KURAKHOVO, Ukraine—They all have a reason to go home.
For some, it’s to reunite with friends and family, to regain their dignity, or to find a job so they can afford to pay the rent and buy groceries. Others simply want to rejoin the lives they left behind to escape the Russian artillery and rockets.
“Going back home is the only thing that gives me hope,” said 83-year-old Alexandra, who fled her home in the eastern Ukrainian town of Marinka when the shelling became “too scary.” Like many displaced persons in eastern Ukraine, she asked that her last name not to be published due to security concerns.
Alexandra sat alone on the front door stoop of a shelter for internally displaced persons in Kurakhovo, an eastern Ukrainian town about 7 miles west of the front lines. The shelter, which used to be a kindergarten, is now home to 72 people.
Alexandra’s hands were folded. She wore a long, black sweater. And, as is the custom among many older women in Ukraine, a colorful shawl covered her gray hair.
Alexandra spoke emotively. She placed a hand on her heart, and the pitch of her voice rose and fell with the passion of her words. Her green eyes flashed warmth for the foreign journalist listening to her story—and then grayed into a vacant, far-off stare when she recounted painful memories.
“I lived a normal life, honey … I’ve had hope for everything, and now I have no support and no hope for anything, for anything, honey,” Alexandra said.
Her face was complicated with wrinkles, weathered by a life that has not been easy. Her husband, a coal miner, died from lung disease. She had two sons. One died years ago; the war killed the other.
“I don’t have anyone left,” Alexandra said. “I hope that the war will be over, and I will be provided with at least a little place for living. In the cemetery at Marinka I have two sons, a husband, mother, and sister buried. My home should be there.”
Alexandra broke down in sobs time and again as she explained what the war had taken from her. Her home, access to food, shelter, clothing. But those material things paled against what she wanted most—the ability to go home and grieve.
“I’m all alone,” she said. “I want to be able to go to the cemetery to be with my family.”
An Unending Fight
More than two and a half years since the war in Ukraine began, and more than 17 months after the Minsk II cease-fire was signed, life remains a daily struggle for survival for the 1.7 million Ukrainians who fled the conflict.
They are what the United Nations defines as “internally displaced persons,” or IDPs. The term “refugee” is technically limited to people who leave their home country due to war or other disasters.
A 2016 report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center pegged the number of Ukrainian IDPs at 1.7 million people. The U.N. estimates that 3.7 million Ukrainians have been affected by the war, 3.1 million of whom still require direct humanitarian assistance.
Now living in villages, towns, and cities scattered throughout all of Ukraine, but most prevalently in places closest to the front lines, this internally displaced population is larger than the total number of Syrian refugees in the EU. In absolute terms, the conflict in Ukraine is Europe’s largest humanitarian crisis.
“The conflict is yet to be resolved and continues to have a disproportionate impact on civilians,” according to a 2016 U.N. report.
More than 1 million Ukrainians currently have access to less than 1,600 calories a day due to the conflict (the U.N.’s threshold for being “food insecure”), and about 950,000 people experienced limited access to clean drinking water in the second half of 2016.
Those who have homes or family members on the other side of the contact line sometimes wait for more than a day at checkpoints trying to cross from government- to separatist-controlled territory. Homes left abandoned are often looted or turned into military garrisons.
International aid groups like the U.N. World Food Programme are working with Ukrainian partner groups on the ground on both sides of the conflict to ease the humanitarian crisis. But international funding is drying up as the world’s media attention pivots to the war in Syria and the EU’s refugee crisis.
Moreover, aid groups in Ukraine have to constantly fight against a perception in the Western media that the war in Ukraine has ended, and that the cease-fire has calmed the fighting.
“All the media is in Syria, and all the funding is there,” said Krystyna Kovalenko, communications assistant for the U.N. World Food Programme in Ukraine. “This is a forgotten war.”
The War Is Not Over
Combat is still ongoing in eastern Ukraine, and in villages scattered throughout the war’s “gray zone”—the no man’s land between the entrenched positions of Ukraine’s military and combined Russian-separatist forces—the situation remains too dangerous for more than 1 million people to return home.
Even wandering through the woods is now too dangerous in most places due to the pervasive threat of landmines and unexploded ordnance near the contact line.
“People used to have their own gardens to grow food or go into the woods to collect mushrooms,” said Kovalenko, a native of the eastern Ukrainian city of Kramatorsk. “This is no longer an option.”
The stories of those who have fled the conflict underscore a hard truth—the cease-fire has failed.
Valentyna, 79, fled her home in Marinka due to heavy shelling, and is now living in Kurakhovo. Due to her age, she is considered part of an “at-risk” population and received a U.N. food voucher card to help purchase groceries.
