The military crisis between the government and pro-Russian militia is still producing tensions. But we mustn’t forget the human victims and serious humanitarian consequences. The most desperate living conditions in the eastern regions along the shared border.
More than three years after the start of the conflict, the battles and clashes, resumed in October 2016 after a short period of calm, are now a daily occurrence along the line of contact that divides the country in two. The separatist regions of Luhansk and Donetsk, the area called Donbass, controlled by pro-Russian militias and local authorities, are described as Non-Government Controlled Areas (NGCA).
The treaty signed in September 2014 in Minsk between the Ukraine authorities and rebel units was followed by a reduction in the intensity of the clashes without, however, ending them. The humanitarian effects of this continual tension are very serious. Since the start of the war, there have been 23,000 wounded and 9,700 deaths.
Furthermore, the conflict continues to create more acute shortages among the population, especially the inhabitants of Donbass, as it continues to destroy basic infrastructure as well as factories, public infrastructure and private homes.
On average, the number of people involved in the crisis provoked by the conflict is around 4.4 million, almost one in ten of the population of 45 million. Of these, 3.8 million live in the eastern regions most affected by the armed conflict and are urgently in need of humanitarian aid. It is estimated that there are 1.7 million internally displaced people.
The borderline between the two alignments (hundreds of kilometres long) is, obviously, the more complicated and dangerous in which to operate, being the place where the needs of the population are most acute and shocking. Around 700,000 people straddle this “frontier”, crossing it occasionally at the few check-points still open, to purchase basic supplies, visit family members, to seek medical care and state benefits. Their difficulties are heightened by the drama of people with no documents who, for the want of a rubber stamp neither exist nor receive assistance.
The economic embargo on the regions of the east and the suspension of pension payments and social assistance to many of the displaced, decided by the government in February 2016, while waiting for a new process of registration (which was rendered impossible for many), have badly affected the daily life of millions of people, especially those living in areas beyond the control of the government. This, too, compels the population, especially many of the elderly, to move from one area of conflict to the other. There are queues of people kilometres long at the check-points and border posts, waiting as long as two days in temperatures lower than ten degree below zero in winter and above thirty degrees in summer. There are many elderly people who do not wish to leave their homes but have to move in order to receive humanitarian aid. Only with difficulty does the aid reach the NGCA due to the failure of the pro-Russian authorities who control the area to grant the necessary authorization.
The economy of the Ukraine, already greatly weakened by the economic crisis of recent years, partly collapsed when the conflict began and this has created a state of endemic poverty that goes beyond the needs created by the war. The low level of investments, the lack of jobs, the closure of many factories and mines (Donbass has been a coal-mining area since the XIX century) and the lack of flexibility of labour have created a grave economic situation for a great number of families. They are mostly becoming ever poorer and have had to reduce drastically their expenditure on health and education in order to have enough money for basic subsistence, especially foodstuffs.
The markets continue to function in both sectors of the divided country but the price of food and other essentials has risen considerably in recent months, making it even more difficult to buy them.
Access to basic health care has also become more difficult: more than 2.2 million people, especially those living along the contact area, cannot find proper treatment.
Another serious and widespread problem is the lack of access to clean water: the service was and still is repeatedly halted due to the failure of local companies to pay electricity bills, or for strategic reasons related to the conflict but most of all because of the damage done to much of the basic installations.
The result is that about 4.1 million people are being affected by this problem. Hospitals, schools and reception centres for the displaced often find themselves with no electricity or water so necessary for basic assistance. Children have also been badly hit. Thousands of children in both territories receive no education and must also suffer the stress and traumas of war. The shortage of teachers and damage to educational buildings makes it very difficult for many children to attend school (about 740 educational structures have been damaged since the beginning of the conflict. Many children have also been killed by land mines. Then there are the problems generated by the “bureaucracy of war”: it is estimated that at least 55,000 children will not see their school diplomas recognised by the new authorities or by the authorities of the place where they were compelled to flee due to the war.
The system of aid, both local and international, is largely confined to areas controlled by the government, ever since when, in July 2015, the authorities in the separatist territories restricted access to humanitarian aid. Despite these obstacles, many organisations have succeeded in sending aid to the populations living in the eastern regions but it is obviously difficult to ensure continuity or to check its final destination. This stalemate situation is becoming ever more desperate. Up to recently, it was possible to see people with the hope of again being able to live as before; for some time now things have changed and a feeling of loss and despair is growing in the hearts of many people. (R. M.)