They call it the "Grey Zone" — a snaking line of territory between government-controlled and occupied lands in the east of Ukraine. This is the area trapped in limbo at the center of Kyiv's war with Russia. Like over 1.6 million Ukrainians from the east, many of the zone's residents have fled to more secure areas. But others have been unable leave. And members of both groups face a serious problem: the Ukrainian military has closed several of the villages, making it nearly impossible to enter or exit.
The Ukrainian authorities consider these villages too damaged for habitation. But that means residents of the "Gray Zone" — both current and former—struggle to visit relatives, check on their old homes, attend school and seek medical attention beyond the demarcation line.
Background: The war in Ukraine started in 2014, when Russian forces invaded Donbas and annexed Crimea. Since then, more than 10,000 people have been killed and about 24,000 injured in Ukraine, according to UN reports. According to the European Commission, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has affected over 4.4 million people, 3.8 million of whom are believed to be in need of humanitarian aid.
Hromadske visited some of the frontline settlements in the Donetsk region to see how the residents are coping without access to their former homes.
Katya lives in the Ukrainian-controlled village of Pivdenne. At 92, she still hauls firewood across the village to her home. But despite her strength, there are some things she can't do. Border restrictions prevent Katya from visiting her seriously ill son and relatives in Horlivka, a town controlled by the so-called "Donetsk People’s Republic." “Who will let me go there? If they let me, maybe I would make the trip," she told Hromadske. "But I don’t have a permit. The checkpoint is over there, so I went up to the guys [there] and said: Boys, you’re our people. You know I'm not a criminal."
While most of the residents of Pivdenne are now safe from the devastation of war, the possessions they left in the "Grey Zone" are not. The doors to their apartments have been flung open and their belongings have been looted from within. As Liudmyla, a former resident of the village of Pisky, told Hromadske: “They have taken metal gates from all our neighbours. I can’t get my gates back because they’re being held in the District Department of Internal Affairs as evidence."
The residents are under no illusion about who is responsible for their missing possessions. Liudmyla also told Hromadske that her neighbour, who works for the police, recently detained a truck from the 128th brigade of the Ukrainian Army that was carrying metal gates taken from private properties and gardens.
The Ukrainian authorities in the Donetsk region have yet to come up with a solution that would allow residents to visit their former homes and rescue their belongings. Ukrainian Civil-military administrations have been established in some of the frontline settlements to protect the rights and security of the local population. But this is not the case in Pisky. Despite appeals from residents and humanitarian organisations, the Donetsk Civil-Military Administration has yet to address the issue. And it seems they have no intention of doing so.
“Now there are 11 people living in Pisky and, in fact, they live like one big family with the soldiers," Pavlo Zhebrivsky, head of the Donetsk Civil-Military Administration, told Hromadske. "At the moment, in my opinion, there is no point in spending money on introducing a civil-military administration in Pisky."
But this has not deterred the locals. They continue to hope that the officials are listening, otherwise they may take more drastic action. Without a solution, they warn that they will come to the checkpoint and visit Pisky without permission.
/Translated by Sofia Fedeczk