“It’s impossible to live there because of the fighting,” Valentyna said of her hometown. “We had to move away because of the constant shelling. It’s insanity.”
Valentyna asked not to be photographed and to only be referred to by her first name due to security concerns.
Valeriy Ivanenko, 64, and his wife, Vira, 65, fled their home in Pervomaysk with their daughter and granddaughter after artillery damaged their apartment in the summer of 2015. They now live in a displaced persons shelter in the town of Bahmut.
Seven families, about 22 people in all, live in a single apartment in which the Ivanenkos share a room with two other people.
“There was a strong shelling—well, not as strong as the ones that keep going on now,” Ivanenko said, describing the conditions in Pervomaysk that spurred him and his family to flee. “So how can we live there under the shelling? If we were there, I do not know if we would survive or not.”
The Ivanenkos have travelled home a few times to check on what remains of their apartment. They miss the life and the friends they left behind, but the shelling is still too intense for them to consider returning home for good.
“It’s not safe, we are constantly getting shelled, and there was shelling even when we were sleeping overnight at the checkpoint,” Vira Ivanenko said, describing a recent trip to Pervomaysk and passing through a government checkpoint.
“Plus, after we arrive to our town, we keep listening if there are bombs flying or not, while we check on our apartment,” she said. “We only go for a day or two, because there are people looting, they steal everything.”
The Ivanenkos have adjusted to life as displaced persons. Valeriy is an Orthodox Christian, and Vira goes to a Catholic church. They both regularly attend services in Bahmut. Back in their hometown of Pervomaysk, they would frequently go out to cafés and restaurants with friends. Now, their entertainment is to take walks together.
“I wish all this would come to an end,” Valeriy Ivanenko said. “As this is the main reason … What is this, to live our years of old age here? We miss our relatives, we miss our town.”
Helen, 53, was in her nightgown when a shell hit her house in Krasnohorivka. Shrapnel peppered her legs, leaving them pockmarked with puncture wounds, and ripped away her heel bone. She spent months in a hospital recovering, and is still unable to walk. Echoing security concerns expressed by other displaced persons, she asked that her last name not be used.
Speaking from her room at the kindergarten shelter in Kurakhovo, she pulled down the compression socks from around her calves, exposing a collage of scars from the shrapnel.
Her body is evidence that the Ukraine conflict is not over, and that a shaky cease-fire has done little to quell the violence.
“I talked to my husband [on the phone] just 10 minutes ago,” Helen said. “He said the shelling was very powerful today.”
Outside Helen’s room at the kindergarten, the autumn sky was clear and the air was crisp. A light breeze rocked the trees with the leaves turning colors. On the road in front of the building, three children walked home from school, skipping with their backpacks on.
It was peaceful there, with little evidence of the trenches and artillery only miles away. Like in so many other conflicts, the proximity of combat to the banal sights and sounds of everyday life is testament to both the absurdity of war and the resiliency of the human spirit.
Despite the lack of privacy, the Spartan living conditions inside, and the meager subsistence, this kindergarten shelter provided the most precious commodity of all—safety.
The people living here found reason to smile as they spoke to the foreign journalist in their midst. They offered hot tea and cookies, willingly tapping into their own limited resources to be amenable hosts.
Yet, there was also a feeling of impermanence. Echoing a refrain common among refugees and displaced persons across the world, these displaced Ukrainians said they would choose to live amid the shelling, rocket attacks, and snipers—if it meant they could return home.
“Despite the war, we would have rather stayed at home,” Helen said. “My heel bone got torn out, and they were bending it all together. Anyway, I was in the hospital for two months, and I was afraid to go back. But now I would return. I calmed down already. If you have lived somewhere all your life, how can you leave?”
Life as a wartime refugee affords little time to take stock of all one has lost. Self-pity is an out-of-reach luxury. And one could get lost in the mental trap of considering the needlessness of this war, or any other.
One’s personal suffering is anonymous amid the mass tragedy of conflict. You stop expecting the world to care.
However, there are brief flashes of compassion. An act of kindness from a stranger. A donation of food or clothing from an international organization like the U.N.
Your fortunes turn and your suffering is assuaged, even if for just a moment. Your reserves of hope are fully and ravenously recharged, as if you have found an oasis amid what seems to be a horizon-less desert of despair.
“I’m 56 and I have nothing left, naked and bare feet with no roof above my head,” a woman, who asked to be quoted anonymously for her safety, said outside an IDP shelter in Kurakhovo. “But thanks to the humanitarian organizations, especially the U.N., this food program of the U.N., it helps us a lot, a lot … You understand how it feels without any job, without any home. It’s a big help for us.”
Ukrainian troops are fighting a protracted, limited conflict against a combined force of pro-Russian separatists and Russian regulars. The war is fought along a static front line comprising trenches and ad hoc fortified positions in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas territory on the Russian border.
