by Violetta Teetor
Press conference at Arkadia Bookshop on Friday 19 May 2017
It’s May 2017, two years nine months since 5 September 2014 and the signing of the Minsk Protocol by the Russian Federation, the Donetsk People’s Republic and the Lugansk People’s Republic. The call for an immediate ceasefire has produced exactly one day of zero violations according to Alexander Hug, Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine.
A daily litany of violence faces the citizens living in what should be a buffer zone along a contact line stretching through Donetsk and Lugansk. Heavy artillery is being used including the most indiscriminate of weapons, multiple rocket launchers.
“There are no saints in this conflict. Even the slightest provocation has deadly consequences sometimes with opponents as close as metres apart,” says Mr Hug. “Kinetic activity erupts and spreads like bushfire.”
Forbidden weapons can be found in both government and non-government controlled areas and even though they try to hide them under camouflage, they are picked up by the drones that the OSCE use to monitor the situation. These blatantly violate the agreement and cause damage to infrastructure and people’s lives.
Oxana Chelysheva, human rights activist and journalist calls herself a refugee in Finland. She has personally overseen bus transportation for children crossing the contact line, the red line stretching 500 kilometres unnaturally dividing two parts of the same country with five checkpoints manned by corrupt guards. She laments the fact that this struggle has not been given enough media attention and that almost three years later, no progress has been made. The situation is still the same.
Who are the most victimised? Full families with able-bodied fathers who can still work but have so-called ‘adult’ children between the ages of 10 and 14 are not entitled to aid. Pensioners who have lived in one village all their lives, whose mind-set was never to leave their homes, have been forced to do so under the circumstances. To collect their pensions they need to cross checkpoints facing the treachery of drunk armed soldiers demanding bribes. Children going to school have to do the same. The disabled also fall within this group. Numbering 12 000 internally displaced human beings, they have lost their homes and even if they have found work, their salaries are often delayed. Children play with shiny objects that turn out to be grenades while prohibited mines explode killing unlucky passers-by who encounter them.
Then there are those that are trapped in the ‘grey zone’ of abandoned villages, areas controlled by the Ukrainian government. Children again are the ones to suffer since they do not have the means to buy petrol for their school bus. When aid finally arrives, the civilians on the ground who risk their safety to help the vulnerable in need, are asked to organise delivery of it to the city council who will then distribute it. Needless to say, this is not an option since it will never reach the people it was intended for. If they refuse, they arrive home only to find some uninvited guests carrying guns. Medical supplies come at extortionate prices, available but unaffordable to most. Lives are lost not only as casualties of war but also through sickness and lack of proper care.
Is there light at the end of this on-going tunnel? Thousands of Ukrainians cross the checkpoints daily. This is the reality but in the minds of the people this line does not exist. They do not accept it and cling to the hope of a better future. Authorities from government and non-government sides can stop the skirmishes in a heartbeat. In fact, they have already done so once sitting around a table in Minsk. Hostilities ceased at their command which tells us that matters are still under control. However, the tables can turn the other way too and fighting can resume as quickly as it stopped. It will take external political pressure and media to leverage the plight of thousands whose only wish is the cessation of combat so that they can resume normal living once more. It is peace and not politics that they long for.