A Ukrainian soldier uses a scope to monitor Russian-backed separatist forces in Donbass, Oct. 2019. / New York Times


CLAREMONT, Calif. — Anna, a 75-year-old pensioner in eastern Ukraine, finds herself struggling to support herself and her husband amid rapidly decreasing standards of living and escalating conflict in the region. “Any hope for change fades with each day,” she told Radio Free Europe earlier this year. “Things are only getting darker here.”

Like Anna, many residents of the eastern Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbass region in face the grim reality of daily life marked by violence, occupation and destruction, as separatist groups have been fighting government forces for the past five years.

In April 2014, Russian-backed separatists in the Donbass region invaded key government buildings and attempted to declare independence from Ukraine. Ukrainian government forces responded, resulting in a full-scale armed conflict. The subsequent political chaos and economic collapse has disproportionately impacted the region’s civilian population, creating a humanitarian crisis.

The Donbass region, which shares a 457-kilometer (284mile) border with Russia, has a long history of ethnic tension and conflict; while the territory is composed of both ethnic Ukrainians and Russians, it was dominated by Russian imperial control and later the Soviet Union, until Ukrainian independence in 1992. The Ukrainian crisis is thus simultaneously a civil war between ethnic Ukrainians and Russians in the region and a cross-border conflict between Ukraine and Russia.

“The human toll of the armed conflict is appalling; over 2,530 civilians have been killed and 9,000 injured,” U.N. Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Ursula Mueller told a humanitarian conference on eastern Ukraine last year.

There were also more than 2,000 landmine-related casualties in the Donbass since 2014, according to Halo Trust, a humanitarian mine-clearing organization based in Washington D.C. Other explosives such as mortar shells and bombs, often used by separatists, end up targeting civilian homes.

Human rights violations, committed by both the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists, while less visible to the public eye than bombings, have been common throughout the conflict. Just in the past year, there were 150 counts of human rights violations, including arbitrary detention of journalists and civilians by the government to separatists forcibly quartering civilians’ homes, a 2019 Human Rights Watch report said.

Worsening the impact of the crisis is its use by the Russian government as a propaganda tool. “The Russian government actively advertises supplying ‘humanitarian aid,’ that Ukraine is physically not able to provide, having no access to the territory controlled by the Russian military, as a gesture of good will,” said Oleksandra Tsekhanovska, a senior analyst at the Ukraine Crisis Media Center, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote media discourse on the Ukrainian conflict.

“Occupied territories have virtually no access to the free media, Ukrainian television and radio is blocked, and information environment is dominated by Russian media and local outlets sustained by Moscow and promoting the Kremlin’s narratives,” Tsekhanovska, who is based in Kyiv, said in an email.

Civilians in the Donbass region must not only navigate life in a war zone, but they also remain largely unaware of the true nature of the conflict. International humanitarian aid organizations, such as the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, have been combatting the crisis by distributing relief material, as well as helping resettle refugees. Despite these efforts, 4.4 million people in the conflict zone, such as Anna, remain at grave risk.

“If I don’t wake up tomorrow, how soon will they find me?” Anna wondered as the war approaches its fifth winter. “And who will tell the children?”

(Written by Calla Li; Oct. 16, 2019)


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