Leaders from Ukraine, Russia, France, Germany, along with representatives of Ukraine’s two breakaway separatist republics met in the Belarusian capital of Minsk in February 2015 to sign the conflict’s second, current cease-fire, called Minsk II.
The truce had an inauspicious beginning.
In the days immediately after Minsk II was signed, combined Russian-separatist forces launched a massive artillery, rocket, and heavy armor blitz to seize the then-Ukrainian-held town of Debaltseve.
The battle was one of the deadliest of the war for Ukrainian troops, and was also lethal for the civilian population trapped in the crossfire. While there has not yet been an official accounting of the total civilian dead in Debaltseve, reliable anecdotes suggest hundreds died.
Samantha Power, U.S. permanent representative to the U.N., said on March 6, 2015, that the bodies of 500 civilians had been “found in in the cellars of houses in Debaltseve,” where they had taken refuge from artillery and rocket attacks.
Despite the 17-month-old Minsk II cease-fire, the war is still too deadly for many Ukrainians to return home.
Villages along the front lines are rocked by daily artillery strikes, mortar and sniper shots, and small arms gunfights. Rocket attacks and tank shots are also common, according to the Ukrainian military and international monitors.
Civilians and soldiers, on both sides of the front lines, are still dying almost every day. Of the approximately 10,000 Ukrainians the war has killed, more than 2,000 have been civilians, according to U.N. data.
In August, 16 civilians died due to the conflict and 75 were injured. More than two-thirds of the casualties came from artillery banned from the front lines under the Minsk II cease-fire.
“The conflict and its human consequences now go largely unnoticed,” a September U.N. report said. “Over the last month, frequent and intense shelling and shooting in populated areas resulted in the highest number of civilian casualties for a year.”
The Human Toll
On a crisp Tuesday morning in October, they lined up outside a tired Soviet arts hall in the center of Kurakhovo.
Old men and women, young mothers clutching children’s hands, and some young men. They had all fled their homes due to the war and were now living as displaced persons in this town a few miles behind the front lines.
Some waited for hours to receive a $20 U.N. food voucher, which was their stipend for one month of groceries.
Some of the older people held their place in line with gusto—an instinctual habit from the Soviet era and the years immediately after Ukraine gained its independence, when long lines for basic goods were common.
A volunteer read names aloud from a list, and one by one they were let inside the building.
At a table inside, representatives from the U.N. and a local humanitarian organization called Responsible Citizens dutifully verified identities and explained the ground rules of the U.N. food voucher program.
Recipients were given a plastic card, resembling a debit card, which they can use at local grocery stores to buy basic food items. Alcohol is prohibited, as are condoms, candy, and soda.
“All this for $20,” one foreign journalist remarked as the voucher recipients cycled through the building, many clutching laminated packets of documents and identity papers.
“For many years, the words international community were empty words for the people living in the Donbas,” said Aleksandr Voroshkov, founder of the Ukrainian humanitarian aid group SOS-Kramatorsk. “It’s important to show people that the international community is here.”
“They didn’t lose hope, they believe that there will be peace, they are grateful to the organizations that help them,” said Kateryna Driga, 28, head of projects for the Ukrainian humanitarian aid group Responsible Citizens.
“Basically … people are thinking positive, that everything will get back in order and that they will be able to go back home,” Driga said.
Valentyna, the 79-year-old from Marinka, explained her reaction to the presence of international aid organizations in Ukraine.
“On the one hand, it makes me feel like the world hasn’t forgotten about us,” she said. “On the other hand, it’s humiliating. I worked for 40 years, I have every right to have a good pension and to have good money.”
The war in Syria along with the EU’s refugee crisis has taken much of the media spotlight off of Ukraine. Consequently, foreign funding to provide aid in Ukraine has dried up.
Aid workers say there is a diminishing sense of urgency and awareness about the conflict among government sponsors.
“Resources have melted away in the past three years,” said Tatiana Stoliarenko, field monitor assistant for the U.N. World Food Programme in Ukraine. “There used to be more help, and the funding used to be there. Syria has definitely had an effect.”
The U.N. World Food Programme currently faces a $23.3 million funding shortfall to continue operations through December. Consequently, the program has had to scale back its operations. An original plan to provide food assistance, in the form of food parcels and food vouchers, to 280,000 people has been adjusted down to 100,000 of the most vulnerable.
“We have to prioritize to reach the most vulnerable people,” Kovalenko said.
The most at-risk people are considered to be the elderly, single mothers with more than two children, the chronically ill, and those with disabilities.
The U.N. World Food Programme began operations in Ukraine in November 2014 and has so far delivered aid to more than 735,068 people in both government- and separatist-controlled territory.
