In East Ukraine, Locals and Aid Agencies Struggle Through War’s Fourth Year
14 February, 2018

It’s called Ukraine’s frozen conflict. But as frontline towns endure their fourth winter, it’s clear that — snow and ice aside — there is little that is frozen about the conflict in the eastern Donbas.

Some 400 civilians have been killed or injured in the war between Ukraine and Russia-led separatists in 2017 alone. Furthermore, about three million people are in need of humanitarian assistance as aid agencies themselves struggle with funding.

Hromadske travelled with the International Committee of the Red Cross to examine the humanitarian situation in the Luhansk region, where foreign aid is helping bring a semblance of normalcy back to people’s lives.

Returning home

Natalia Simonenko and her family fled when shelling reached Stanytsia Luhanska in 2014. They decided to wait out the heavy fighting in Russia. But a year later, when they were about to board the train home, they received a call from their neighbors with the news: their house had been destroyed by a fire caused by the shelling.

“Everything was in ruins, everything had burned down,” Simonenko said.

The family spent the following two years staying with relatives, but were determined to return. When they learned that the Red Cross was seeking out the owners of what had been left of their house, they responded.

Last year the organization built a brand new house for the Simonenko family, allowing them to finally come home. The Simonenkos are happy to be back. But while they aren’t the only ones to return, Stanytsia Luhanska is still full of empty houses.

The ruins of Natalia Simonenko’s family home in Stanytsia Luhanska. Photo credit: Natalie Vikhrov/HROMADSKE

Some 13,700 people lived in Stanytsia Luhanska before the war. But the conflict forced thousands of families out of their homes. Among them were doctors, nurses, and medical specialists.

Stanytsia Luhanska Central District Hospital is feeling the loss. The hospital lacks numerous critical specialists, including an ear, nose and throat doctor, a transfusiologist, tuberculosis specialist and a radiologist.

Its chief doctor, Valeriy Ivanov, says few people are interested in coming to a town on the front line. And with the government providing little financial incentive for doctors to come to Stanytsia Luhanska, it’s nearly impossible for the hospital to fill its vacancies.

“Officially or unofficially, there is a ban on paying more than time and half,” Ivanov said. “There might have been volunteers who would come here for the higher salaries, but we don’t have that here.”

The shortfall in specialists and services means patients with certain conditions need to go to other towns.

The hospital has no oncology department and the closest clinic is located in Kreminna, some 120 kilometers away. But even Kreminna only has a 15-bed capacity and is unable to offer vital procedures, such as radiation therapy.

Photo credit: Natalie Vikhrov/HROMADSKE

Officially, the hospital sends patients to Kreminna, where they can be re-directed to Kharkiv for further treatment if needed. Unofficially, there’s always occupied Luhansk.

“They have an oncological clinic. A regional clinic that spent decades developing its practice,” Ivanov said.

Struggle for funding

According to figures from the the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid in Ukraine (OCHA), 4.4 million people have been affected by the war in the country’s east.

Alain Aeschlimann, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Ukraine, says many people are approaching the limit of their capacity to cope with the ongoing conflict. And the demand for aid along the contact line persists.  

But despite the overwhelming needs of frontline towns, Ukraine is only getting a fraction of the attention and funding it requires. Emergencies like the European migration crisis and the war in Yemen present new challenges for aid groups and are overshadowing the Donbas in the headlines.  

OCHA’s 2017 Humanitarian Response Plan received only 34 percent of the funding it needed, and the UN World Food Program plans to stop food aid to eastern Ukraine at the end of the month as a result of insufficient funding. Even the Red Cross is struggling to cover its budget in Ukraine.

“In 2017 we finished the year with a deficit, meaning that the contribution we got for Ukraine did not cover our expenses,” Aeschlimann said.

“It’s difficult to explain why there is this reduction of contributions for Ukraine. Yes, other contexts are the deterioration in many part of the world, but also some people [are] thinking, the government [is] thinking that...people can cope with the resources which are in the country.”

Sustainable projects

Aeschlimann says Ukraine is the “eighth or ninth largest mission” for the Red Cross. The agency has set aside 65 million Swiss Francs (or $69 million) for 2018, an increase of 10 percent compared to last year.

But it will also be phasing out food aid along government-controlled frontline towns in favour of piloting sustainable projects that allow residents to generate their own income through farming and raising livestock.

The agency says the decision comes as a result of monitoring the changing needs of frontline towns. Currently, the program currently targets residents who lost their jobs as a result of the war.

For Natalia Bushmakina and her family it has brought a much needed extra source of income. Bushmakina now owns 81 quails — something she says she dreamed of even before the war.

Photo credit: Natalie Vikhrov/HROMADSKE

With the local market now operating in her village of Novotoshkivske, she can sell their eggs and meat daily. She’s also breeding younglings, which are attracting customer orders.

“We have constant buyers,” she said.

Before the war, Bushmakina worked in a local produce shop near her home. But after the shooting started, the shop closed down and then Bushmakina and her family left themselves.

They returned just over a year later, but the job prospects in Novotoshkivske were few and her family of four, which included her daughter and grandchild, were left to survive on the single pension of her husband.

“Having our own eggs and meat already makes it easier. And having a little money from the sales is good,” Bushmakina said.

For now, business is steady. But fighting can still be heard regularly. And with a lack of jobs and people in the town, the family is uncertain about what the future holds.

“A future, as you know, is only [realistic] when there are children, when there are young people...But when there are funerals every day and people are leaving the village, that’s bad,” Bushmakina said.

“We have 15 children getting ready to start school this year. Our hopes are with them.”  

/By Natalie Vikhrov and Oleksandr Kokhan