“I missed my home”. Yurii Polieshko returned to his village by the contact line after some time in Russia despite damages to his house, loss of income and frequent shelling. 

Liudmyla, 51 and Yurii Poleshko, 55, lives in the frontline village Zaitseve in Donetsk region. For the last three years they have been unable to find jobs and survive only owing to humanitarian assistance and relatives’ support. 

“We used to have levelled life. We did our own business. My wife owned a hairdressing salon, I was the owner of ventilation system control enterprise in nearby Horlivka (currently non-government controlled area). We were providing our services in several regions – from Luhansk to Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine. However, the conflict, which came to our country in 2014, turned our life upside down. Initially, when the hostilities started, we tried to continue our work, but when the crossing point was set up in our village, we were urged to shut down all our business, because of limited access to that area. It was in August 2014. ”, - says Yurii Poleshko. 

Since the conflict outbreak, Zaitseve has become one of the hot spots of crossfire between conflicting parties. One part of the village is under Ukrainian Government control, another under de-facto authorities.  Despite the ceasefire agreement, the hostilities are still ongoing., Usually the shelling starts there, when it gets dark, sometimes the incidents happen in the daytime. At the streets you can hardly find its residents, people try not to come out unless it is absolutely necessary. Most of the windows in the houses are closed with plywood, firewood and shields. People use all possible means to protect themselves. Many residents left the settlement, mostly the elderly people remained. 

 “We felt abandoned. For a while it was no man’s land. In 2014 it was even difficult to bury someone in the settlement, because administratively the settlement was subordinating to non-government-controlled Horlivka”, recalls Yurii. 

“Initially we left the settlement in December 2014 after very heavy shelling, the whole night we were sitting in the basement. It was too stressful for us. For 8 months we were staying with relatives and friends.  Our friend even proposed to buy a house for us in Russia, but we refused, because there is nothing like home”, - says Yurii. 
“We cannot explain why we returned. We are probably too attached to the house. How could we leave all this? Yes, it is scary to hide in the basement. But when you come out from it you are home”, says Liudmyla. 

In 2016 Poleshko’s house was damaged by shrapnels. They could enter the house only through the window, because the door was curved by the explosion and could not open. The family repaired the house. However, when you enter the house, you can still see the shelling traces; holes in the windows, ceilings and walls.  
“I have nine years to wait before I can receive my pension. For three years we haven’t had any income. Now we are fully dependent on humanitarian assistance and our relatives”, - says Liudmyla. 

Recently, the Poleshko family started receiving cash for foodstuff from NRC. Thus, the family will be secure with food for five months during the cold season. 

“It is better to receive cash than to get in-kind assistance, because sometimes what you need is to buy the gas bottle before you can cook the food. Some people are on diet due to health issues, so they can buy food according to their own needs. For us such assistance is crucial. We are not pensioners yet. But we are vulnerable, because we cannot find the way to earn money. Psychologically it is difficult to depend on humanitarian assistance, as we used to be self-sufficient in the past”, - says Yurii.

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/Norwegian Refugee Council
Ukraine

5 facts after 5 years of conflict

After five years of armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, the large-scale humanitarian and displacement crisis continues to affect 5.2 million people, with 3.5 million in need of humanitarian assistance and protection. But the outside world seems to have forgotten all about it.

Here are five things you should know about the crisis:

#1 Defying dangers to see their families

In April 2014, hostilities broke out in eastern Ukraine. Since then, the territory has been split between government-controlled areas and non-government controlled areas. As a result, a once-integrated community is now divided by a 427-kilometre long front line, the so-called "contact line". There are five checkpoints across the contact line – four in the Donetsk region, and one lone, damaged bridge serving all of the Luhansk region.

Every month, around 1.1 million people cross the contact line, despite deadly risks of regular shelling, landmines and explosive remnants of war. They cross to visit their families, go shopping at markets, obtain documents or access essential state services such as health care, as well as to check on their property on the other side.

People are forced to wait at the checkpoints for hours, both in harsh winter conditions and under the scorching summer sun. Despite the considerable efforts made by the government and humanitarian organisations, checkpoints still lack basic services such as hygiene facilities, drinking water and first aid.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine

In 2013, thousands of Ukrainians started demonstrations first in the capital of Kiev and then in other cities, driven by the support of the European Union Association Agreement and a strong disagreement with policies of the government, which was widely seen as kleptocratic and infringing democracy and rule of law.

