More than three years after the occupation and illegal annexation of Crimea by Russian forces, and the subsequent military actions in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively referred to as the “Donbass”, eastern Ukraine is in danger of becoming Europe’s “forgotten war”, writes Gary Cartwright
What is certainly being forgotten, or largely ignored, possibly for reasons of political expediency, is the continued presence of Russian forces, and weapons, on the ground in eastern Ukraine since the very beginning of the conflict and fanning the flames to this day.
The evidence confirming this presence is overwhelming, and has been backed up by senior western and Russian figures.
“I don’t think denials of Russian involvement have a shred of credibility… The forces involved are well armed, well trained, well equipped, well co-ordinated, behaving in exactly the same way as what turned out to be Russian forces in Crimea.” British Foreign Secretary William Hague, March 2014.”
If western politicians, and indeed aid workers and OSCE observers, are consistent in their statements, the Russian president appears somewhat less certain about the true position.
“There are no armed forces, no ‘Russian instructors’ in Ukraine—and there never were any.” He told French TV channel TF1 in June 2014.
By December 2015, however, his interpretation of the truth had shifted to “We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere.”
This ongoing conflict, which is being kept alive deliberately, has now become a major human rights crisis. It is a fact that since the middle of the 20th century warfare has changed, and civilian populations are now being deliberately targetted.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reports that civilian fatalities in war have climbed from 5% at the turn of the century to more than 90% by the 1990s.
In the Donbass, more than 2,400 civilians have been killed since 2014, with some 23,000 being wounded, and more than 1.6 million being displaced.
Separatists have abducted more than 3,200 people in the region, and the UHHRU reports that 71% of those civilians who were taken were subjected to torture. Many were subsequently ransomed, behaviour that points to a complete break down of law and order. Over 100 remain missing at the time of writing.
Addressing the Humanitarian Crisis.
Against this disturbing background, the Rinat Akhmetov Humanitarian Centre (Kyiv), a private initiative created to provide practical aid and relief to civilians suffering from the effects of the war in Eastern Ukraine, held a conference last week in Brussels.
EU Today spoke with Oleksandr Vyshniakov, Director of the Centre, about the challenges faced on the ground, and how the centre seeks to address them.
“Prior to the start of the current conflict,” he said, “the centre had been working in a systemic manner on solving the social problems surrounding prevention and treatment of conditions such as cancer and tuberculosis. However, since the conflict began, the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation has concentrated all its recources on helping the many victims, who find themselves being left to cope with the physical and other effects of the war on their own.”
Before entering the field of humanitarian aid, Mr Vyshniakov had previously worked for F.C Shaktar Donetsk, one of Ukraine’s most successful football teams, and former UEFA champions, of which Rinat Akhmetov is President.
“Other volunteers and I quickly found ourselves in the area adjacent to Donetsk airport, the scene of some of the worst fighting, and we saw at first hand the situation that ensued all along the front lines in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The people who were left in the areas not under the control of the Ukrainian government found themselves in dire circumstances, and with nothing at all to eat. So that became our first priority, to provide that which they needed the most - food.”
The Centre reacted to the crisis quickly, and within two months 28 humanitarian centres were set up in the areas initially identified as priorities. In addition, another 22 centres were set up in the areas controlled by the government, adjacent to the front line. These centres were to feed in the region of half a million people on a monthly basis.
“The vulnerable people, elderly, injured, children, single parents and those with large families to feed were all the recipients of that aid. In many cases our work was a question of life or death.
“The foundation has developed a step-by-step approach to developing relations with other aid agencies, and now works with UNICEF, the Czech organisation People in Need, and Medicin sans Frontieres amongst others. We needed to understand how they dealt with the complexities of providing emergency humanitarian assistance. What we learnt from them were the standards needed within the packages we were distributing. We made their standards our standard.
One area in which they could not advise us was the sheer logistical challenge. No such crisis of this magnitude had happened before. We all had to learn quickly, and in the early days we paid a great deal of attention to ensuring efficient and effective flows of aid through the narrow safe corridor that was available, so that all international and Ukrainian organisations could deliver the aid where it was needed, and quickly. Our own deliveries covered around 70% of those who were in need. It was a big challenge, and it was vital that we all worked in harmony. “
Milana and her grandmother Olga from Mariupol showing their sympathies and respects to the victims of terror in Belgium at the Schuman memorial. Milana lost her mother and her leg when a rocket attack struck her home in Mariupol in February 2015. They were in Brussels to tell people about the military conflict in Donbass and about the work of the Rinat Akhmetov Humanitarian Centre which helped this little girl to rebuild her life.
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