4 Years of War in Donbas, 4 Years of Humanitarian Challenges
9 July, 2018

When the war between the Ukrainian government and Russia-backed forces started in Donbas four years ago, hundreds of thousands of people fled their homes. Some have resettled and started new lives in government-controlled cities and villages. Others have returned home.

Over the four years of the conflict, the situation in eastern Ukraine has changed – as have the needs of those affected by the war. Nearly 50,000 people continue to live in the “gray zone” – a territory that’s neither government-controlled nor occupied.

Hromadske attended Donbas Media Forum 2018 in Kharkiv on July 6-7, held for the fourth consecutive year, to take part in the discussion about key issues surrounding the war today and how media should cover the conflict.

Oleksiy Matsukа, head of the Donetsk Institute of Information and organizer of the Donbas Media Forum, said four years ago residents of eastern Ukraine wanted to know how to leave the conflict zone and where to find aid. Today, he said, they want information untainted by politics.

Matsuka said many are also concerned about losing their links to Ukraine because crossing into government territory is difficult – and relations between residents of occupied territories and authorities remain tense.

“I think people are concerned about how they can feel more comfortable in their relations with Ukrainian authorities because you know that our society is separated and our politicians are also separated on the question on what the future of Donbas is,” he said.

“I think people are afraid that Kyiv forgot about Donetsk and Luhansk cities and propose to Moscow to organize their lives on that side.”

If you are speaking to the general public, what is the most crucial issue at this point for the people living on the frontlines, and also in the occupied territories. What do you know from your journalistic expertise?

[Today] people live in occupied territories as usual. They build systems for surviving in these conditions, how Russia supports them and how local businessmen build bridges between occupied territories and the Russian Federation. And as we talk about people who live in so-called "gray zones," there are minority groups who live under attack every day, but they are a minority, because people relocate from these risk zones every day. But they feel that these are their homes, and they want to come back but nearly 50,000 people who live in the gray zone now and sometimes when we ask them what they need more from our informational materials or maybe some special materials, they said that it is information without politicians' opinions.

READ MORE: “Liberated?” A Report From Village Reclaimed by Ukrainian Army

From our media, for example, for the “gray zone,” people always ask me when all this will be finished, what will be tomorrow [and] what people in Western countries think about it. [These are] the biggest questions I heard on the contact line and the checkpoints that I visited.

But, for instance, if we're speaking about the audience that wants to know what's going on in Donbas, what would you answer?

You know that national politicians ignore the Donbas question in their programs and Donbas is a very toxic object for domestic political questions, and a lot of politicians use this in their populism and companies for voters.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

It's not the number one question in the national agenda today, because voters who live in Donetsk and Luhansk lost their right to vote because if you don't have special documents about your status as an IDP and you live in occupied territory, you can't vote. But you continue stating your status and right to vote, but you can't do this. National politicians usually ignore people who live on that side.

If we speak about the occupied territory, what can people know about what's going on there at this stage, besides that yes, there are separatists running this territory, yes, there are threats to get arrested, yes, there is no Ukrainian currency there, the region is becoming more isolated.

I think that people are concerned about their links with Ukraine because it's very important for them to save this connection. Because if you want to build your future in Donetsk for example, a lot of people who go to Russia and try to get documents from the Russian Federation as Russian citizens but I think a lot of people want to continue their links to Ukraine. But it's very difficult today. People have to spend five, six hours at the checkpoints in the queue when you want to cross. Also, you should give some proof that you were not a supporter of the referendum four years ago. I think people are concerned about how they can feel more comfortable in their relations with Ukrainian authorities because you know that our society separates and our politicians are also separate on the question on what the future of Donbas is. Is it necessary to reintegrate this territory or can we separate it from Ukraine? I think people are afraid that Kyiv forgot about Donetsk and Luhansk cities and propose to Moscow to organize their lives on that side.

There was a decision from the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic’s tribunal regarding you. What was it? There is no surprise that the separatist leaders and these people are accusing the journalists who are reporting on what's going on, or even just living in Ukrainian government-controlled territory, but what does this decision mean?

It was a decision to imprison me for three years. But for me, I can't say that I'm afraid of this or it's very serious, because I think it's also a step in their domestic propaganda for their audience because they want to create a media slogan that I am the enemy of the state, of the people, of this idea and others.

I think that the self-proclaimed authorities are just afraid of us as independent journalists and they try to create these possibilities for our difficulties because people who collaborate with us in Donetsk and Luhansk cities saw this decision and thought maybe it's not safe for them and others.

We’re here at the Donbas Media Forum, and there is a lot of discussion about journalists during the time of the war in Ukraine. What are the main trends at this point for Ukrainian media covering the conflict?

During these four years, there’s always been a discussion whether Ukrainian media should be patriotic or independent media, but this is just a black and white reality, I think.

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

This year, the main idea of the Donbas Media Forum is new challenges and possibilities for regional media, because our regional media is more flexible, it can adopt journalistic ethic codes faster than national media, for example.

We wanted to speak on very sensitive themes for these two days, and I hope that maybe we can get positive feedback from local media outlets.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk