It’s not easy getting to Luhansk nowadays. One must either cross an active frontline and risk getting shot at, if coming from the north, or take an eight-hour detour from the south through the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic”, which is under the control of pro-Russian separatists. I decide to opt for the latter and, after quickly fixing my papers with the de facto authorities in Donetsk, my companions and I are on our way.
Driving through Donbass, the coal-mining region of eastern Ukraine, has always been a special kind of journey. The landscapes are gray, rolling flat fields with slag heaps from nearby mines dotting the skyline every now and again. The winter, which has already settled in, adds to the gloom with its sub-zero temperatures and ice on the occasional houses we pass by. But after a while I start noticing something even more sullen – the almost complete lack of people on the streets.
The region has suffered six months of fighting between the Kyiv-controlled and pro-Russian separatist forces. At least 4,707 people have died, according to the latest report from the UN, but the worst may still be yet to come with the region sliding into economic blockade. Things have worsened after Kyiv decided last month to cut off the region from the Ukrainian financial system, effectively banning all banking activity and severing payment of wages, pensions and social benefits. On top of this, vital medical and energy infrastructure have been destroyed during the conflict, while social services are all but absent after the withdrawal of the Ukrainian government from Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The de facto authorities in Luhansk, nestled in the former state administration building – now pompously called the House of the Government – are quick to assure me that everything is in order. Humanitarian aid is being distributed by extensive volunteer networks, 38 soup kitchens have opened across the separatist-controlled parts of Luhansk region, and no one is left out, they assure me. But they hasten to add that more than 60 per cent of the population are entirely dependent on humanitarian aid for their basic daily needs.
I decide to go on my own to see whether these statements are true.
Luhansk’s vocational boarding school for disabled children is a two-storey building tucked away in the city’s Vostochniy District, which saw some of the fighting over the summer. Some 100 children with mental disabilities, cerebral palsy and other severe conditions live in the school, which also doubles as a workshop and showcases the children’s artwork.
“Praise be to God, we were always able to offer three hot meals per day, even during the worst of the fighting,” a senior member of staff tells me, asking to keep her identity anonymous. “But we would like to see some improvements. We rarely get any fish, we haven’t gotten any products with calcium for months,” she adds.
The school also houses one of the humanitarian aid distribution centres which were opened in Luhansk after the first Russian humanitarian convoy arrived in late August. Right now there isn’t much to distribute, because no food has been received since September and local officials explain that the latest convoys from Russia only contained construction materials. But the volunteers are not sitting idle.
“We have about 870 addresses of people who can’t leave their houses on their own. So now we’re visiting them, helping them get their pensions, so they can understand they’re not alone,” explains Inna Ugolnikova, a 50-something volunteer with a glowing smile and dark red lipstick.
Many social service workers followed instructions from Kyiv and left the area during the summer after the fighting broke out, essentially leaving the most vulnerable people on their own. “We didn’t have electricity for nearly two months and these elderly and disabled people were just staying at their homes, completely alone. So when we visited them for the first time after that, they were crying,” Inna Ugolnikova added.
As we drive out of Luhansk, a street market along Budyonnoho Boulevard captures my attention. It appears unusually large for a city under siege. Dozens of people are lined up in the mud and melting ice, presenting their goods on sheets of paper and plastic. Passers-by shoot awkward glances at the showcased wares: watches, clothes, pickled vegetables, old audio and video tapes. Suddenly it becomes clear that this is a flea market, in which everyone brought out everything that they could spare from their homes with the hope to score some extra income. But we continue to drive to a nearby village.
Novosvitlovka is only some 20 minutes away from Luhansk by car, but it looks like another planet. The moon-like landscape is dotted with craters, scorched tanks can be seen on almost every street, and very few houses have escaped the shelling. The church at the entrance of the village has also been damaged. In the small courtyard two men are concentrating on welding together what looks like a support frame for the dome of the church.
Next to them is Iryna Tchernyakova, 60, a local volunteer who dons a thick black coat to shield her from the frosty wind. “I’m ordering these clothes here, which are donated by people in the village for those who have lost their homes. There’s nothing else for me to do at the moment,” she tells me.
Further down the road, at the burned-out carcass of Novosvitlovka’s former House of Culture, two more women report they hadn’t received their pension for the last five months. “No one informed us of anything, no one tried to contact us,” they said. “We are starving,” one of them added, a desperate look in her eyes.
Dusk comes sooner in the winter, and shortly after 4 pm it’s time for me to leave. On my return journey, I can’t help but think how different conditions are in Luhansk and Novosvitlovka. And while I found no evidence to back up reports of people starving to death, parts of eastern Ukraine do seem like they’re sliding towards a humanitarian disaster.
This blog also appeared in the Kyiv Post on 17 December 2014.
Eastern Ukraine: Both sides responsible for indiscriminate attacks (News story/report, 6 November 2014)Ukraine: Shelling deaths of children playing football in Donetsk must be investigated (News story, 5 November 2014)
Eastern Ukraine conflict: Summary killings, misrecorded and misreported (News story/briefing, 20 October 2014)