No Way Home for Residents of Ukraine's “Gray Zone”
26 January, 2018

Hromadske continues to tell the stories of people in the “gray zone,” the no-man’s land between Ukrainian- and separatist-controlled territory. People here cannot get into their own homes because the military is now stationed in the town. Hromadske travelled to Mariinka, where around 57 families were left without housing. Because of this, many of them are now suing the state.

Since our report the situation has only grown more complex. On January 18, the Ukrainian parliament a new law on the occupied territories. It places the blame for any damaged housing on Russia. This will likely complicated the Mariinka residents’ lawsuits.

When the Russian-led separatist uprising reached Mariinka in 2014, Vadym Misyura was working as a foreign language teacher at a local orphanage’s school. The school was located on Zeleniy Hai Street, where about 57 families lived. Most of the locals worked at the boarding school. When the first military checkpoints appeared in Mariinka, Misyura paid little attention. He was simply too busy.

“It was May, the end of the school year,” he recalled. “Yes, we saw that checkpoints had appeared around the city. Zeleniy Hai is a little bit separate from the rest of Mariinka, far away, as if it’s its own little town. People went to work — three minutes away from home — and then returned. Some days they just wouldn’t go into the city.”

In June, fighting began in Mariinka. Ukrainian troops tried to drive the the separatists from the city. In Zeleniy Hai, a few people remained in their homes, sitting in cellars without water and light in a state of despair. But most other the residents left.

They sat the fighting out with friends or relatives, and periodically gathered in groups and returned to look after their homes in Mariinka. They watered seedlings in the garden, patched up rooftops, and replaced broken windows. Misyura left too — he went up to Kurakhove, 20 kilometers outside Mariinka, hoping to come back soon.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

But he has yet to return. And it’s unlikely that he will in the near future. The military is now stationed on Zeleniy Hai Street, and the district itself is almost completely destroyed. Misyura has been trying to get compensation from the state for four years, but the case looks hopeless. There is simply no legal mechanism in Ukraine for compensation.

As a result, Misyura decided to sue. He says it was a difficult decision. He has no complaints against the army. But after waiting four years, he is tired.

I am not going to sue the army, I understand why they are there,” he said. “But I would like the state to help me recover the losses incurred during these hostilities.”

On the firing line

There’s a new sign at the entrance to Mariinka, and it looks out of place against a background of ruined buildings. The old sign, battered by shrapnel, was recently replaced. Within a hundred meters of the sign is a destroyed pet store with a huge hole in its way. The windows of buildings along the road are boarded up with plywood. It’s a five minute drive to the center of Mariinka, the center of town life: the church, the town square, the civil-military administration, and the market, where they sell lard, pickles, and warm socks. Wrapped in downey scarves, the saleswomen drink vodka behind the stands and order Hromadske journalists not to film them. They say they’re commemorating a friend. There is shooting here every night, as soon as it begins to grow dark.

“That's where the shells fly, everything burns beautifully,” says Yuriy Malashko, First Deputy Head of the Mariinka Civil-Military Administration. From the window, he points to the empty space between the trench and the field. From here, you can see a sign with the inscription “Donetsk.”​ The Russian-led separatists are no more than 500 meters away.

Photo credit: Mariinka, archive 2015

Against the background of a slagheap, a five-story beige building stands on Zeleniy Hai Street. This is the last Ukrainian military checkpoint. Further on is territory controlled by the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People's Republic.” Before the war, this part of Mariinka was considered prestigious, says Malashko. The city of Donetsk even wanted to annex it. But then the war began and other people wanted to annex it.  

No entry

Due to its location and compactness, Zeleniy Hai existed somewhat apart from the rest of the locality. Before the war, generations of families lived here, says Yevheniya Kochnyeva, a Zeleniy Hai resident and member of the residents’ initiative group.

“We didn’t close our doors until it was dark” she says. “We left the keys under the mat. If you needed to leave your child with somebody, you just went to any apartment and left him or her there. That was normal.” Kochnyeva is slight with short black hair.

“It hurts some people more, some less. Some are fighters, and some aren’t,” she says.

When she met with Hromadske, Kochnyeva brought four more residents of Zeleniy Hai. They’re all planning on suing the state to receive compensation for houses that were destroyed in the course of the conflict.

Zeleniy Hai residents’ stories hardly differ from those of others’ who don’t have access to their homes in the war zone. In 2014, Ukraine’s armed forces fought the so-called “DPR” for Mariinka. The Ukrainian military captured most of the city, but Zeleniy Hai Street remained a buffer zone between the checkpoints on both sides.

Photo credit: Mariinka, archive 2015

The next year, in summer 2015, fighting erupted in Mariinka again. This time the Ukrainian authorities completely took control of the city. Residents continued visiting and monitoring the situation at their own risk — mines were placed all over the territory and several people were blown up. And then “we came and there were soldiers standing there, not allowing us in,” residents told Hromadske.

That was July 2015. In August, the residents arranged for entry passes with the Donetsk Civil-Military Administration and representatives of the army. Civil-military cooperation groups — soldiers who serve as intermediaries between the troops on the front line and the locals — provided protection. People call them “CIMIC,” an abbreviation for “civil-military cooperation.”

