Postcards from the Edge: Three Ukrainian Women on Either Side and the Middle of Conflict
By Varvara Zhluktenko, IOM Ukraine
Eastern Ukraine is shuddering through a fourth winter of armed conflict. Some 3.4 million men, women and children are locked in a dire humanitarian situation right on Europe’s doorstep. Over 30 per cent of those affected are elderly and 60 per cent are women or children. One might think that the protracted nature of this crisis means that the needs of conflict-affected population in Ukraine are not pressing.
More than three million people were affected in 2017, simply by water cuts and lack of sanitation. With personal savings exhausted, food insecurity doubled in less than a year, and 1.2 million people in both Government and non-government controlled areas of eastern Ukraine are finding it hard to put bread on the table according to UN OCHA estimates.
Winter is a particularly harsh time for conflict-affected people, as temperatures plunges below minus 20 Celsius. In a barely-functioning economy people must pay for heating, find winter clothing for children, who have grown out of last year’s wardrobe, buy medicine when they get ill, or try not to get ill while living in houses damaged by shelling.
We spoke to three women affected by the conflict that has claimed 10,000 lives. Natalia is an internally displaced person, Olha is a resident of the ‘grey zone’, that no-man’s land between the conflict sides, whilst Lyudmyla is a returnee to a town in the Government-controlled area. Her home place is now almost completely cut off from the main road system, so prices for food and commodities here are at least 20 per cent higher than elsewhere.
Natalia, displaced from Horlivka, now living in Bakhmut:
“We have been staying here for several years already, my husband, our two children and myself. We are trying to avoid discussing our situation with anyone, as we do not know what reaction people might have. The attitude towards displaced people here is fifty-fifty. There are people, who try to take advantage of displaced people and there are people who try to help us.”
The social payments have been regularly suspended for up to five months now, but the owners of the flat we are renting will not wait to be paid. So, we have to borrow money from our relatives and friends. We will remember those who helped us until we die.
A year ago, we went back to Horlivka for a week to visit our family. My youngest son heard the shelling, and now he is suffering from a psycho-neurological disorder. At the same time, the neighbours here ask “Why don’t you go home to Horlivka?” But who would be willing to return while there is shelling?
I cannot work, because my youngest is often sick for long periods. My husband’s job pays only minimum wage. I finished free sewing courses, organized by a charitable organization. Now I hope to be able at least to repair and tailor some clothes for my family.
My oldest son is in 9th form now. We enrolled him in a boxing club, so he could learn how to stand up for himself. At school, he receives lower scores than he deserves because the teachers know that we have no money to pay for additional classes and, as a result, their attitude to him is biased.
Olha, Mayor of Pidvenne, a ‘grey zone’ village located on the contact line:
“We are living at a tinderbox: the coal mines stopped working, and now the water in the mines is rising. So is methane, which is an invisible threat. We are asking humanitarian organizations to provide us with pumps to get rid of this water. As we are located at the contact line, fire brigades and ambulances do not always come, they are afraid. Last week, there was a fire in the village, a house belonging to an elderly woman burnt down. When people die we often bury them ourselves without proper documentation.
We haven’t seen the truck that used to bring us bread for three years.
Our children go to a school in the “DPR” [the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic], as it is one kilometre from the village, and the school in Ukrainian government-controlled area is 7 kilometres away and the path to it runs through mined terrain.
Our houses are either damaged or destroyed. There used to be a hundred homes in the village, and now only 57 remain. Eighty per cent of the village residents are between 50 and 95 years old, most of them are widows. Thanks to the humanitarian organizations, we received cellulose film and cardboard for broken windows, as well as rubber covers for the roofs. It could have been more, but makes no sense as houses located at the line of fire are constantly damaged.
Often, we are left without electricity for up to month and a half. If power lines are damaged, we repair them ourselves. We have no gas. Water pipes have been also damaged, and they are very old, so our drinking water constantly runs in the streets.”
Lyudmyla, returnee to Toretsk:
“We left for Russia in the summer of 2014. Our house is at the centre of Toretsk, so we witnessed all the turmoil, hiding in our corridor, our windows and ceiling were damaged. We were afraid for our children and thought that we would stay in Russia till everything calmed down, the end of autumn maximum. However, the situation in Toretsk wasn’t stable, and we received temporary asylum in Russia for a year, then it was extended for 12 more months. Then we came back here.
We have five children, ranging from a year and four months old to 15 years. Since we lived outside of Ukraine for a period of time, our family was deprived of social benefits and the condition for the benefits to be restored was that we had to pay the debt for previous utilities.
Thanks to cash assistance provided by IOM, we paid off the debts, and purchased a bunkbed, an extreme need, as our five children did not have enough sleeping spaces in our two-room flat. Then we bought clothing for children and changed some of the radiators. Now we need to continue refurbishing the flat, but it is impossible with our income of UAH 8,000 (about 230 Euro) a month for seven people.
We still need to pay for utilities, for medicine for our children, and the school and kindergarten also constantly request either stationary or hygiene items. We have no car, no garden, and therefore no additional income at all, only the social payments and my husband’s salary at the mine which he is getting in small increments. For instance, yesterday he received only UAH 600 (17 Euro). I applied for low-income family status so we could have more benefits, but was refused, as the social protection service said that my husband should be able to provide for our family. Opportunities to get humanitarian aid exist but are scarce.”
Since the outbreak of the conflict in 2014, IOM, has provided humanitarian aid, livelihood grants and other support to some 200,000 conflict-affected people in Ukraine. IOM, as a member of the UN Humanitarian Country Team, appeals for further funding from donors to continue its crisis response in support of the most vulnerable. IOM priorities for the 2018 include provision of cash assistance, hygiene kits, shelter materials, targeted rehabilitation of critical infrastructure. Further support to the economic empowerment of internally displaced people, returnees, communities hosting displaced people and demobilized persons through the provision of training and equipment for employment is also part of IOM’s response. IOM plans to provide psycho-social support, improve health services, and build resilience in conflict-affected communities. In addition, IOM will continue raising awareness about human trafficking and providing reintegration support to trafficking survivors.