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.