Europe’s forgotten frontline
Four years after Russia backed the separatist rebels of Ukraine, despairing millions feel abandoned to their fate
Last June, in the heat of a Ukrainian summer, four of Ludmila Brozhyk’s neighbours were sitting chatting in the sunshine. The children had stayed indoors to watch cartoons. When the mortar bomb dropped, it came out of a clear blue sky. “All the adults were killed instantly,” says Brozhyk. “Then one of the children came running and shouting down the street to us. Her mother had been decapitated.”
A 65-year- old grandmother, Brozhyk lives in Avdiivka, an unlovely industrial town in eastern Ukraine close to the “contact line” that divides territory controlled by Russian-backed separatists from the rest of the country. In February it will be four years since Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, annexed Crimea and helped foment a rebellion in Ukraine’s industrial east. Since then about 10,000 people have died, including 3,000 civilians, and more than 1.7 million have been displaced. Aid agencies say 4.4 million people have been directly affected by the continuing hostilities, while 3.8 million need urgent assistance. But the world has turned its gaze elsewhere. The rise of Islamic State, and atrocities in European cities, has seized centre stage in the preoccupations of the west.
Inexorably, the fate of the contested eastern rump of a former Soviet state has slipped down the order of priorities. In 2015, Kiev and Moscow signed the “Minsk agreement”, which stipulated a ceasefire and a special constitutional status for the rebel-held territories of the Donbass region, which would re-integrate into Ukraine and hold elections. None of that has come into effect and the number of ceasefire violations runs into the thousands.
In Avdiivka, mortar shells fly sporadically between government-controlled territory and the self-declared People’s Republic of Donetsk. They come from rebel-held land around the battered buildings of Donetsk airport, a few kilometres away, and are returned as a matter of honour. The bitterness is kept on the boil.
Sitting in a community centre set up by Save the Children International, Brozhyk says this is one of the few safe havens where her 10-year-old granddaughter, Marina, is able to pick up the pieces of her blighted childhood. “There is a high level of fear. Children still sleep in their clothes regularly. Even when they sleep, they hear shelling and that’s not really sleep. One of our relatives lost a leg to a mortar. How do you explain that to a child?”
In Avdiivka the Soviet-era coke factories stand semi-idle. A bombed bridge on the potholed road into town testifies to a collapsed infrastructure. Thousands are without central heating as winter sets in, because of war-damaged pipelines. Many of the town’s lawyers and doctors have fled.
The children’s community centre offers counselling for traumatised children. But in a pattern repeated the length of the contact line, it is only aid agencies such as Save the Children and Médecins Sans Frontières that are stepping
in to offer support and vital services. Kiev sends troops to hold the line. But there appears to be no plan to regenerate towns and villages devastated by war.
Why doesn’t Brozhyk leave? “How can we leave?” she replies. “We would have to find an apartment. We would have to uproot my mother who is 86. I have friends who left and they ended up coming back because there was no real welcome or opportunities for them.” Another woman explains: “People go to the west and they get called separatists.”
It is a remark that goes to the core of this frozen conflict at Europe’s eastern edge. Since the “Euromaidan” revolution in 2013-14, Kiev’s gaze has turned west. An “association agreement” has been signed with Brussels. Last year Ukraine joined a free-trade area with the EU, including Georgia and Moldova. From Kiev to Lviv, western Ukrainians wish to integrate further.
But as Georgiy Tuka, deputy minister for temporarily occupied territories and internally displaced people, concedes, the perspective is different in the east, where a large proportion of the population are native Russian-speakers and portraits of communist war heroes still take pride of place on school classroom walls. “I would say 85% of people in the Donbass dream about the Soviet Union,” says Tuka.
At one of the mobile health clinics run by Médecins du Monde along the contact line, Volya Babakova, who will soon be 80, mourns the fate of the small mining community in which she has lived all her life. “I was a midwife in a hospital here,” she says. “I delivered lots of babies in this town.” She remembers the Soviet Union with intense nostalgia. “One hundred people worked at the hospital; there were two eye doctors, two gynaecologists, two surgeons and so on. We worked together, we partied together, we drank and ate together at a common table. Under Gorbachev it was very good. Since then it’s got worse.”
More than a quarter of a century after declaring independence in 1991, Ukrainian GDP per head has barely grown, and the Donbass has suffered more than most regions from the pain of economic transition. From an industrial heartland, it has become a rustbelt. Russian convoys and the International Red Cross provide a minimum of humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas; NGOs, coordinated and financed by the EU’s humanitarian aid agency, fill in on the other side.
In Kiev, deputy minister Tuka describes those living in the People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk as “hostages to terrorists”. But he accepts that if Ukraine is ever to be put back together a battle for hearts and minds must be waged in the Donbass. His ministry is trying to organise school visits to the west for Donbass schoolchildren and he has pledged to ensure that all pensioners in the rebel-held territories receive money to which they are entitled. As things stand, the elderly must register as internally displaced people on the government side of the line, a Kafkaesque process that leaves those who fail to complete it languishing in poverty. Every day at the Mayorsk checkpoint, about 60km north of Donetsk, more than 7,000 people queue to cross between government and rebel-held territory. The wait can take six hours.
Since 2015, Kiev has restricted the quantity of commercial products and medicine that can be taken across the de facto border; the government has no intention of easing the hardship endured in the people’s republics.
Last month the stories that emerged from the Mayorsk queues offered a portrait of a conflict zone that mixes the violent with the surreal and sad. Tatiana Chevchenko was holding a photograph of her son, Egor, missing since 2014. According to his mother, he had been to Russia to buy medicine. When he returned, his home was looted and then he disappeared. Up to 2,000 people are estimated to have vanished since the conflict began.
Christina Belous, 28, from Donetsk, had been with her boyfriend to a baptism in government-held Sloviansk. A football fan, she can no longer go to watch her club. Shakhtar Donetsk, the best team in Ukraine, now plays in government-controlled territory.
Victor Bilik, in his 80s, arrived at the checkpoint at 6am to travel across for his pension. At 3.30pm, he starts the journey home via rebel territory. What does he think about the situation? “Let’s say I’m interested in history,” he says. “I could say a lot more, but I won’t.” No one wants to talk politics in the current toxic context.
The latest suggestions for a solution centre on the possibility of a UN peacekeeping force to take control of the rebel territories. But there is no agreement on the makeup of such a force, and Russia will not countenance returning to Ukraine the control of its eastern border. Some names have been changed to protect identities
Victim … an Avdiivka woman mourns her mother, killed by shelling
Haven … Avdiivka residents queue at the aid centre