In Mid-January, aerial footage of the Donetsk airport showed eerie footprints of flattened buildings amid a desolate, crater-filled landscape reminiscent of an ad for a post-apocalyptic video game. But the viral clip—much like US dialogue over Ukraine—provides only a cursory glimpse of what’s happened in eastern Ukraine. American coverage has shown some of the damage but not the people. It doesn’t show Vladimir Bobryshchev, a Donetsk metalworker who was returning from work and watched a missile slam into his home, killing his four-year old son and seriously injuring his wife and other son, whom he dug from the rubble. It doesn’t show Pastor Dmitry Ponomarenko, who’s been struggling to feed pensioners one meal a day while discovering the bodies of those too weak to have made it to the soup kitchen, or the survivors of brutal shelling of the Luhansk town of Pervomaisk who huddled in basements without access to food or water, or accounts of the 5.2 million people—not combatants but civilians—who’ve spent the past ten months trying to survive in the midst of an unfolding humanitarian disaster.
According to the latest, and admittedly conservative, UN estimates, the conflict in the southeastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk (Donbass) has resulted in over 5,000 deaths and 1.5 million refugees. For the forgotten 5.2 million who remain in Donbass, life since April 2014 has been a deadly kaleidoscope of warlords and armies, foreign fighters, shifting allegiances, morphing front lines, and indiscriminate carnage. Kiev and the rebels continuously trade accusations of gross human rights violations, but as international agencies make clear, neither side has much regard for civilian life.
Grad missiles pound the land. Both the Kiev army and the rebels have been firing the notoriously-inaccurate rockets into and out of civilian zones. Eastern Ukrainians have been blown apart in their bedrooms and in hospitals, while walking on streets or waiting for buses. “Nowhere is definitely safe anymore” is how a Luhansk taxi driver put it. The danger from Grads goes beyond the moment of impact, because unlike an earthquake or hurricane—which triggers an international response with all the concomitant generators, fuel trucks, and field hospitals—destruction builds on destruction. Ten months of relentless, indiscriminate shelling has devastated the region’s infrastructure—factories, coal mines, railroad lines—leaving little unscathed. Apartments and schools are destroyed; the electric grid is shot; supply routes are choked with wreckage. It’s hard to imagine the extent of the damage. A recent visitor to Donbass found hospitals and clinics without the most basic medical supplies. “We’re trying, but we’re treating people with words” a director told Médecins Sans Frontières. A morgue in Luhansk can’t handle the dead. Residents hastily bury the bodies, or leave them to fester.
The rebels hold kangaroo courts and mete out sentences (including death penalties) without due process or, indeed, any semblance of a legal code. Locals have been detained, beaten, tortured, and forced into labor gangs for accusations of anything from having open bottles in public to spying for Kiev. “People there really enjoy torture,” Serhiy Shapoval—a journalist who was electrocuted, beaten, and threatened with execution—told an Amnesty International team. According to Human Rights Watch, the UN, and Western journalists, Shapoval’s experience isn’t unique.
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Kiev hasn't escaped scrutiny: Amnesty International’s scathing indictment of Oleh Lyashko, a Rada (Ukrainian parliament) deputy, accuses him of abducting and abusing those he suspected of anti-Kiev activities. This was based on videos proudly posted by Lyashko himself, which show him interrogating and threatening dazed and handcuffed men. The same report which chronicles the torture of Serhiy Shapoval, tells the story of 16 year-old Vladislav Aleksandrovich, who was detained and beaten while sitting on a bench in Mariupol; his abductors insisted he had ties to the rebels, a suspicion which taints many eastern Ukrainians. Sergei Sytyi, a Donetsk construction worker, had risked his life standing up to rebel militias in support of Maidan. After his family fled to Kiev, they were frequently threatened by the radical, Kiev-backed Aidar Battalion, whose members patrol refugee camps, taunting and accusing the refugees of pro-separatist sympathies.
Kiev’s actions which garnered the harshest criticism from the UN, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Médecins Sans Frontières haven’t been individualized abuses but an overall policy—an effective blockade of Donbass and everyone in it. A pensions and banking freeze implemented in November cut off access to basic resources, brutal winter conditions descended on the area, and millions of civilians found themselves being strangled by starvation, cold, and disease. “Since November, series of measures taken by the Ukrainian government has effectively cut off civilians…and made it increasingly difficult to provide humanitarian aid” is how a Médecins Sans Frontières release put it. “All the people that are left on the occupied territories have made their choice, and refused to leave,” said Semyon Semenchenko, a Rada deputy and commander of Kiev’s Donbas Battalion in response to accusations of his men actively blocking aid caravans from reaching the region. “All this nonsense that old people and children are starving, it’s not true.” Semenchenko echoes an attitude which has come to prevail in Kiev and among western Ukrainians: the notion that eastern Ukraine is a nest of terrorists, separatists, and rebels.
