On a bluff overlooking the Sea of Azov in the southwest corner of Russia—tucked between the city of Rostov-on-Don and the town of Taganrog—sits a series of six unprepossessing buildings on dirt lot roughly the size of an acre. Living in these plain cinderblock dwellings are over fifty school-age children and their mothers, refugees from the war that has been raging in the cities, villages and towns of East Ukraine’s Donbas region for nearly a year. These mothers and children probably do not have very good chances for happy futures; they lack means and they lack opportunity. Their separatist husbands and fathers are still in Donbas fighting against Keiv’s regular army and ultra-nationalist battalions or else have been killed. For many, the homes they once knew have been destroyed and the country they were born into is now very far along the process of disintegrating. Yet. for all that. these refugees in Russia, by the sea, are the lucky ones. They got out.
Many have not. For four days last week (March 24-27) I and a small group of other foreign journalists*, visited the largest city in the Donbas, Donetsk, and several surrounding towns and villages. Today, Donetsk, which had a pre-war population of well over 1 million inhabitants, seems on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. In several shelters in and around Donetsk we saw scores of children—some as young as three days old—and their mothers (and many cases their grandmothers) living in cramped, dirty hovels with limited access to electricity, food and water. The sound of artillery shelling could be heard not far off from the Donetsk airport where fighting between the separatists’ Army of Novorossiya and the Ukrainian forces has sporadically flared up, despite the fact the the second Minsk cease-fire has, for now, largely held in other parts of Donbas.
The cease-fire, which is being actively undermined by Kiev’s refusal to negotiate directly with the rebel government, has, according to several rebel fighters we spoke to, not prevented snipers from taking up positions in abandoned apartments throughout the city. Though the targets of sniper fire have mainly been rebel parliamentarians and members of the burgeoning Donetsk government, the fear they inspire among the non-combatants is real.
Residents of Donetsk line up in the morning in the city center for foodstuffs and other supplies provided by Russia.
Unremarked upon by the American media, eastern Ukraine’s elderly, women and children are living in a city that is effectively under an economic and military blockade by the Western-backed government in Kiev; which has resulted in a very real sense of privation throughout the city. The Poroshenko government, as one of its first moves, cut off all social services and benefits to the citizens of the Donbas; because people are living without medical insurance, hospitals are offering their services for free. Kiev has also cut the area off from the banking system; there is no access to credit or even the most rudimentary banking services. Unsurprisingly, commerce has ground to a standstill; in the city center only small markets selling flowers, crafts and, occasionally, food seem to be doing much business. Medium-sized enterprises, retailers and restaurants, are shuttered, as are, according to one parliamentarian we spoke to, most of the Donbas’s primary large-scale industry: coal and steel enterprises. Only the main Donbas Metallurgical facility is still operating.