One-on-one with the war:
After three years of fighting, the state has yet to decide whether to help civilians affected by military action
Who is helping civilians affected by the fighting
The number of people who have been affected to some extent by the shelling of towns and villages in the Donbas increases with every day of the so-called ATO. The number of partially or completely destroyed buildings has exceeded 10 thousand, from 7 to 9 thousand civilians have been injured and more than 2,000 killed. However, no special state aid for the reconstruction of housing, compensation for families of those killed or physical rehabilitation for wounded civilians is expected: two bills were submitted for consideration by MPs, but at the time of writing both had been rejected during their first reading. Only local and regional authorities are dealing with emergency issues and, more often than not, this only concerns public buildings, schools, hospitals and nurseries. The lion's share of funds are received from donors and international humanitarian organisations. Human rights activists are also getting positive decisions from the courts, but so far the state has not followed these judgements on compensation.
Nina, a pensioner from Luhanske (a frontline village on the Svitlodarsk Bulge – Ed.), was seriously injured in March 2017 while working in the garden. An ambulance could not be sent due to the shelling, so neighbours took the bloodied woman to hospital in their own car. Miraculously, she survived: a long operation and massive blood loss is a significant detriment to the health of an elderly woman who is almost unable to walk due to the injury. "The operation and care in the hospital was free. But we didn't get any compensation from the state, although we still have to buy medication every day. We know that a criminal case was opened because of the injury, but in the following three months the police, unfortunately, didn’t even question my mother. We thought about maybe applying for disability, but don't know where to start. In any case, it would be disability due to general illness: we are not at war, so there should not be any war disabilities. And it's very hard for her to go anywhere now to record the effects. A human rights organisation has promised to sue for compensation, but we honestly aren't even hoping for it," says Julia, the victim's daughter.
Now a lawyer is trying to make the investigation speed up the inquiry in order to receive confirmation of the injured civilian's status. Although all possible deadlines have passed, the local police station could not even give us the name of the investigator. If public prosecutors cannot help either, human rights activists plan to go directly to international courts in order to claim compensation for the detriment to her health. In Nina's case, there is still hope: the medical certificate the victim received stated that she had shrapnel wounds. Which, for example, is not mentioned in the certificates given to the wounded (not only civilians, but many military men too), who came under fire in 2014. Then, according to volunteers, most injuries were listed as civilian ones – it will now be extremely difficult to prove that the war caused the loss of health. There are all many problems with housing, but local people in almost all towns know where to start.
On the ground, the destruction of housing is at least documented. Local authorities (representatives of village or town councils) are making records alongside the police, travelling to the scene immediately after shelling stops. This happens almost daily in settlements on the line of contact like Maryinka, Avdiyivka and Zaitseve. It is virtually impossible to even record the extent of damage there, never mind repair the housing. This is not only dangerous for repair workers, but also totally pointless because of the constant shelling. However, most of the population that resides in these villages and towns cannot wait for a hypothetical end to the conflict, when all the losses will be counted up: they simply have nowhere to live. This is why international programmes are designed primarily for emergency assistance in flashpoint areas: the state should take care of large-scale reconstruction. The recent aggravation of the conflict has even affected the aid policy planned by international organisations, as reported in a joint information bulletin on the Humanitarian Response website: "82% of the housing and consumer goods assistance that was provided in the first quarter of 2017 was vital aid linked to completing preparations for the winter and the supply of additional emergency materials due to the increase in damaged buildings over this reporting period. Repair work made up only 4% of total activity. If attacks continue with the same frequency as now, it will be necessary to review the amount of emergency assistance and aid for small repairs."
Over the three years of the conflict, 145,775 families have received targeted accommodation aid from various humanitarian organisations. This includes payments for coal and funding for insulation, as well as basic blankets and heaters. Only 20 families had their houses fully repaired, more than 16,000 were helped to make light and medium repairs and the same amount were given tarpaulin to cover the remnants of buildings in order to avoid further damage. The international charities also invested money in repairing collective centres and funding temporary housing for those who have absolutely nowhere to go, but this is not much in the grand scheme of things.
The aid algorithm of the council executive committee in frontline Toretsk, which is still periodically shelled, is as follows: "The only thing we can do is make documents recording the damage by visiting the scene. Several times, we were able to provide some small amounts from the local budget for families who had people killed by the shelling. But these are crumbs... We renovated the affected apartment buildings that belong to the town on our own. But private housing is only helped by philanthropists and international organisations. The Red Cross and People in Need helped with materials, but in general there is really no legal mechanism for this."
In large towns such as Sloviansk or Kramatorsk, most of the damaged buildings were repaired by local core enterprises and volunteers from different regions of Ukraine. Repair programmes (materials and a part of the labour for welfare beneficiaries) are still operating in frontline settlements. Instead of repairing damaged buildings, some large families from villages that were cut in half by the war had homes purchased for them in other settlements – also at the cost of religious and charitable organisations. But these are more the exceptions than the rule. Residents of pri- vate housing were virtually left alone with his problem. Most people are forced to repair damaged buildings and structures themselves, hoping that one day they will receive at least some compensation. There are thousands of people who cannot even hope for it: those who did not start using their property, did not register it (after purchase or inheritance) or lost the ownership documents, as well as the owners of summer homes who resided there permanently. And who knows if documents drawn up in 2014, when there was no aid system in place, will help. The Danish Refugee Council, for example, warns that it is important to help people who suffered losses in 2014, because their documents recording the damage could become invalid in July 2017 (three years from the start of the ATO). In addition, in 2014 the contents of these documents ranged from formal to informal, which could create barriers for those who suffered losses during attempts to prove that the conflict damaged their residential property.
"Most often, human rights activists are the ones to go to court. If evidence is properly collected, winning the case is realistic. But it's very, very hard to get the money... More than a year passes from submitting the paperwork to getting the money," says human rights activist Natalia Chuiko. "There are cases, lots of them, but I don't think anyone has got money yet. Why are they bringing action against Ukraine instead of suing Russia? Because it has not been proven internationally that Russia is involved in the conflict, so we do not have any relevant legislation. What is the point in a decision to claim compensation from Russia if it is completely impossible to implement?"
Nevertheless, things are much worse for those whose housing remains in the occupied territory. Human rights organisations recommend collecting any information possible on the forcible seizure or destruction of property: photos, eyewitness accounts. However, apart from lawsuits in international and Ukrainian courts that are more strategic than practical, it is currently impossible to receive any sort of compensation. Or officially sell housing in the occupied territory to buy elsewhere. Therefore, those who still have the strength and capabilities have already started to work according to the principle of "if you don't help yourself, no one will" without waiting for assistance from the state. Some are joining forces as co-operatives to build affordable housing in rural areas or risk taking out mortgages. Some have got used to the fact that they will be forced to live out the rest of their lives in dormitories, moving from apartment to apartment or with relatives, their own homes nothing more than a memory. Some decide not to go anywhere and have fitted out the cellars underneath their destroyed housing, risking day after day that they will stay there forever. But all of them probably still wonder when the state will finally at least notice the problem that concerns millions of its citizens, not to mention providing real help, which it seems no one believes in anymore.