A fiercely pro-Kiev journalist who refers to Ukraine rebels as "terrorists" describes and condemns Kiev's blockade of rebel-held Donbass
- It's counter-productive and turns people against Kiev
- It's petty and inhumane - it affects children, the sick and elderly the most
- It's hypocritical: Amounts to collective reprisals against people Ukraine claims are its own citizens temporarily under terrorist occupation
Introduction by translator Brian Milakovsky
Is it worth risking the lives of the most vulnerable to teach a "lesson-by-blockade"?
I'm continuing a series of translations of eastern Ukrainian writers and activists about the huge moral questions raised by the Donbas blockade.
Anna Khripunkova is a fiercely pro-unity Ukrainian journalist from Donetsk. In the piece below it is clear she sees no future in the "Peoples Republics" and loathes the separatist cause. But she writes searingly of how Ukraine's efforts to isolate and starve the separatists are causing a humanitarian crisis for its citizens remaining on that side of the line.
As she points out, terrorists do not go through the roadblocks. But food and medicine, and people fleeing the brutal fighting, do go through them. It is they who have no choice. The blockade has made crossing the front line an arduous, sometimes impossible task, probably as a deliberate measure to force people to make a choice - which side will I live on?
Here is the original. And my translation:
14 kilometers to freedom
Anna Khripunkova, DonPress
Blockade. We heard that word long before June, but namely the last month made it has become one of the most popular whenever the subject turns to the occupied territories.
After the attack by the separatists on Mariinky on June 3, which was the turning point for contact with those territories temporarily not under Ukrainian control, it became extremely difficult to leave the towns and cities of the ATO zone. And that difficulty is felt most acutely by law-abiding citizens. They protest, but the blockade remains impenetrable. And more and more often we hear in Ukraine that it is simply unavoidable.
You can’t go home
It all began on June 16. That’s the day all hope disappeared of more or less free passage from the ATO [anti-terror operation] zone and back. The new laws about crossing the line of contact came in to effect, which in practice blocked that path entirely for many Donchane [residents of Donetsk].
You’re not in the Ukrainian Security Agency database for crossing the line of contact from the ATO zone, which is to say, you don’t have a travel permit? You can’t go home.
You have a travel permit, but not the strength to use it? For instance, in order to sit all day in a bus and then go through the checkpoints on foot? You can’t go home.
You have a travel permit and strength, but you are afraid of the risk, since anything can happen at the checkpoints, and you are traveling with the elderly or with children? You can’t go home.
It’s just the same if you remain in Donetsk but want to get over to the other side. The paths are blocked. Even a few months ago there were several “sectors” and a few directions you could travel through. You could even get a driver to take you without a travel permit, and everyone had the chance to get out.
Today just one route remains, the most distant – through Artemivsk. Sometimes the road through Volnovakha is also open. But in both places you have to cover a significant distance between the checkpoints. In places require travel permits You can’t… well, you get it.
“Blockade” isn’t some exaggerated phrase for effect. It’s reality. And it affects everyone – those who live in Donetsk and those who’d like to get there. More than that, it affects not only people but the products essential for their survival.
After the harsh new rules came into effect, food and medicine are crossing less and less often into the ATO zone. Since June 16 it has often been able to transport them only covertly. With bitter irony volunteers write on social media about how they smuggled products critical for the survival of the elderly or children in by hiding them in a bag of tomatoes jammed artfully into one corner of the trunk. That’s one way to do it.
Right now only humanitarian convoys can get through, although they’ve had to change their tactics considerably. For instance, the Akhmetov Fund, which continues distributed “gumanitarka” (humanitarian aid) in Donetsk, slashed the number of trucks in its convoy by half, but compensated by making more trips.
They try to piggyback on other humanitarian convoys, going through the inspection together. Several foreign organizations are also keeping up their efforts, sending a variety of aid into the ATO zone, but of course this help is little compared to the scale of need.
And the saddest point of all is that many who need that help the most remain “overboard.” In first order that means people who have relatives on unoccupied [government-controlled] territories and who earlier received help from them. Many people sent their parents in the ATO zone money, food and medicine.
Now that route is closed. In social media we are seeing more and more posts asking for help in getting medical supplies for parents suffering from cancer into Donetsk, or providing assistance for bed-ridden grandmothers there.
