Life in Ukraine’s conflict zone: The anxious reality

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Buses line up to transport refugees in the Donetsk Basin, in 2015. The crisis is still ongoing. [Shutterstock]

The humanitarian situation in Eastern Ukraine is severe and requires an urgent solution. No drinkable water, a lack of access to coal for heating and uncertain electricity supplies are part of everyday life for Ukrainians in the conflict zone, writes Mark Demesmaeker.

Mark Demesmaeker is a Belgian MEP with the European Conservatives and Reformists group.

The ongoing threat and involvement from Russia in the Eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk are still a fact. The EU and several international organisations are aware of the deteriorating situation in the conflict zone, yet despite the intention to help, the humanitarian relief policy in Ukraine is extremely bureaucratic.

There is a need for more safe access and delivery of aid supplies in order to make the process more efficient.

The war between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatist insurgents in the Donbass region of Ukraine, which began in April 2014, has caused grave humanitarian problems.

The EU and several international organisations have taken note of the situation in the suffering conflict areas and offered their help. However, barriers and slow procedures prevent an efficient delivery of aid. Huge queues at border checkpoints, car inspections and attacks on humanitarian suppliers coming under fire are amongst the worst of the reports.

Safe access, delivery, storage and distribution of humanitarian aid to the most in need are crucial and necessary to obtain successful humanitarian missions. A year ago, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said: “I instruct: Humanitarian supplies and humanitarian aid should have a green corridor. It should not be delayed and there shouldn’t be artificial barriers to delivery”.

Yet, the problem of delivering humanitarian aid still exists, and the population in Eastern Ukraine continue to suffer. Electricity, water supplies and mobile connections are very uncertain in most parts of separatist controlled areas. Many shops are closed.  Bread limited and tap water often undrinkable.

Anyone that could flee their towns and villages has done so, and only those without resources have stayed. The worst affected are those living in the sprawling rural areas outside of major cities, who often lack access to coal for heating during the bitter winter.

The situation was greatly exacerbated by the late 2014 move by the Ukrainian government to cut off all pension payments to people in the separatist-controlled areas, along with hospital, nursing home, prison, and orphanage funding.

UN reports highlight further the severe situation. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports (early 2016) that 69% of households in separatist controlled areas have difficulty accessing food markets due to rising prices and poverty.

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) stated in an April 2016 report that almost 300,000 people in the combat zone suffered severely from food shortages and were in need of immediate food assistance. The report said that residents living in the separatist controlled area of Lugansk Oblast and near the conflict line were the most affected by food insecurity.

According to the WFP over half of the population, in both the government-controlled area and non-government controlled area, experienced a complete loss or a significant reduction of income.

This cannot go on. Humanitarian missions must have a green corridor. Safe access, delivery, storage and distribution of humanitarian aid are based on an international mechanism and are the conditions of the seventh paragraph of the Minsk II Protocol signed on February 2015. These conditions should be implemented in the form of free travel without any checks.

However, back in 2014, Russia claimed to want to offer humanitarian aid to the regions in Eastern Ukraine by sending convoys across the border. These convoys were never checked properly and only a third of them were loaded. Furthermore, the nature of goods specified in note of the Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation, seemed peculiar.

Russia claimed that Eastern Ukraine faced a “humanitarian catastrophe” and proposed a humanitarian mission to help civilians. The emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on the subject of the humanitarian situation in the conflict zone at the request of Russia was held in August 2014.

Critics said Russia was cloaking its true intentions in a conflict that it helped seed and accused Russia of using civilian suffering as a pretext to intervene directly in a region where pro-Russian separatists were battling Ukrainian forces.

Britain’s UN ambassador, Mark Lyall Grant, echoed questions by the US and Rwandan ambassadors about Russia’s request for an emergency meeting on the humanitarian situation: “It is deeply ironic that Russia should call for an emergency meeting of the council to discuss a humanitarian crisis largely of its own creation.” I can only agree with this.

According to the official information of the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, the 49th, so-called Russian “humanitarian convoy”, transported expired canned foodstuff and books to the territory controlled by militants. A hundred and one trucks of “humanitarian convoy” entered Ukraine through Russian border crossing points “Donetsk” and “Matveev Kurgan” in two convoys.

The border crossing of the “humanitarian convoy” was executed with gross violation of international and domestic laws and agreed modalities with the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the Ukrainian interdepartmental control group performed only visual observation without performing control functions.

The peculiarity of this “humanitarian convoy” was the discrepancies in the nature of the goods in the convoys. In particular, the books of unknown contents, industrial generating plants and power generators and building power tools were not mentioned in the documents. The Russian side also refused to provide information about the content of the transported books.

One more peculiarity was the fact that canned meat and fish were expired because their storage life was noted as two years, and the date of production was 2012. The boxes with tinned meat were also marked as “FRAGILE, THIS SIDE UP”.

This situation deepens the fact that a more safe and secure delivery of humanitarian aid is needed in Eastern Ukraine, but it also needs be fast and efficient.

The EU remains as committed as ever to supporting the Ukrainian people. In March 2016, the European Commission increased its humanitarian response to help people affected by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, with a new humanitarian aid package worth €20 million.

However, the major problem is to have fast and safe access, delivery, storage and distribution of humanitarian aid in non-government-held areas. I hope the Ukrainian politicians from both sides will keep their words regarding the green corridor enabling the European Society to help the Ukrainian civilians who are still going through a rough time.

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