Photo: Dieter Zirnig (Flickr)
Text: Amie Ferris-Rotman
Dec 6, 2015
Life in Ukraine’s buffer zone
The front line of the war divides towns, villages and even families.
The front line of the war in eastern Ukraine divides towns, villages and even families into Ukrainian territory or rebel territory.
On each side, stretching for 15 kilometers, is the internationally-agreed buffer zone — an allegedly demilitarized area created as part of the second Minsk peace deal in February.On a map, the buffer zone straddles the Lugansk and Donetsk regions, changing direction like a snake charting its
way through unfamiliar territory.
For the people who live west of the front line, on land controlled by the Ukrainian government — the number ranges from a quarter to half a million — there is an overwhelming sense of abandonment. On the other side lie the two pro-Russian statelets seized by rebels in spring 2014.
Olive green anti-mining trucks dot the road to Svitlodarsk, once a town of 12,000. Its population has dwindled to several thousand,
partly owing to its proximity to the front line — some two kilometers.
“We are somewhere between the sky and the earth, we mean nothing to no one,” 59-year-old Valentina, who only gave her first name, told me as she waited for food handouts at the town’s dimly lit cultural institute. Elegantly dressed in a red coat and black beret, she pondered her future. An icy rain began to fall as chaotic queues formed by the door. “Thank god the electricity is working for now, but really, why aren’t the
authorities helping us?” she asked. Others gathered even expressed hope that their towns be absorbed into rebel territory.
Standing closeby, neighbors Tatyana and Grigory, also in their fifties, told me about the Ukrainian soldiers who stayed in their apartments, uninvited, for weeks at a time, preferring the comfort of a home over their ramshackle barracks, where they were unfed and underpaid. “Some are fine, others are quite rude. They take our food and sleep on our beds,”
Tatyana said. When she asked them to leave, they simply replied, “This is war.”
Grigory, a retired miner, said he currently had four soldiers living with him in his village near Svitlodarsk. “They have guns. What else could we do? Refuse? The government doesn’t need us anymore, they’ve left us. They must be reminded that we exist.” (When I put these claims to Ukrainian military spokesman Colonel Andriy Lysenko, in Kiev, he denied that soldiers had taken
to staying in people’s homes).
With thousands of houses still in ruins, no visible government and a crippling food shortage, the buffer zone appears to be a no-man’s land. According to the local U.N. Refugee Agency and Protection Associate Anna Kirvas, many buffer zone residents are seniors and young women with children. At least 9,000 have been killed in the nearly two-year-old conflict so far — a number that includes Ukrainian soldiers — and with a shaky ceasefire in place, most men
of working age were either drafted into the 250,000-strong army, or fled to other parts of the country, where there are better job prospects.
Add to this the political turmoil currently brewing. In late October, Ukraine held its first round of regional elections since the February 2014 Maidan revolution that ousted the Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych. A low turn-out — nearly 27 million Ukrainians, or 46.6 percent of the country — voted in tens of thousands of mayors and local
representatives. In the second round of voting mid-November, only 34 percent showed up.
The elections showed that the country is less than thrilled with their confectionary tycoon president, Petro Poroshenko. His Solidarity party remained largely in power, but weakened. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk’s People’s Front party is so unpopular it didn’t take part at all. The Opposition Bloc, a pro-Russian, oligarch-funded party formed mostly of Yanukovych allies, did surprisingly well. In
Kramatorsk, the de-facto capital of what is left of the Donetsk region, the Opposition Bloc claimed a huge victory (the former eponymous capital, Donetsk, is now the seat of power in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, or DPR).
Adding insult to injury, elections were not held in the buffer zone, in what residents considered an intentional move to silence them. “Without a doubt, I would have voted for the Opposition,” Tatyana told me. Grigory agreed, adding, “Before long, the chaos we saw in
Kiev last year will be repeated. This new government has ruined everything.”
Viktor Andrusev, deputy governor of the Donetsk region, said a lack of security made elections in the buffer zone impossible. “If you can’t have an open-air concert there, how can you have elections?” he told reporters over dinner in a Kramatorsk restaurant.
