Winter nights in Donbass are cold, and bitter. Snow on the front lines turns to mud, making movement a chore or, when deadly combat breaks out, a chaotic mad dash. It has been nearly three years since conflict swept through Ukraine’s east, and after numerous failed political agreements, the war continues to rage. But further back from the front lines, a largely unseen crisis continues to simmer. Life has become a struggle for survival — and basic comfort — for more than 1.7 million Ukrainians who have been internally displaced by the fighting.
Refugees in their own country, stranded by war, the United Nations categorizes them as “internally displaced persons,” commonly referred to as IDPs. Reports suggest more than 4.4 million Ukrainian people have been affected by the war. Findings show that 3.8 million of those require direct, and urgent aid in the form of food, or small cash vouchers. About 600,000 people are reported to be the most vulnerable, and need critical support.
Towns throughout government-controlled territories have become harbors for a mass exodus of Ukrainians fleeing death and destruction – but not always to open arms.
Valeriy Ivanenko, 64, stands outside a supermarket with his wife, Vira, 65, in Bakhmut, a city in Ukraine’s east. “All of the walls are destroyed,” he says of their home left behind in Pervomaisk, 50 kilometers away. “I am not sure we would have survived if we were there.” He says 80% of those in Bakhmut support them, “but there are still 20% who complain we are coming here and taking their jobs.
“We understand them, but what can we do?” he adds, dejectedly. The couple joins thousand of others who have fled ongoing warfare conducted with weapons banned by failed cease-fire agreements. Heavy artillery, tanks, and multiple-launch rocket systems are prohibited, but regularly used. Fighting has spiked in recent days at the tactically-important bulge in Svitlodarsk, resulting in dozens of wounded and dead for both sides.
The people are frozen; the conflict is not
Civilian houses often bear the brunt of the so-called ‘frozen’ war between Ukraine and the self-declared People’s Republics. Politically backed by Putin’s Moscow, they also receive illegal assistance on the ground from the Russian military following Russia’s incursion into Ukraine in 2014. Separatist-Russian combined forces are reported to have suffered over 5,000 deaths during the war.
The conflict in the Ukraine has ripped through thousands of lives – the United Nations reports over 10,000 Ukrainians have been killed, with 3,000 of those being civilians. Many are forced out of their homes and away from family. “We’re still alive,” Valeriy says, defiantly, “we’re not sure what will happen next, but we’re alive.” Tears well in Vira’s eyes, “We want to go home.”
Many IDPs struggle to make journeys to their old homes – or what remains of them – after leaving. “It’s not safe to travel home,” Valeriy says. “Our car is regularly shot at. There have been battles at checkpoints during overnight stays.” Checkpoints – manned by armed soldiers in areas on both side of the contact line – are littered across the countryside in Ukraine’s east, some taking 24 hours to transit. In February 2016, three civilians were killed at a checkpoint after their bus drove over a landmine.
Valeriy and Vira now stay in an apartment with seven other families – 20 people total. The walls are bare, cold, and harsh. The kitchen features a steel basin, oven, and refrigerator. They all share a Soviet-era bathroom. “It’s not much, but it’s home.” Valeriy muses, as he prepares tea and biscuits for people in the room. Many of the residents rely on a monthly pension of around 1,200 UAH ($45 USD) as their sole source of income. Employment opportunities are scarce. Often the only available options are to sweep streets or pick up rubbish.
Traditionally, low-income households relied on small plots of land attached to their homes, and communal gardens, suitable for growing vegetables to lower spending. Those who fled their homes have lost this self-sustaining opportunity. Forests that were once fertile grounds for growing mushrooms are now considered a no-man’s land, often riddled with unexploded ordnance and forgotten landmines. Following a reduction in buying power caused by the severe devaluation of Ukraine’s currency, households have seen their purchasing power fall, limiting overall access to food.
Households have been forced to adapt, and sharply cut spending. Many displaced by the conflict have taken extreme measures to minimise costs, often reducing essential health spending as the price of medicine and treatments continue to rise. One elderly woman diagnosed with cancer explained that she couldn’t afford further x-rays and treatment.Internally displaced persons often report selling their personal property, and some have turned to petty theft and illegal mining to make ends meet.
The situation continues to worsen for the population in towns along the front line, especially in the contested Donetsk Oblast region. Most have fled from Krasnohorivka, an area that occupies the edges of Donetsk city, but each day is a struggle for those who remain. Tracers from chaotic fighting and shelling fill the night, regularly forcing residents into their basements for fear of being struck by artillery. Windows are riddled with bullet holes, and the scorched remains of houses provide a daily reminder of the cost of the war.
