The Survivors
of Donbas

Eastern Ukraine's Donbas region was hit by renewed conflict in recent weeks. The area is the home of Ukraine's coal and steel industry and its people are made of strong stuff. But almost three years of conflict, coupled with winter temperatures of minus 20 Celsius take a heavy toll. Since the beginning of the crisis, IOM has provided aid to over 100,000 vulnerable displaced persons and conflict-affected people across the country. On a recent visit we met some of the survivors of Donbas.

Less than one month ago eastern Ukraine was hit by a new escalation in the three-year conflict which has claimed thousands of lives and left many hundreds of thousands displaced.

The town of Avdiivka and numerous small villages along
the so-called contact line in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions (Donbas) have been shelled mercilessly. With the essentials
for survival in the bitter winter in ever-shortening supply
the International Organization for Migration has stepped up provision of material aid and cash assistance.

This aid is proving crucial for persons with disabilities, elderly people, single-headed families or families with many children.

Our lorry creaks and bounces on the shattered, icy road and enters Peredilske, not far from the city of Luhansk. We arrive in the village one and a half hours before the announced distribution time. It is a bone-chilling -17° Celsius, but there is
a line of people, most of them over 70 years old, patiently waiting with the sleds they will use to drag the aid parcels across the snow and ice to their homes.

There are always a few people who are eager to help with unloading aid among local residents in every town or village where IOM arrives.

There are always a few people who are eager to help with unloading aid among local residents in every town or village where IOM arrives.

Maria Akymivna's ground floor door is open. A social worker brings her the IOM humanitarian aid kit, calling out “Maria, Maria.” Out of the freezing gloom appears an old lady supported by a walking frame.

She lives alone in her flat. Her husband died from a heart attack during a shelling in 2014. As he was dying, Maria was hiding in a bomb shelter with a broken leg. She had to wait
for two days until help came. Now she can only walk with a frame.

“It is very cold in my flat, but I can only heat it in the evening because fuel is extremely expensive for me. Besides, I can hardly move, so heating the flat is also challenging for me,”
she tells us.

The social workers visit her twice a week, and sometimes she asks the neighbours to help her. Despite all the troubles she is facing, Maria Akymivna is very sociable and welcoming: “I am glad to see everybody who comes to see me and I am grateful for any kind of assistance because my tiny pension is not enough to cover all the expenses I have,” she says.

“Every time I receive my pension I think whether to spend it myself or to share it with my two daughters, who lost their jobs as the result of the conflict,” says Nastia, an elderly lady in Starohnativka village, Donetsk region.

Before the conflict, the granite open cast mine in Starohnativka provided employment to the majority of the village workforce. In 2015, it was closed and Ukrainian military forces placed their base there, which led to intensive shelling of the village. Now about 600 people remain, listening constantly to the sound of the clashes from the contact line and fearing resumption of the direct shelling on the village.

Nastia has been living alone since her husband died last year. While talking to her, she watches a couple of men cutting wood at the back of the yard. “It’s a pity that I don’t have a son
to help me run the house," she says wistfully. "I have to hire young men from the village to help me and it means additional expenses for me.”

Orphaned during World War II, Nastia thought that she would never see such hostilities again, that her children would grow up in peace.

“I grew as orphan because my parents died during the war. I always wanted to give the best things to my daughters and now it is painful for me to see that they and my grand-children suffer from the poverty and lack of opportunities that this war has brought,” says Nastia.

Nastia, a widow and pensioner in Starohnativka, Donbas, Ukraine
“Our family fled our home village, because it was continuously shelled,” says Masha.

Masha, an internally displaced person, at her new home in Zoriane village, Donetsk region

When we enter the house, Masha's youngest child, a four-year-old boy meets us. Two daughters are still at school. Masha’s large family is struggling to survive with the small social benefits they receive. A fourth baby is on the way. The hygienic items – soap, towels, tooth brushes, sanitary towels etc. – provided by IOM with funding from European Commission's Humanitarian aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) are much appreciated.

Like the majority of those who remain in the conflict area, Masha and her family are struggling to make ends meet, especially during the cold winter period when they have to spend significant money on heating. “We live in a small house heated with coal, which is very expensive. Our family needs three to four metric tons of coal for the winter and we have to spend a big part of our income just on that,” she explains.

Coal, a mainstay of the Donbas, used to bring huge wealth
to some groups of people, and some sort of stability to many more. However, old industrial mines have been unsafe for dozens of years, and the decent salaries earned by miners were earned by risking their lives. Fatal accidents are also frequent in small illegal coalmines called “kopanky”.

As we see the coal stored in buckets at shabby stairways we understand the irony: many towns of the region which for so long has been providing the country with fuel for industry and heating, lack their own central heating system.

Masha's husband joined the military  to earn some money to maintain his family and she alone looks after her children. The living conditions in their house are far from adequate for a family with many children. There is no water supply so Masha – pregnant with her fourth child – has to bring the water in a bucket from the well. 

Masha's husband joined the military to earn some money to maintain his family and she alone looks after her children. The living conditions in their house are far from adequate for a family with many children. There is no water supply so Masha – pregnant with her fourth child – has to bring the water in a bucket from the well. 

An IOM study reveals that 59 per cent of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and 65 per cent of local residents in the Donbas cite the lack of employment as one of the most pressing issues for them. In addition to that, people state that they are affected by high prices (69 per cent), low wages
(48 per cent), and low quality of infrastructure (32 per cent).

Source: Donbas Communities Needs Assessment © IOM, 2016 

Source: Donbas Communities Needs Assessment © IOM, 2016 

The conflict in eastern Ukraine started in April 2014 following the annexation of Crimea a month earlier. It is estimated that 9,700 people have been killed and 22,600 have been injured. More than 3.8 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 2.3 million people residing in the areas not under government control (see map). Many are trapped in villages along the contact line without natural gas, hot water, food, or basic necessities. Over 1.6 million Ukrainians have been displaced internally, according to the country's Ministry of Social Policy.

Kostiantyn lives in Peredilske village, Luhansk region. In spite of his age and poor health, he helped IOM staff, - many years his junion - to unload IOM humanitarian aid. His children left the village in 2014 after the beginning of the conflict.

Kostiantyn lives in Peredilske village, Luhansk region. In spite of his age and poor health, he helped IOM staff, - many years his junion - to unload IOM humanitarian aid. His children left the village in 2014 after the beginning of the conflict.

Almost three years into the conflict, the impact on human security, access to shelter, services, income, water, food, hygiene supplies and other necessities is still acute.
A fragile and regularly violated ceasefire, incidents of shelling led to continued vulnerability of population, especially those residing close to contact line.

IOM has provided almost 130,000 conflict-affected people with different types of assistance and is planning to continue with its humanitarian response as long as is needed and for as long as resources permit (see map below).

IOM Ukraine's response map

IOM Ukraine's response map

Two elderly women drag IOM hygiene kits across the snow to their remote homes. Each parcel contains enough supplies to last a family for two months.