Sometimes such posts even attract people who’d like to help, but if the shipment of medicine is large the chances of getting it through are very low. Parents and grandparents, who for whatever reason have stayed on in Donetsk are left to fend for themselves.
Do svidaniye, Donetsk?
Even for those who have a travel permit, simply entering or leaving is already a challenge. The trip is an adventure in itself, in the worst sense of the word. How do people get out of Donetsk?
One of the popular transport companies, “Sherrif-Tour”, has its own way of doing things. It transports willing travelers by bus to the roadbloack at Volnovakha, where they unload and set off… 14 kilometers to the next blockpost. There those who made the grueling trek, or got picked up by a passing car, are loaded into a different bus, which carries them on to Kyiv. The return route operates on the same principle.
Other transport companies offer trips to Kyiv… through Russia. travel permitsSeveral trips a week!” they tell unsuspecting travelers. To get to the capital, which in peaceful times took 7-8 hours from Donetsk, now requires around 30. “DreamTrans” for instance, buses people through Belgorod. A different company, “LuxAvtoKom” figured out a route through Rostov.
These are good methods, many people gladly use them but not everyone can afford such travel. Today the trip Donetsk-Kyiv costs from 800 hryvnia if you want to economize and don’t mind walking the distance between the checkpoints. If you chose a more comfortable option you’ll need 1000. With no changes of vehicle it will cost you 1500 hryvnia, a cost inaccessible for the majority of Donetsk families, especially if several people travel at once.
Considering that tightening of the rules about crossing the line of contact always comes on unexpectedly, residents of the ATO zone must plan for the very real chance they will suddenly lose their last chance to cross over to Ukraine or return home.
In truth, Donchane already need to decide for themselves where they will live from now on and organize their lives accordingly, in order to minimize the number of future trips. But not everyone can do that.
How can you live?
When the soldiers who man the Ukrainian roadblocks are asked how many terrorists they have caught thanks to the stricter travel permit system, they burst out laughing. That’s a good joke. Everyone understands that those who wish to organize terrorist acts on Ukrainian territory will take entirely different routes to get there. The routes without checkpoints. And they know how to travel them in safety.
Unlike normal people they don’t have to anxiously check the website of the transport companies to see whether the minivan that should pick them up has made it to the checkpoint. And if they really want to they can get into Ukraine faster than even those law-abiding citizens who chose the most expensive and expedited option.
But when it comes to non-terrorists, things are much more difficult. They suffer greatly from the blockade, and the most vulnerable suffer most of all. But in Ukraine more and more often we hear that the blockade is the only way forward.
The subtext of this idea is pretty clear: some Ukrainians think that residents of the ATO zone (especially those who still haven’t weaned themselves off of Russian propaganda and still believe in the non-existent future of non-existent republics) have to learn that living in made-up states is impossible. And the only way to do that is to blockade them, so that the last chances for normal existence are lost.
When it was possible to come and go with relative ease, and move food and humanitarian shipments, even the conditions of war didn’t seem that awful. Now they want to force Donchane to look reality in the face. The reality of the “republics,” where there can be no conditions for normal life.
It might seem that his gambit is worth it. The sooner Donchane understand the hopelessness of the “DNR”, the sooner “everything will become Ukraine again.” But is forcing that realization on thousands worth the death of the hundreds who won’t survive illness or hunger? Is it worth allowing the death of dozens of the elderly and children who won’t receive the help they need? Aren’t those costs too high?
Today the “DNR” is located 14 kilometers from freedom, if you count the nearest checkpoint. They are both real, physical kilometers, that some people are willing to cover on foot to get back to normal life, and symbolic ones.
Everyone that remains there has their own 14 mental kilometers, which they must cross by themselves. You can help them find their way by various means, you can nudge them along or even try to make conditions such that they have no choice. But to consciously condemn people to hunger and death…
Yes, sometimes it seems like the “DNR” is worse than hunger. But even those who still believe in it today deserve to be set free. Living in this country is a chance that every one of us should have.
Undoubtedly some people don’t think they need that chance. And they will stay there, believing that everything is as it should be.
And undoubtedly there are those who deserve punishment, but that clearly should not be done with a blockade. Because by punishing them in this way, we can also accidentally strike at those who don’t deserve it. And despite the certainty of many that “all the normal people have already gotten out” there are still plenty such “underserving” people in Donetsk.