The residents are largely unemployed, receiving small disability pensions. “There are no jobs here,” said a male resident who wished to remain anonymous. He spoke passionately outside of a municipal building in Krasnohorivka, after waiting in line for United Nations aid with around 120 other residents. They had stood in the cold for hours, as patience turned into frustration and anger. A small military police force struggled to control the situation. “Food is getting more expensive, coal is getting more expensive,” he added.
The conflict has tested the Ukraine government’s ability to deliver critical civil services to the east. Roads are regularly damaged by the movement of military equipment around front line areas, as well as by shelling. Water quality remains a problem and civilians in many communities rely on humanitarian-supplied bottled water.
Pipes and heating infrastructure are fragile, easily damaged during periods of intense shelling. A school in Maryinka – a town of 5,000 civilians and one of the most dangerous regions in the conflict – was heavily damaged by artillery in November, threatening what is often one of the only reliable locations with heating in winter.
United Nations partners are especially concerned as conflict-affected areas face another winter, when temperatures can fall to -20 celsius. “My house has no fireplace, and we can’t afford gas,” the man said, “We chop wood in the forest for the oven when we can.” Local churches often supply at-risk children and the elderly with warm clothes, something 30% of IDPs report a lack of. Larger shelters for internally displaced persons have gone without heating during colder months, citing the high costs of utilities as the reason.
The southern Ukrainian city of Odessa recently saw a forceful eviction of over 129 internally displaced persons with severe disabilities. The residents at the ‘Kuyalnik’ shelter had no other homes to go to, or incomes to rely on. “When the conflict started in Donetsk, we were gathered and sent to Odessa,” said 45-year-old Olga whose daughter Tanya suffers from epilepsy. “Tanya is 11,” she continues, “She does not talk, and can’t maintain herself.”
Olga and Tanya fled their home in Donetsk at the beginning of the conflict, frantically trying to find housing amidst the chaos of the war erupting around them. “It took us to weeks to find a vehicle to leave,” Olga said, her voice quivering. “Leaving was terrifying. The roads were being shelled, and everything was on fire.” She said living conditions in the Odessa shelter were “terrible,” but at least it was safe. Residents had little or no incomes, and utilities were being used that could not be paid for.
“Eventually they cut the power and water,” Olga said. “People and local authorities in Odessa protested, but it did nothing.” NGO workers in the region quickly scrambled to organize a mass relocation using trains and buses, finding emergency housing for the disabled residents nearly 900 kilometers away. “We are disabled pensioners, single mothers and families with disabled children,” Olga said of those who were evicted. “We can’t work. My husband in Donetsk is in even worse condition – I have to send him money.”
“Life in the Donetsk People’s Republic is the USSR again,” one woman said. She had fled Donetsk days before with her son. “It’s like I stepped into a time-machine.” Those displaced by the conflict are growing tired and losing hope as the war appears to have no end in sight. They feel their government is sweeping them under the rug, hoping they will go away. Humanitarian aid groups such as the U.N. World Food Programme face significant funding issues, and have had to scale back operations in government and separatist-controlled areas.
“There used to be more help, and the funding used to be there,” said Tatiana Stoliarenko, a Field Monitor at the United Nations’ World Food Programme (WFP) arm. “Syria has definitely had an effect.” Ongoing conflict and humanitarian violations in Syria have seen funding and widespread media attention for the crisis in Ukraine disappear. The WFP has helped over 735,000 people in Ukraine since operations began in November 2014, but a $23.3 million funding shortfall has seen goals of 280,000 aid packages cut back to aid to for 100,000 of the most vulnerable.
Hundreds of thousands of people see nothing but war and adversity on their horizon. “Poroshenko is corrupt,” one woman said, while waiting to receive aid. Citizens and local communities have been left to pick up the slack, creating dozens of volunteer roles helping Ukraine’s under-equipped military, as well as civilian populations.
Ukraine’s embattled citizens received a unique insight into the lavish lifestyles of Government elites – including President Poroshenko, recently claimed to have bribed MPs – after submitting EU mandated e-Declarations in October. Lavish watch and art collections, mansions, and even a ticket to Space were declared, leaving many citizens feeling their leaders are out of touch with a population struggling to make ends meet. While those details were hard for many people to hear, Ukraine has reached an unprecedented level of transparency, something the country needed badly.
As the months turn into years, and Ukraine’s crisis turns into a disconnected-from-reality mass of numbers, the huge damage caused by this horrible conflict and situation becomes almost impossible to understand. “This won’t be over anytime soon,” Olga says, as Tanya lays peacefully against her.
Bryce Wilson is an Australian filmmaker and freelance photojournalist focused on the conflict in Ukraine’s east. You can follow him on Twitter: @brycewilsonAU