“I come in and soldiers are sitting on my couch. They look at me. There is mud everywhere and markings all over the walls,” recalls Rayisa Borysivna, Kochnyeva’s neighbour. “All the household appliances are gone, I couldn’t find half my things.”

“Things were scattered across different apartments,” adds Kochnyeva. “People later saw in photos that their things were at their neighbors’ homes. But they were not allowed into the other homes. They were told: ‘It's not your private property.’”

The last time residents were allowed on the territory of Zeleniy Hai, according to locals, was in early 2016. After that, all the trips stopped.

An unfortunate situation

“I will give you an example of what happened in 2016,” says the Civil-Military Administration’s Malashko, sighing when the conversation turns to Zeleniy Hai. “When we got there, the artillery fire became quite heavy, and the servicemen, CIMIC, actually defended people using their own bodies. Going there was dangerous, that’s why it was later forbidden.”

In short, Malashko describes the situation in Zeleniy Hai as “unfortunate.” He insists that the local authorities have done all they can. Two years ago, when residents were first allowed back into the neighborhood, the authorities helped to put together an official document about the destruction and allowed residents to take important items with them. This is, however, where the opinions of the residents and the local authorities differ: the former insist they were not allowed to take anything, while the latter say that “anyone who wanted to took their belongings.”

However, the sticking point is not the belongings, but in the real estate. For the fourth year, 57 families from Zeleniy Hai are either living with relatives or renting apartments elsewhere. And they believe that the state should compensate them for their lost homes.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

“I will give you my own example,” Rayisa Borysivna says, standing up from her chair. “My husband, who died in 2005, was given an apartment by [former President Viktor] Yushchenko for being a veteran of the Chernobyl liquidation efforts. Back then, it cost 100,000 hryvnias, but you remember what the course of the dollar was then? So work that out. An appraiser came to us and said that the empty apartment was worth $80,000. With repairs, roughly speaking, somewhere around $100,000 thousand.” ​

“Today you can find a lot of ads online, and housing of this size in Mariinka is being sold for about $15,000. Meanwhile, for $100,000 you can buy a nice apartment in the center of Kyiv.”

In addition to compensation for the ruined housing, residents are also demanding moral compensation. Some of them have already filed lawsuits. Others are preparing theirs. They say that Ukrainian courts constantly reschedule court sessions, they don’t accept important documents, or the judges are absent. Now, after their experience with the Ukrainian authorities, they are planning to turn to the European Court of Human Rights.

Legal conflict

The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union has taken on the Zeleniy Hai residents’ cases and lawyer Yulia Naumenko is representing their interests. She says that the main problem they face is conflicting laws.

“There is a law on mobilization, but there is no implementation order,”  Naumenko tells Hromadske. “It’s written that the state should compensate. But who exactly is not mentioned. We do not have an article about this spending in the budget, there is no martial law, no state of emergency.”

According to article 19 of the law “on the fight against terrorism,” compensation for harm done to citizens as a result of a terrorist act is carried out at the expense of Ukraine’s state budget in accordance with a procedure established by law. The problem is that this procedure and the corresponding law do not exist — although the Verkhovna Rada has tried to adopt it repeatedly.

MPs from the Opposition Bloc party twice submitted a bill stipulating that any person who suffered as a result of terrorist acts — that is, anyone who suffered during combat operations in the Donbas — has the right to full compensation from the state. The first time was in 2016, and the bill was returned to the parliamentary committee for reworking. Neither the Ministry of Finance, nor the Ministry of Justice, nor the Ministry for Temporary Occupied Territories supported the bill. They believed that the bill would lead to unpredictable increases in state and regional budget expenditures and that the compensation mechanism was inconsistent with budget legislation.

But the parliament's evaluation office has a different concern: the cost of the damage should be paid by the party that caused it — that is, Russia or the separatists.

The bill was submitted for a second time in 2017, but the committee again returned the document for revision. Once again, the Finance Ministry said it does not fit within budgetary constraints.

Naumenko says she knows of about 30 lawsuits already filed in Ukrainian courts. The defendants are the Cabinet of Ministers and the State Treasury (as representatives of the state) as well as the Ministry of Defense (because the houses are occupied by the military).

Naumenko is convinced that the citizens' claims are justified. If these cases are not successful in Ukraine, they will put their hopes in the European Court of Human Rights.

The court has examples of lawsuits that deal precisely with the lack of access to a person’s own house. For example, after Turkey’s invasion of Cyprus and the establishment of the “Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus,”  a Cypriot citizen won a case against Turkey. The court ruled that Turkey was to blame for the fact that the woman could not get into her house, obliging the state to pay compensation. But even if the residents of Mariinka filed a lawsuit against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights, it is unclear if they would win, because they can’t get into their homes on the territory under the control of Kyiv, not the Russian-backed separatists.

Malashko says residents shouldn’t expect any compensation from the state.

“I think that these cases don’t stand a chance. Compensation, unfortunately, will only be possible only when the anti-terrorist operation is completed,” he says, referring to the official name for Kyiv’s battle with the separatists. “For our part, we did all we could. We provided all necessary documents — records of the destruction, photos.”

Meanwhile, Misyura says going to court was his last resort. He stresses that he considers himself a patriot of Ukraine. He just wants the state to give him a bit of help starting a new life.

/Translated and adapted by Natalie Vikhrov