The demonstrations culminated in a series of violent events and the tragic deaths of more than 100 people – both protesters and law enforcement officials.

In Donbas, a densely populated and heavily industrialised area in eastern Ukraine combining the two regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, there were mixed reactions to the events happening in Kiev and other cities in Ukraine. Before the conflict, Donbas used to be the home of 6.6 million people, 15 per cent of Ukraine’s total population, and generated 16 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The security situation in Donbas quickly deteriorated and led to the Ukrainian government’s loss of control over certain parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, accompanied by active hostilities. Despite the 2015 Minsk ceasefire agreement (Minsk II), hostilities continue to this day.

 

Every day thousands of people, many of them elderly, have to cross the checkpoint between government controlled and non-government-controlled areas of Ukraine at Stanytsia Luhanska. The bridge is destroyed, making it impossible for cars to pass, forcing people to walk for several kilometres through no man’s land and wait for 3-4 hours to pass each way. 

For those who are unable to make the walk, Slavik is ready to offer transport for a small fee. He works at EECP every day.
“I use this wheelchair to transfer elderly people. They have the same problems: a small pension, and expensive medicines. There are many people. The elderly people constantly complain about life. They have to show up in person every month in order to receive their pension", says Slavik. 

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/Norwegian Refugee Council.
Read caption Every month, around 1.1 million people cross the contact line, despite deadly risks of regular shelling, landmines and explosive remnants of war. They cross to visit their families, go shopping at markets, obtain documents or access essential state services such as health care, as well as to check on their property on the other side. For those who are unable to make the walk, Slavik is ready to offer transport for a small fee. He works at one of the checkpoints every day. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

#2 More than 3,300 civilians have been killed 

The hostilities take a heavy toll on civilians. Over 3,300 civilians have been killed and approximately 9,000 injured since the beginning of the conflict. More than 50,000 residential buildings on both sides of the contact line have been damaged or destroyed, in addition to schools, hospitals and water facilities.

Five years of active hostilities have left undetonated weaponry scattered throughout vast areas of the conflict zone. Ukraine ranks amongst the most severely affected places in the world in terms of casualties of landmines and other explosive remnants of war. Since the beginning of the conflict, 924 casualties related to mines and remnants of war have been recorded.

Large-scale mine contamination poses lethal risks to civilians, including to half a million children living within the 20-kilometre area on both sides of the contact line. It also limits conflict-affected people’s access to markets, health care, agriculture and winter heating supplies.

Many families have kept the shrapnels that damaged their homes. A visible reminder of the war many still hear the sounds of every night along the contact line. 
 
Liudmyla, 51 and Yurii Poleshko, 55, lives in the frontline village Zaitseve in Donetsk region. For the last three years they have been unable to find jobs and survive only owing to humanitarian assistance and relatives’ support. 

“We used to have levelled life. We did our own business. My wife owned a hairdressing salon, I was the owner of ventilation system control enterprise in nearby Horlivka (currently non-government controlled area). We were providing our services in several regions – from Luhansk to Zaporizhzhia in eastern Ukraine. However, the conflict, which came to our country in 2014, turned our life upside down. Initially, when the hostilities started, we tried to continue our work, but when the crossing point was set up in our village, we were urged to shut down all our business, because of limited access to that area. It was in August 2014. ”, - says Yurii Poleshko. 

Since the conflict outbreak, Zaitseve has become one of the hot spots of crossfire between conflicting parties. One part of the village is under Ukrainian Government control, another under de-facto authorities.  Despite the ceasefire agreement, the hostilities are still ongoing., Usually the shelling starts there, when it gets dark, sometimes the incidents happen in the daytime. At the streets you can hardly find its residents, people try not to come out unless it is absolutely necessary. Most of the windows in the houses are closed with plywood, firewood and shields. People use all possible means to protect themselves. Many residents left the settlement, mostly the elderly people remained. 

 “We felt abandoned. For a while it was no man’s land. In 2014 it was even difficult to bury someone in the settlement, because administratively the settlement was subordinating to non-government-controlled Horlivka”, recalls Yurii. 

“Initially we left the settlement in December 2014 after very heavy shelling, the whole night we were sitting in the basement. It was too stressful for us. For 8 months we were staying with relatives and friends.  Our friend even proposed to buy a house for us in Russia, but we refused, because there is nothing like home”, - says Yurii. 
“We cannot explain why we returned. We are probably too attached to the house. How could we leave all this? Yes, it is scary to hide in the basement. But when you come out from it you are home”, says Liudmyla. 