A native of Lviv in the west of the country, Andrusev sported an oseledets, a chin-length lock of hair that extends from the middle
of the head. The Cossack-inspired hairstyle has become symbolic of the Ukrainian struggle against Russian aggression, and is common with men in Kiev and the west of the country. Though governors — who are appointed by Kiev — are not allowed to be affiliated with any party, Andrusev’s pro-Poroshenko stance was clear. He admitted there was a “food problem” in the areas near the front line, but insisted the local authorities would step in to help. There has been little evidence of this so far.
The 1.5 million internally displaced people also lost the right to vote. But while their transitory lives involve half-way houses, camps, and stays in cramped university dormitories, the buffer zone residents still live in their own homes.
“We weren’t allowed to vote as we don’t exist for the government,” a 60-year-old ex-miner named Anatoly Usholik told me in his apartment in Mironovsky, a small town just north of Svitlodarsk, five kilometers from the front line. He lives with his housebound
58-year-old wife, Natalia, who lost her right leg to diabetes. Together, their pensions come to 4,000 hryvnia per month, or around €165, which, like for others in the buffer zone, is enough to cover utility bills but not much more.
“The authorities only help people in western Ukraine. I hope we’ll soon become part of DPR, we should be with them. They feed their people properly,” Usholik said, in his tiny living room, decorated with cat figurines and pictures of Russian poets.
Across eastern parts of the country, anger is swelling against Kiev. Activists recently complained that the government has no interest in identifying or searching for the thousands of missing people from the Donetsk and Lugansk regions.
According to Ukrainian weekly Novoye Vremya, Poroshenko is the only oligarch in the country to have increased his fortune in 2015, from $800 million in 2014 to almost $1 billion. (By contrast, the country’s richest man, Rinat Akhmetov, saw his capital halved
to $4.5 billion). With the country painfully fending off bankruptcy with loans worth billions of dollars from EU countries, the International Monetary Fund and the United States, it is little wonder Poroshenko’s popularity is fading.
Not long ago the White House said it was willing to provide a third $1 billion loan, on the condition Kiev continues to fight corruption and progresses with tax reform. The English-language Kiev Post recently ran a satirical cartoon of U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny
Pritzker holding a dollar-laden bag, with a speech bubble to Ukraine’s leaders, saying “I’ll give you $1 billion if you promise to be good boys and fight corruption,” to which Yatsenyuk replies “How about you give us half of that and we do nothing?”
At a conference in Kiev late November, Poroshenko trumpeted his battled against graft, saying heads of anti-corruption bodies were being hired in a “transparent and competitive” way. Former Georgian leader Mikheil Saakashvili, now governor of
Odessa, was in attendance, and the two traded barbs, taking turns blaming each other for the country’s various ills.
n November, suspected pro-Kiev saboteurs blew up the electricity poles serving Russian-annexed Crimea, plunging the peninsula, where 2 million people live, into darkness. Ukraine has now suspended deliveries of goods to Crimea; Russia has said it would cut gas supplies to its neighbor over missed payments, and added coal deliveries might also stop in retaliation for the power blackout.
As Europe was still coming to terms with the aftermath of the coordinated ISIL terrorist attacks in Paris, Poroshenko took to his Facebook page to criticize Russia’s military intervention in Syria, saying: “The real reason behind Russia’s present moves is to divert the world’s attention from Russian ongoing aggression in Ukraine.”
I recently visited the Kiev Museum of Wax Figures, a downtrodden but charming imitation of London’s Madame Tussauds. Yulia Tymoshenko wears her signature braids and stands next to
Yanukovych, dressed in a suit and looking on with a long face. When I ask a senior museum official — who spoke on condition of anonymity — why Poroshenko was absent from the display, she admitted: “With this tense situation, who knows how long he’ll last. It takes at least four months to build a wax figure.”
As snow begins to fall, and day time temperatures drop to below zero Celsius, there are widespread fears of a looming humanitarian crisis. In late October, the Organization for Security and Co-
operation in Europe (OSCE) tweeted that a “number of settlements” in the buffer zone remain without gas, electricity or water. Almost all help comes from abroad: The Norwegian Refugee Council is rebuilding homes, and many in the area rely on food handouts from international humanitarian agencies like the World Food Program.
For Tatyana, who still resentfully shares her home with soldiers, her people’s plight is misunderstood. “Europe thinks we have Russian bears rolling around everywhere
in fields, but instead we are just very poor, desperate people.”
Article originally published by Politico. To view original, click here.
Website by Elizabeth Feder
Amie Ferris-Rotman © 2015