Kiev continues to win hearts and minds in East Ukraine
Nikita, who has been living for several months with his mother and 1-year-old sister in a basement labyrinth of makeshift tents and rubber-bucket lavatories, explained why he cannot return to his toy-filled apartment.
“There is shrapnel in my bedroom,” said Nikita, 4.
About 200 refugees, 50 of them children, cower in the subterranean bomb shelter of a children’s arts center in Petrovsky district, on the far western edge of Donetsk. Three days earlier, a shell had exploded across from Nikita’s apartment, pitting the walls of his building, shattering windows and sending a fresh delivery of razor-sharp metal into his bedroom wall.
His mother, Katerina Dynya, 22, sat on a cot made from a door set atop four bricks. “We think perhaps we will let the children outside today,” she said, though the sprawling park nearby is far too dangerous. Instead, the children are allowed occasionally into an interior courtyard, where they search the rubble for shards of shrapnel.
On Friday, Ukrainian government forces and the Russian-backed separatists they are fighting in eastern Ukraine arranged a truce to allow civilians to evacuate the disputed town of Debaltseve, apparently averting a humanitarian catastrophe there. Amid a flurry of diplomatic activity on the global stage, the leaders of Germany and France traveled to Moscow to press President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on a deal to end the war.
Yet, with officials in Kiev insisting that any agreement must roll back recent rebel gains on the battlefield, formidable obstacles remain to an accord to end a conflict that has now killed more than 5,000 people and displaced more than one million — almost half of them in recent months.
And as the diplomatic process inches along, the new rebel offensive coupled with Kiev’s steps to isolate the region are rapidly transforming an already sizable humanitarian problem into something much larger and more deadly — just as the fiercest winter weeks are arriving on the Ukrainian steppe.
“The situation was bad before, but now it is a catastrophe,” said Rimma Fil, coordinator of the humanitarian center of the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, set up by a Ukrainian oligarch. Tens of thousands are going hungry and without medicine, she said, and the situation is worsening, especially in the countryside.
Lyubov Pavlova’s story is typical of those living in the basement shelter in Petrovsky district. She has a house in nearby Trudovskie district, which has been devastated by shelling.
“On Aug. 1, a shell fell on my roof,” she said, “so I fled to where my son is living in Zolotonosha.” That is across the line, outside the rebel-controlled zone. “But my son has only two rooms and five children,” she added, “and besides, the people there were very aggressive. They said I was from Donetsk and so I was responsible for the war.”
She returned to the rebel region in October, only to find her house had been hit again. The roof was collapsed, the windows shattered and her possessions scattered. “I was hoping to repair my house, somehow,” Ms. Pavlova said. “But just a week ago, a third shell made a direct hit and now there is nothing left.”
Joan Audierne, head of Red Cross operations in the Donetsk region, could only shrug when asked how many people were affected in the city and the surrounding countryside. “No question, the needs are growing,” Ms. Audierne said.
In the summer, Ukraine cut off pension and other social service payments to the rebel regions around Donetsk and Luhansk. Just last month, the Ukrainian government instituted rules requiring a special pass to move between the conflict zone and the regions controlled by the Ukrainian government.
Enrique Menendez, who works with a volunteer relief group called Responsible Citizens of Donetsk, said they believed that half of the four million to five million people in the conflict zone had been affected either directly by the fighting or by the resulting humanitarian situation.
“It is becoming harder and harder to get the necessary food and medicine,” he said. “In smaller villages, the situation is nearing catastrophe.”
Kommunar is such a place, off the main highways northeast of Donetsk, just a few miles from the front lines but far enough to have been spared any recent shelling. Still, the scars from fighting last fall disfigure the community, once home to 2,500 people and now half deserted. Food is scarce here, and medicine almost totally unavailable.
With her porridge running low and an icy wind flapping the plastic sheeting over her shattered windows, Galina Alekseyeva, 80, says she is not sure she will survive this winter.
“I thought I would be dead by now,” she said on the ice-covered walkway outside her apartment. “I just wish I had some money so I could buy potatoes and not just have porridge to eat.”
A great, choking sob collapsed her face, which she covered with threadbare mittens. “I always feel like crying,” she said. “But my neighbor tells me that I must be strong, so I try to be strong.”
Her neighbor, Valentina Morschagina, also 80, appeared like a ghost at the dark door to her apartment, her eyes hollow and terrified. She held out an empty box of medicine, asking if anyone could help her.
“All I have is some porridge and a little oil,” she said. “I have no money for coal.” A small electric heater is her only source of warmth.
The recent wave of fighting is only part of the problem, relief workers say. So is the growing isolation of the region.
Kiev not only cut off pension payments to those living inside the rebel-controlled areas, but also payments to hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, orphanages and other institutions.
Christos Stylianides, the European commissioner for humanitarian assistance, said the Ukrainian government and humanitarian aid groups never expected such a prolonged conflict, and were caught unprepared.
“There are very few trees here on the steppes, so we got our heat from coal,” he said. “Since the war, though, the coal facilities have closed.”
He gestured to a chain saw on a table in his office. “So now, we chop the trees,” he said.
A convoy of Red Cross relief trucks bounced down an ice-choked road last weekend into the village of Mnogopolye, population 300. The flat light from the gray skies and the snowy carpet on the steppes made the landscape seem to fade into invisibility.
Several dozen residents eagerly waited outside the community center. It was the first relief shipment the struggling region had received.
The supplies — basic foodstuffs, hygienic kits, plastic sheeting and blankets — were meant to support about 1,000 people for a month. It is hoped, Ms. Audierne said, that there will be monthly shipments now.
In the near-ruined village of Grabskoye, Lyudmila Styopina, 58, poked her head into the lukewarm kitchen of a neighbor and took her place beside the electric hot plate, the only source of heat. Shells had bashed holes in the roof and broken all the windows, but a few of the apartment block’s residents refused to leave.
“We could never expect anything like this would happen in our place,” she said. “All we can do is try to survive.”
She had worked for years for a chicken-processing facility in the village, but during the autumn fighting the 4,000 hens had either been killed or scattered. So now, when she has money for transport, she gets day work at a hospital in Donetsk, her income the only support of an extended family of five.
“It is not near enough,” Ms. Styopina said. “When is all of this going to finish? Who cares which side controls this village?”