In 2016 Poleshko’s house was damaged by shrapnels. They could enter the house only through the window, because the door was curved by the explosion and could not open. The family repaired the house. However, when you enter the house, you can still see the shelling traces; holes in the windows, ceilings and walls.  
“I have nine years to wait before I can receive my pension. For three years we haven’t had any income. Now we are fully dependent on humanitarian assistance and our relatives”, - says Liudmyla. 

Recently, the Poleshko family started receiving cash for foodstuff from NRC. Thus, the family will be secure with food for five months during the cold season. 

“It is better to receive cash than to get in-kind assistance, because sometimes what you need is to buy the gas bottle before you can cook the food. Some people are on diet due to health issues, so they can buy food according to their own needs. For us such assistance is crucial. We are not pensioners yet. But we are vulnerable, because we cannot find the way to earn money. Psychologically it is difficult to depend on humanitarian assistance, as we used to be self-sufficient in the past”, - says Yurii.

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/Norwegian Refugee CouncilPhoto: Ingebjørg Kårstad/Norwegian Refugee Council
Read caption Many families have kept the shrapnels that damaged their homes, a visible reminder of the war. Inhabitants near the contact line still hear the sounds of shots every night. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

#3 Forced to make impossible choices

The protracted crisis has stretched people’s resources to a breaking point, with families losing their livelihoods and having no other option but to sell their belongings or reduce costly expenditures.

The higher level of unemployment than in other parts of the country and sharp economic deterioration force people in eastern Ukraine to make impossible choices on whether to buy food, medicine or send their children to school.

Weakened social protection systems, disrupted access to markets and suspension of social benefits severely affect those who are the most at risk, such as seniors, single parent households with children and people with disabilities. More than one million people, including those who are internally displaced, do not have regular access to food and need livelihood support.

Iryna is 10 years old, and Liliia’s eldest daughter. She still remembers the night their house was hit. Iryna and her sibling all suffer from post-traumatic stress. It is hard to concentrate at school and she has nightmares and anxiety. “The main concern for me now is that the active phase of the war does not break out again. I am afraid that my house will be destroyed again. After all, we hear the sounds of shots every night,”says her mother Liliia. 

Background story:
Liliia Poturoieva is 39. She has experienced terrible events that completely changed the life of herself and her large family and left an indelible mark on everyone's soul. She lives in the frontline village of Verkhnia Vilkhova in Stanytsia Luhanska district, Luhansk region. 

Liliia has six children. The oldest is Oleksandr. He is 20. He lives separately from his parents and earns his own living. Ihor is 12. He is a shy and calm schoolboy, always ready to help parents with the housework. Her eldest daughter Iryna is 10. She is a schoolgirl and mother's main housekeeper. She cooks and looks after younger children. Yana is 7. She is a first-grade pupil. She is a cheerful, active and very energetic girl. The children are forced to go to school in a neighboring village 5 kilometers away, since there is simply no school in their village.

Her youngest son Illia,5, and daughter Aryna, 2, are always staying at home with their mother. The family cannot afford a kindergarten for children. Now Liliia is pregnant again. This will be the seventh child in the family. Her husband Viktor helps her to cope with all of them.

Before the conflict, the whole big family lived in a small house with two rooms. There was no work. The main income was child allowances and random earnings from the cows, goats, rabbits and poultry. 

“There was no work in the village. There was no opportunity to travel to other settlements to work. We tried to make money by selling milk”.

In February 2015, at midnight, heavy shelling began. Viktor, Liliia's husband, went out into the yard to see the direction of the shots. Suddenly a shell fell near their yard, and the second shell landed 7 meters away from Viktor, who was standing on the house porch. Viktor got a serious shell shock and lost his hearing for a while. 
The blast wave knocked out all the windows in the house. Under one of the windows there was a child's bed, where Liliia’s  youngest son slept. That night Liliia saved the life of her son with her son. 

“When the blast hit, I covered my baby with my own body, and the glass from the broken window hit me in the back”.

The consequences of that shelling are still noticeable. Liliia has problems with her speech. She is stuttering. She is not the only one.

“The children experience anxiety, concentration problems, fears and, as a result, urinary incontinence”.

The house was seriously damaged in the blast. All the windows were broken, the front walls were destroyed and the roof and the foundation were seriously damaged. However, Liliia and her family did not dare to leave because it was too risky to leave the house unattended. They tried to repair the house on their own. They covered the broken windows with plastic wrap. They even had to spend their nights in the basement because it was the warmest and the safest place in their household.There was no help from the local authorities. 

