Tension between Ukraine and Russia has increased in recent days amid the mobilization of troops on the front line. Since the beginning of 2014, the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine has been the scene of a war between Ukraine and the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Donetsk and Luhansk Republics. The conflict has already left approximately 14,000 dead.
The last ceasefire in what has become a trench warfare was signed in July 2020, but breaches of the agreement have doubled. In the last week there has been an average of 400 daily violations of the ceasefire, double the average in the last month, according to OSCE mission data.
A 23-year-old girl collects firewood from a wooded area in Verknotoretske, Donetsk. “There are mines, but I’m careful,” he says. Every morning he approaches that small forest, risking his life, to collect firewood in the absence of money for charcoal. ANDIn 2020, 17 civilians were killed by the mine explosion.
Since the beginning of 2021, 27 Ukrainian soldiers have died. The war has raged, but peaks of violence like this occur periodically. In total, 3,375 civilians have died since 2014 and more than 7,000 have been injured, according to UN data
Dmitri Peskov, the Kremlin’s press secretary, affirms that they are moving their troops into Russian territory in the direction they consider necessary to guarantee the security of their country. For his part, from Ukraine President Zelensky considers these movements a provocation and has asked NATO for a roadmap to become another member of the military alliance.
Meanwhile, the civilian population tries to continue with its life in the villages on the front line, however, many have had to flee. According to UNHCR data, the number of internally displaced persons in Ukraine is 1.4 million people, being the Donetsk Oblast, with 512,237, and Lugansk, with 282,493, the most displaced persons.
Opitne, a town near the Donetsk airport where heavy fighting took place between 2014 and 2015, is one of the hardest hit areas. Before there were about 700 inhabitants, but today they do not reach fifty.
“I lived in the basement for two years and went out to cook when the bombardments were not intense. On one occasion a projectile fell near here while I was cooking and I had to run to the basement,” says María, the only one in her family who was has remained in the village. Her husband died of a heart attack and her children and grandchildren fled. She indignantly tells that they have taken everything that was in her son’s house and that now she lives somewhat more calmly because she only hears shots sometimes when night falls. María lives in her apartment, but she has no water, electricity or gas.
Water scarcity is common in the region and the Czech NGO People in Need is in charge, among other things, of trying to cover this need. With the help of a truck they transport water to different towns near the front. When the truck arrives, residents come to their doorstep with wheelbarrows and jugs ready to cover the supply. The NGO has also developed projects to rebuild houses hit by the projectiles and supports the victims psychologically.
The line that separates both sides of the conflict has also divided families, some of whom have not seen each other in 7 years. This is the case of Valentina, a 75-year-old woman who lives in Travneve, approximately 50 kilometers from the center of Donetsk. When the war began, a shell fell on his house and his daughter fled with her granddaughter in the middle of the night to the self-proclaimed Republic of Donetsk. Since then she has been alone and has not seen her family again.
Petya, who has lived with his wife since the beginning of the conflict in their house in Avdivka (Donetsk), located 500m from the trenches of the Ukrainian army and a minefield. His children fled Avdivka at the beginning of the conflict, but he and his wife Xenia decided to stay.
The elderly population is the one that suffers the most from the consequences of the war, Natasha denounces. This woman escaped during a year of conflict and, when she returned, she had to face paying her electricity bills because they had occupied her house.
Retirees have low pensions of around 1,300-2,000 hryvnia (39-60 euros), which are not even enough to pay for the coal to heat their house, says Ana, an elderly woman who lives alone in Pervomaisk.
The smaller towns close to the front line lack public transport and the trip to collect the pension or do the shopping is done in a taxi that charges them around 500 hryvnia, a large part of their pension, Kola denounces. That problem is multiplied by two if the person in question lives in one of the two self-proclaimed republics, since they have to cross the border to the Ukrainian side in order to receive the pension.
At present, there are only two open border points between the Ukrainian territory and the self-proclaimed republics of Lugansk and Donetsk, that of Novotroitske (Donetsk Oblast) and that of Stanitsia Luganska (Lugansk Oblast). At the Stanitsia border point, hundreds of residents of the self-proclaimed republics cross every morning to get their pensions or visit relatives, despite restrictions that exist due to the pandemic.
“Before the queues were much larger, but now, due to the pandemic, the movement has reduced,” says one of the citizens while waiting in line. According to data from the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine, there have been 371,000 crossings in Stanitsia from April 2020 to February 2021. 1.4 million fewer crossings than in the same period between 2019 and 2020.