When armed conflict broke out in Ukraine, the majority of people living near the front line areas fled for safer havens. Those who remained scrape by through a combination of their diminishing savings and part-time agriculture. Unemployment rate is soaring at 80%. The prolonged crisis means that the inhabitants stagnate, taking no attempts to improve their lot.
Wearing bulletproof vests and helmets, we enter the buffer zone that divides pro-Russia separatists from Ukrainian forces. Everyone gets a personal medical kit. The Ukrainians are strict in observing safety regulations and soldiers at checkpoints advise us on the situation on site and ask us to look after themselves. According to the UNHCR, only in 2018 31 safety-threatening events occurred each day, on average, along the so-called contact line. In Novoselivka, located some 5 kilometres away from the front line, we visit Zinayda. She is 70, suffering from a heart condition and thigh problems that significantly restrict her mobility. Yet, she is brimming with optimism, in stark contrast to her grim circumstances. When we ask her how she is coping on her own, she answers with laughter: "I’ll live as long as I’ll live". Her biggest challenge is buying fuel for winter. The average retirement pension is UKH 1800 (about 60 British pounds), while the monthly cost of heating a house in wintertime reaches 85 pounds. Accordingly, just like her neighbours, she burns wood in her fireplace, because no one can afford coal. As they say: "we prefer to eat less and buy fuel instead"
Another interlocutor of ours, the 69-year-old Ekaterina, claims she has already grown accustomed to the war. But the hardest part to get used to is seeing the houses tremble when a firefight breaks out. The sounds of battle reach her all the time, almost every day. Out of fear, she stopped leaving her house, resorting to embroidery to pass time. Larissa, of the same age, fled to Donbass during the 1992 conflict in Abkhazia. "The war has caught up with me," she quips. The 84-year-old Pyotr, happy with our visit, reached for the accordion which he has not played for years. "It's the talk and kind treatment that matters, not gifts," he says. He does not want to leave anywhere, because Donbass is his home. The villages we visited are inhabited almost entirely by older people, reliant on the help of their neighbours or relief from aid associations. An area which before the war was home to 3.2 million people has now lost 1.3 million, mostly of working age, to migration. Those who remained must tackle the 80% unemployment rate. The worst fate is reserved for senior citizens whose pensions do not allow to cover necessary expenses, especially medicine and fuel.
The UN Human Commissioner for Refugees estimates that the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has been raging for five years already, is affecting 5.2 million people. About 3.5 million are in need of humanitarian aid and protection due to growing psychological traumas and degrading consequences of lack of access to basic services. Those in need are living mostly in the Donetsk and Luhansk areas embroiled in the conflict and bisected by a 427 kilometre long "contact line". Since the war erupted in 2014, 3,000 civilians were killed and 9,000 injured there. According to UNHCR, 30% of those in need in Donbass are older people. This is the largest percentage of elder people involved in current conflicts anywhere in the world.
The initiative of the Solidarity Bridge Foundation is aimed at mobilizing those capable of work to provide basic home care to their less able neighbours. A network of community caretakers and mobile medical teams are organized to provide assistance to inhabitants of 16 villages around Mariupol. Their task will be to recognize and react to the needs of sick and older people who are currently bereft of any aid. The Foundation will also furnish the Caritas Mariupol Medical Centre which provides medical aid in the front line. The "Welfare and health care services model in Ukraine's Donetsk Oblast" project has obtained co-financing from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the “Polish Volunteer Aid 2019” competition
Article written by Marta Titaniec from the Solidarity Bridge Foundation.