, and OSCE observers were not able to determine who violated the truce first.

"Thank God, my daughter emigrated to Germany, and she was able to avoid all this, nothing changes here," Tamara sighed. Officially, she lives with her sister in the west, where she gets her pension. In fact, she remained in the east, in Horlivka, together with her cats and fishes. "I do not talk to anyone there," she says, sitting in the minibus after issuing a modest allowance. In order to simplify administrative procedures for access through Mayorsk, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees financed the construction of an additional checkpoint. As a result, he was accused of consolidating the separation of the two territories against the Minsk agreements (two sheets signed in February 2015 by François Olland, Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin and Petro Poroshenko).

Related: Ukrainian government adopts state programme on renovation and peace development in Donbas

"In fact, we are dealing with a frozen conflict, and this situation is beneficial to everyone," confirms the employee of the humanitarian organization working on the front line. He is dissatisfied with the fact that the Ukrainian government "discriminates its own population" with administrative restrictions. Moscow, in turn, launched a diplomatic offensive to introduce similarities to the "blue helmets" in Donbas, but Russia and the West are still arguing about the scope of their powers in the UN Security Council. "The only way to move the situation off the ground is to send them to patrol the border between Russia and the occupied territories," said Lieutenant Colonel Igor Sarudnev, commander of the Mayorsk checkpoint. Moscow categorically opposes this option. Recently, Vladimir Putin promised to use influence on the rebels to facilitate the exchange of prisoners.

"Russia is trying to stabilize the conflict without changing the current status quo," said Heorhy Tuka, Deputy Minister for Temporary Occupied Territories and IDPs of Ukraine. This liberal criticizes the internal restrictions that his government imposed on the residents of the east. However, his voice is almost not audible in the chorus of “hawks” from the president’s entourage.

 

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