“At first I didn’t want to ask for help. I did not believe that anyone would really help us. My husband advised me to go to the NRC office and find out about the Heavy repair project, because he heard that NRC had already helped someone in the village”.

Now the house is in the process of restoration. There is a new slate on the roof. Renovation works on the walls have been completed. Three small rooms for the children have been completed. New windows have been installed and internal works are being carried out now.

 “The main thing for me now is that the active phase of the war does not break out again. I am afraid that my house will be destroyed again. After all, we hear the sounds of shots every night”, Liliia says. 

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/Norwegian Refugee Council
Read caption The higher level of unemployment than in other parts of the country and sharp economic deterioration force people in eastern Ukraine to make impossible choices on whether to buy food, medicine or send their children to school. Iryna, 10, helps out her mother Liliia Poturoieva with the work outside their house. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

#4 Lacking full and equal access to their rights

Conflict-affected people in eastern Ukraine don’t have full access to their rights.

Almost 700,000 pensioners are not receiving their pensions because of the restrictive policies linking payment of pensions to conflict-affected people with the requirement to register as an internally displaced person. A large number of such pensioners regularly face the risk of arbitrary suspension of their pensions, which constitute the only source of income for the majority of older people affected by the conflict.

In the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, which are currently not under the control of the Ukrainian authorities, close to 60 per cent of children do not have birth certificates issued by the Government of Ukraine. Likewise, close to 80 per cent of deaths that have occurred in these areas remain uncertified by the Ukrainian authorities.

Olha Nazarova, 68, is a pensioner from the small frontline town of Shchastia in Novoaidar district. Olha has been living in this town since she was 18. She lives alone. The old woman is suffering from limited mobility, and she needs crutches to walk. 

“Four days ago, I fell and hit my head so hard. The first day I was at home laying down, because it was very bad. Then a friend came in and cooked me a meal”. 

Still, Olha feels dizzy and frail. 

During the active phase of the armed conflict, Olha did not leave the city. She experienced all the horrors of war in her own flat on the outskirts of the town. The blast shattered all the windows in the flat. 

In 2018, representatives of the Norwegian Refugee Council told Olha about the Food for peace programme, and Olha received the necessary financial assistance to buy much needed products. 

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Read caption Olha Nazarova, 68, lives in a small village near the contact line and receives humanitarian support to get by. Almost 700,000 pensioners are not receiving their pensions because of the restrictive policies linking payment of pensions to conflict-affected people with the requirement to register as an internally displaced person. A large number of such pensioners regularly face the risk of arbitrary suspension of their pensions, which constitute their only source of income. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

#5 Lasting solutions for displaced people remain uncertain

An estimated one million people has been permanently displaced by the armed conflict.

With such large-scale displacement continuing for five years, internally displaced people need to be able to resume a normal life by returning home voluntarily, by voluntary resettlement or integration into host communities.

In a situation of a protracted displacement, the prospects for displaced people to integrate into local communities remain uncertain. With their resources stretched to the limit, many displaced families face discrimination and experience challenges in finding housing solutions and accessing services, as well as securing stable employment. The inability of internally displaced people to exercise their voting rights in local elections also remains a barrier to integration into host communities.

A map of Ukraine, before the war, painted on a wall at Maiorsk crossing point in Donetsk region. 

The entry/exit control point “Maiorsk” is one of four vehicle and pedestrian crossing points in Donetsk region. It is located about 20 km from the non-government controlled Horlivka town. The grey zone between the Ukrainian checkpoint and self-proclaimed “DPR” is the widest among all of the EECPs. After the ECCP was opened in early 2015 there was no bus connection in this corridor, so people had to walk nearly 2-3 kilometres to take another bus. The situation changed in 2016, when it was agreed to launch bus shuttles. Over the period of its existence, the EECP has had many temporary closures due to escalation of the hostilities. Every day at least 7,000 people, mostly elderly, cross this entry-exit point to get their pension and social payments, visit their friends and relatives, buy essential goods. While crossing the contact line, concerned civilians are often exposed to serious security and safety risks such as minefields along the roads, periodic shelling and queuing at the checkpoints in harsh weather conditions for long hours.

Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC
Read caption A map of Ukraine before the war, painted on a wall at Maiorsk crossing point in Donetsk region. Photo: Ingebjørg Kårstad/NRC

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