Europe’s for­got­ten front­line

Four years af­ter Rus­sia backed the sep­a­ratist rebels of Ukraine, de­spair­ing mil­lions feel aban­doned to their fate

The Guardian Weekly - - Front page - Ju­lian Co­man Avdi­ivka

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

Ev­geniy Malo­letka/AP

Haven … Avdi­ivka res­i­dents queue at the aid cen­tre

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