Ukraine’s IDPs no longer face a literal struggle for survival as in the opening days of the conflict. But with the war’s third winter setting in, the acute humanitarian crisis has become a long-term socio-economic catastrophe.
“The system was overloaded at first,” Voroshkov told The Daily Signal during an interview in Kramatorsk. “People came here with nothing, they just fled the way they were.”
“The emergency needs are no longer that acute,” Voroshkov added. “They have places to stay and they don’t need emergency food. Now the IDPs understand this situation will last longer, and they have to adapt. Jobs are the priority.”
Elena, 43, fled Marinka with her husband and their 2-year-old son in the summer of 2015. They now live in Kurakhovo. Elena requested that her last name not be used due to security concerns.
Elena’s husband lost his job; he used to work in Donetsk, which is now a separatist stronghold. With no income and little government assistance on which to rely, Elena and her husband have few remaining options with which to make ends meet.
“Food is the biggest concern, prices have gone up very, very high,” Elena said from the U.N. food voucher distribution center in Kurakhovo. “It’s hard to survive. The money lasts for just 10 days.”
“I don’t trust the government to help at all, that’s for sure,” she added.
The humanitarian crisis has strained the faith of many people in eastern Ukraine toward the central government in Kyiv.
The costs of food, rent, and utilities have skyrocketed as Ukraine’s national currency concurrently plummeted to about half its pre-war value against the dollar.
Local economies are strained to the breaking point by the influx of those who fled the war, many of whom are still living a day-to-day struggle to meet their most basic needs.
In the city of Kramatorsk, which had a pre-war population of 164,700, there are 69,062 registered IDPs. In the town of Bahmut, with a pre-war population of 77,177, there are now 93,000 registered IDPs. And in the town of Kurakhovo, with a pre-war population of 20,098, there are about 12,000 registered IDPs.
Aid organizations anticipated this movement of people to new cities and towns was a short-term crisis, to which local economies could temporarily adapt. As Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis evolved from the acute to the long-term, the needs of Ukraine’s IDPs have changed, straining the economic resources of their host communities.
“People lost their chance to work to make money,” Stoliarenko, the U.N. World Food Programme field monitor assistant, said. “We need to create livelihood opportunities, and they need to be trained in new careers.”
After years of suffering from the war and the effects of Ukraine’s corrupt, post-Soviet oligarchy, eastern Ukrainians living on the periphery of the war zone are looking for measurable progress in living conditions for their faith in Kyiv to be restored.
“I don’t know about the next winter, if we’ll survive or not,” Valeriy Ivanenko, who used to work as a truck driver, said. “We’ll spend all the money to pay for the apartment. We want to have jobs, but there are no jobs for us. I would like to work, but there is no job here.”
Do or Die
The war and its attendant suffering has also dimmed some people’s enthusiasm for the better life that never materialized after the collapse of the USSR 25 years ago, as well as their faith in the pro-European promise of the 2014 revolution.
“No, I don’t believe a future with Europe will be better than the past with the Soviet Union,” said 79-year-old Valentyna.
Valentyna worked as an executive in the regional administration during the Soviet era. She now collects a government pension, but it’s not enough to pay for rent, groceries, or medical care, she said.
“Life before the Maidan was better,” Valentyna said, referring to the 2014 revolution. “We were richer. Life was much better under [former Ukrainian President Viktor] Yanukovych.”
“People are nostalgic for the USSR because they were socially protected then,” Voroshkov said. He estimated that about 70 percent of Donbas residents had never traveled outside the region.
“We need to show them that the world is big, and there are a lot of opportunities for a better life,” Voroshkov said.
While eroded trust in Ukraine’s central government has spurred some to be nostalgic for the Soviet Union, there has been a countervailing trend among others to enterprise grassroots solutions to their problems, often by circumventing the central government in Kyiv.
“We, the people, are also the government,” said Voroshkov, a native of Kramatorsk.
In 2014, Voroshkov founded the humanitarian organization SOS-Kramatorsk to coordinate humanitarian aid for IDPs from international organizations like the U.N. and to act as a mediator between regional authorities and the central government in Kyiv.
Since the war began in 2014, numerous humanitarian groups have popped up in eastern Ukraine, created and run by local residents to deliver aid to Ukraine’s IDPs.
“We can do something to help,” Voroshkov said. “We can help the government do its job.”
“This is something we have to do,” he continued. “It was an external aggression [by Russia]. It was do or die. We knew no one would help us, and no one has to help us. We were used to the fact that someone would always come and help. That’s how it was in the USSR. But now it’s a matter of survival, we have to help ourselves. It flipped a switch in people’s minds, out of the Soviet mindset.”
This article has been corrected to reflect the number of people the U.N. World Food Programme has delivered aid to in Ukraine, and how much they receive per month for groceries.