Based on her interview with the AP, Valentina Dudareva isn’t focused on fomenting rebellion. “I want to eat. I want my pension,” she said. Dudareva, who lives in a bombed-out apartment building in Donetsk and hasn’t received her pension in six months, is one of the 1.4 million eastern Ukrainians classified “highly vulnerable and in need of assistance” by the UN. The reality, as reported by UN and AP, is that many of those who have remained aren’t hardened combatants but rather the elderly, sick, and financially destitute: individuals either unable to flee the war zone or afraid to do so because they have nowhere to go. The sentiment raised over and over is of feeling like pawns in a cynical game. “This war is about America vs. Russia,” Natalia Shevchenko, a resident of Miusynsk who, like Dudareva, had her pension cut off and is trying to subsist on rapidly dwindling food supplies, told al-Jazeera. “We just wanted to speak Russian and be left alone.” Miusynsk, a tiny town in southeast Luhansk, has yet to receive aid from anyone.
Shevchenko is alive because she, like many in eastern Ukraine, has turned pickling food into a science. Marinating vegetables and boiling, then sealing fruit preserves starts every September: it’s one of the trademarks of a culture of survival. Donbass isn’t an exporter of reckless violence because the region’s coal miners, steel workers, families, and babushki like Shevchenko and Dudareva don’t need a reminder of the horrors of war. These people live in the land of multiple Ground Zeros; they walk past unmarked graves and killing fields on their way to work. World War II reduced then-Soviet eastern Ukraine into a smoldering wasteland and the mythos surrounding resistance to Nazi forces continues to shape the region’s consciousness. As late as the 1980s, parents gave children board games called Hero Cities to cement the legacy of The War. Stories of partisany who led underground resistances, shofery, the drivers delivering food to the front, and the Nazi occupatsiya are embedded in lore, songs, jokes, and idioms. The reason why statues of Lenin, long torn down in western Ukraine, had remained in places like Donetsk and Kharkiv is because for the older residents, a Lenin statue is a symbol of the terrible price they paid to ensure that Lenin, not Hitler stood on the pedestal. It’s a reminder that they are still alive.
It was the miners of Donbass who led Ukraine’s first foray into democracy by staging some of the first demonstrations against Soviet labor policies in the 1980s. And it is these traditional blue-collar trades, more than ethnicities or politics, which characterize the region; a recent Time article highlighted the elite status that miners, some of whom have generations-long legacies, enjoy in Donbass. The NFL’s Packers and Steelers showcase the regional pride of Green Bay and Pittsburgh; soccer clubs FC Shakhtar (miner) Donetsk and FC Metalist (metalworker) Kharkiv do the same in eastern Ukraine. In many ways, Donbass has more in common with western Pennsylvania than Kiev or Moscow.
Despite warnings of an impending humanitarian disaster since early December, the issue of civilians in Donbass has rarely appeared on international agendas. Russia sent aid via thirteen caravans of white trucks. These controversial convoys have been decried by both Kiev and Washington, who insist they’re used to smuggle in weapons, not food, an allegation Moscow denies. According to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the latest convoy, which crossed into Luhansk on January 31, was inspected by both Russian and Ukrainian border officers. The problem is that Russian aid isn’t enough for the roughly 3 million people who remain in rebel-held territory and are cut off from basic resources by Kiev’s cordon. “People almost murdered each other queuing up for these parcels,” is how Pyotr Ivanov described the desperation which erupted when a previous Russian convoy pulled into Luhansk. Each parcel contained less than five kilograms of food.
This leaves the question, the same question that’s been hanging over the region since the conflict began: who is responsible for the welfare of the eastern Ukrainian civilians trapped in Donbass? So far, the answer has been a shrug. Conversation has focused on geopolitical roles, Kiev and Moscow, soldiers and separatists; the 5.2 million residents caught in-between in Donbass barely penetrate the headlines, except when politically expedient. When eastern Ukrainians walking on the streets of the government-held port city of Mariupol were killed by shelling, Kiev vociferously condemned the rebels; when eastern Ukrainians waiting for humanitarian aid in the middle of rebel-controlled Donetsk were blown apart by mortars, Kiev issued a bizarre explanation saying that the rebels must have killed their own people to generate sympathy.
Kiev continues to add layers to its blockade, making it nearly impossible for food and medicine to reach the 3 million civilians in rebel-controlled areas of Donbass and incurring declamations from UN, Amnesty International, and Médecins Sans Frontières who continue to warn of a humanitarian disaster impacting millions. Washington—which issued numerous statements concerning Syrian refugees and even weighed in on Israel’s 2014 shelling of Gaza—has yet to acknowledge this humanitarian crisis as described by Amnesty International and UN. And in-between the rocket attacks, eastern Ukrainians hastily bury their dead.