While Ukraine no longer makes headlines in the West, violence in Eastern Ukraine is still commonplace and the humanitarian crisis threatens to spiral out of control.
A woman takes part in an event in Donetsk to commemorate Donbas children, killed as a result of the ongoing war in Eastern Ukraine. Photo: RIA Novosti
Yet, figures released last month show that the number of casualties in Eastern Ukraine has reached its highest level since August 2015, and that by the end of August, the ceasefire agreed upon by the two countries in February was violated an average of 300 to 350 times each day. Of the 1.8 million registered internally displaced people in Ukraine, nearly 30 percent are children and 59 percent are pensioners. And these are just the statistics we know.
“We cannot calculate how many children have been affected by sexual abuse or involved in army combat [in the East],” said Helena Rozvadovska, a former consultant for the United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF). Civilians in the occupied zones lack protection from shelling, land mines, and psychological trauma, and have no access to aid from the Ukrainian government or military. Few foreign humanitarian organizations have been able to register with Russian-backed separatist governments in the East.
Despite the continuing intensity of the crisis in Ukraine, media coverage of the conflict has been minimal since early 2015. With the United Nations General Assembly starting this month, there will be an opportunity to shed light on the violence that continues to affect Ukrainian civilians – innocent victims of an ongoing and in many ways aggravated conflict.
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However, it does not appear that much attention at all will be paid to Ukraine, or the country’s tensions with Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, will not be attending the General Assembly. But civilians are suffering more than ever, showing the effects and traumas of war, albeit an undeclared one.
At a panel hosted by the Atlantic Council in June entitled “Ukraine’s Humanitarian Cost,” President of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation Nadia McConnell said that “to date, [Ukraine] still remains pretty much an invisible emergency.”
One year ago, Russian-Ukrainian tensions still made headlines. After Ukraine’s Euromaidan and Russia’s subsequent annexation of Crimea in early 2014, an armed conflict between the two countries began in Eastern Ukraine. By December 2015, not one, but two ceasefire accords had been violated.
As attention turned to the latest site of post-Soviet Russian assertive policy, the international community got involved. At last year’s UN General Assembly, Russian-Ukrainian relations made it into the spotlight. Ukrainian delegates raised a bloodied flag during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s keynote address. In turn, Russian delegates walked out of the UN General Assembly Hall as Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko began to speak. U.S. President Barack Obama, while discussing the strained relations between the two countries in his address, spoke out in support of Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and said that he was wary of a return to a Cold War and a resurgent Russia.
But as the conflict drags on two years later, a short memory has skewed perceptions of the reality in Ukraine. In an interview, McConnell pointed to trends in the Western media. An analysis done by the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation found that between June 2014 and June 2015, there were 227 articles published by The New York Times on the crisis in Syria, 127 on Iraq, but only 24 on current tensions in Ukraine. “If people know of a crisis, they do respond – the international community rallies,” she said. “We haven’t seen that happen with Ukraine.”
To date, neither Russia nor Ukraine has officially declared war on one another. Poroshenko refers to his country’s tensions with its eastern neighbor as an “anti-terrorist operation” and the UN refrains altogether from labels, resorting to terms like “the situation in Ukraine” or the “Eastern Ukraine conflict.” Others, like Rozvadovska, who has volunteered for two years on the frontlines, say that what is happening in Eastern Ukraine is a war – one that is affecting millions of people.
“When you read it from books and from magazines, you do not feel it,” she said. “But I live in front of these people and I see that it’s an abnormal situation. We don’t know how to call it. There are tanks in the fields, but it’s not considered a ‘war.’ We have the ‘children of war,’ but we don’t have a ‘war’.”
Rozvadovska said that despite Ukraine’s revolution, resurgent patriotism, and a widespread volunteer movement, reforms have failed to address rampant corruption within the government, hindering the government’s capacity to alleviate humanitarian issues in the country, which are intensified by the conflict.
“It’s a popular opinion that the government does nothing and it’s unfortunately true,” she said. “Our administrative model remains the same.”
Even Ukraine’s police force overhaul, widely viewed as the most successful reform stemming from the Euromaidan revolution, has only taken place in city centers and has failed to address large-scale corruption. “Kiev is a nice display of what’s possible,” Rozvadovska added. “But in villages...the people don’t know that they have any rights. They don’t feel any safety here [in Ukraine].”
Many Ukrainian social workers agree that the problem is not related to an absence of international aid, but rather, to the lack of coordination and co-partnership between the Ukrainian government and foreign donors. Many new non-governmental organizations (NGOs) appeared during the conflict, but most of them exist solely because international donors offered the funds to create them. As a local coordinator in Zaporozhye for the United Nations Development Program, Anastasia Kalashnik noticed that internally displaced people, known as IDPs, often complained about “NGOs that are trying to help them without knowing what they need.” [Zaporozhye is a city in southeastern Ukraine with refugees from the East – Editor’s note]
What’s more, the Ukrainian government has initiated only a limited number of social services. Those who are internally displaced receive a stipend of 800 hryvnia per month from the Ministry of Social Policy – about $30 – but the government does not provide psychological assistance nor does it have the mechanisms in place to protect the basic human rights of those displaced.
“We have a saying here: ‘When you are full, you cannot understand the people who are hungry,’” Rozvadovska said. “And how is it possible to make social policy if you don’t know what it’s like to never eat meat?”
Often laws enacted on the national level are incompatible with local needs. In June, the Ukrainian Minister for Social Policy Andrey Reva stated that 350,000 IDPs are not receiving their pensions due to inconsistencies in legislation from Kiev. Because the Ukrainian government cannot support the educational system in the Donbas, many children do not attend school. For those who manage to circumvent restrictions on freedom of movement and relocate to Ukrainian-controlled territories, “they have to find ways to finish their diplomas and apply to university on their own,” Kalashnik said.
War exacerbates Ukraine’s already discordant social policy. “If we didn’t create this culture [of social policy] and didn’t go forth to solve these problems before the war, the war didn’t become the reason why we should now work so hard [to do so],” Rozvadovska said.
Two years into the conflict, Ukrainians are starting to lose hope that it will be resolved. “People from Ukraine are afraid that this will continue for 20 or more years like in other countries – Egypt or Israel – and we do not want this situation to be reproduced,” Rozvadovska said.
For Kalashnik, the most unsettling development is that Ukrainians are adjusting to the current situation. “That is the most scary,” she said. “If we get used to it, that means we will stop striving for change ourselves.”
She still expects that a peaceful agreement will be reached with the Kremlin. “I think that the UN should play one of the key roles in this,” she said. McConnell also called upon the international community, urging Western powers to challenge the Ukrainian leadership to reform, without seeing corruption as an excuse not to help the country.
Just a few days after Ukraine celebrated its twenty-fifth year of independence, Rozvadovska pointed out that her country is very young. “We are like children,” she said.
But it is for the children of Ukraine that Rozvadovska believes attention should be paid to her country. “Will they be a generation of people who care about only their salaries or will they be a new generation who understands that they are part of a something bigger – a part of Europe, a part of civilization?”