(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • War in Idlib, peace in CAR, and Annan’s mixed legacy: The Cheat Sheet

    Every Friday, IRIN’s team of specialist editors offers a curation of humanitarian news, trends, and developments from around the globe.


    On our radar:


    Uganda erupts


    More than 30 years after coming to power as a rebel movement in the wake of the horrors of dictators Idi Amin and Milton Obote, Uganda’s ruling party still likes to portray itself as a champion of liberation from tyranny, and a guarantor of peace and stability. This message no longer cuts much ice with the country’s young population, 78 percent of whom, being under the age of 30, have known no president other than Yoweri Museveni. Deep-seated frustrations over unemployment, education, and Museveni’s bid to extend his rule indefinitely erupted into street protests after the 13 August arrest of pop singer-turned independent MP Robert Kyagulanyi, better known as Bobi Wine. Security forces violently put down the protests and on Thursday, Kyagulanyi was charged with treason, in apparent connection with the stoning of Museveni’s vehicle during a by-election campaign rally in the northwestern town of Arua. Kyagulanyi has claimed that the bullet that killed his own driver in Arua was meant for him. “Museveni established his rule as the antidote to the preceding political violence and chaos. The manifest violence of recent days has put an end to this image for good,” the African Arguments website declared on Thursday. All eyes on what happens next.


    Idlib and chemical weapons


    A year after then-president Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria would be a “red line” for the United States, hundreds of people suffocated to death on 21 August 2013, foaming at the mouth, in the Damascus suburbs. UN investigators determined the victims had been exposed to sarin, delivered via surface-to-surface missiles. The UN did not assign blame, nor were its investigators asked to, but the White House and France said only the government of President Bashar al-Assad had the capability to carry out this sort of attack; al-Assad and his Russian allies blamed rebels. Five years later, the red line has been crossed multiple times, and the Syrian government appears to be readying for an offensive on Idlib and its surroundings, the last major rebel-held area of Syria. Britain, France, and the United States issued a joint statement on Tuesday’s grim anniversary, promising to “respond appropriately to any further use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” mentioning the Idlib assault in their staid text. US national security advisor John Bolton took a more plain-spoken approach: "Just so there's no confusion here,” he said, “if the Syrian regime uses chemical weapons we will respond very strongly and they really ought to think about this a long time."


    A Yemen PR misfire


    Regular readers of Cheat Sheet may recall that earlier this month we noted that dozens of people had been killed when the Saudi Arabian-led coalition hit a bus carrying children in Yemen’s northern Saada province. There was outrage from various corners of the world, the coalition said it was a “legitimate military action,” then later announced it would investigate. CNN has done some digging of its own, and found that the bomb was sold to Saudi Arabia by the US in a State Department approved transaction, and manufactured by none other than major defense contractor Lockheed Martin. The Pentagon declined to comment on the bomb’s provenance, but CNN traced back other bombs and civilian deaths in Yemen to Raytheon and General Dynamics. Then, in a display of how a PR move can backfire fast, Lockheed Martin put out a call on Twitter for “an amazing photo of one of our products”, to be featured for #WorldPhotoDay, 19 August. Users responded with pictures of the Saada bomb, and the blue UNICEF backpacks the victims had been wearing. The company’s original tweet? Deleted, natch.


    The Annan legacy


    Ghanaian Kofi Annan, former secretary-general of the United Nations, died on 18 August at the age of 80. The veteran diplomat, through his foundation and a peace and human rights group, “The Elders”, continued his diplomatic work after retiring from the UN 12 years ago, including recent stints on Syria, Myanmar, and Zimbabwe. His family described him as a “stubborn optimist”. Tributes praising his diplomatic skills, personal qualities, and demeanour continue to flow. Kenyan newspaper columnist Macharia Gaitho wrote of Annan’s mediation following contested elections and violence in 2008 “saving the nation from hell”. A more critical assessment came from American author Philip Gourevitch. Writing in the New Yorker, he referred to Annan’s reputation for “preternatural calm” but described him as having a “curious mixture of grandiosity and unaccountability”. Gourevitch claimed Annan never accepted appropriate personal or institutional responsibility, particularly on Rwanda. Annan was head of the UN’s peacekeeping department in 1994, when the UN did not stop or contain the Rwandan genocide in which hundreds of thousands were killed. On a lighter note, we recommend this story about him being mistaken for Morgan Freeman.


    All we are asking…

    The Central African Republic has only enjoyed intermittent let-ups in armed violence since a mainly-Muslim rebel coalition ousted president Francois Bozizé in 2013. As we reported in May, there is often little peace for the blue-helmeted troops of the UN mission there to keep. The killings and looting by the rebels five years ago prompted retaliation by a loose alliance of militia known as anti-Balaka that targeted Muslim civilians and led to charges of ethnic cleansing. The African Union has been leading a peace process, without making much progress. Now, armed groups in CAR have given the AU a lot to chew on: a list of 97 demands in return for peace. These include a blanket amnesty, restructuring the army, renegotiating military deals with Russia, and setting up a government of national unity. The country’s current government, which barely has any authority outside the capital, Bangui, has repeatedly rejected any preconditions for peace.

    In case you missed it:

    GAZA: Israel said that a man its forces shot dead in Gaza this week, after he shot and threw a grenade at soldiers, was a nurse for Médecins Sans Frontières. MSF confirmed the man, Hani Majdalawi, had been killed, adding that the aid group “is working to verify and understand the circumstances regarding this extremely serious incident, and is not able to comment further at this stage.”

    INDIA: India’s Kerala state has been hit by what the Red Cross calls the worst flooding in a century, killing nearly 400 people and forcing one million to flee their homes. Reduced rainfall has allowed some of the displaced to go home, but most people remain in temporary camps, and aid groups say they’re worried about accessing remote areas, not to mention the damage to houses, agriculture, and infrastructure. The government of India has reportedly declined offers of cash from foreign countries, including the United Arab Emirates, Maldives, and Qatar.

    UKRAINE: As Ukraine, today, holds its fifth Independence Day parade since the February 2014 Maidan revolution, the conflict in its eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions shows no sign of abating. This week saw the heaviest clashes in months, with five Ukrainian soldiers added to the list of more than 10,000 people killed since Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in April 2014.

    VANUATU: Ambae used to be one of the Pacific Ocean republic of Vanuatu’s 65 inhabited islands. Not any more. As of last week, all 10,000 residents have been evacuated to the nearby islands of Maewo and Santo due to a volcanic eruption. As this evocative Guardian photo essay flags, this is second such mandatory evacuation in less than a year.

    YEMEN: At least 26 civilians, including 22 children and four women, were reportedly killed in Yemen’s Hodeidah province Thursday night. Houthi rebels blamed an airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition, while United Arab Emirates state media said a Houthi ballistic missile attack had killed one civilian and injured dozens of others in the same area.



    Alana Holmberg/IPPF
    Evacuations in Vanuatu.
    Our weekend read:


    Syrian militants served American food aid


    If the main item above didn’t make it clear enough, Syria’s Idlib is about to become major news, and not in a good way. A large, if complicated, humanitarian operation has been in place in northwest Syria for some time, but the scale of need is expected to go off the chart if and when the looming government offensive becomes a reality. That is what makes our weekend read this week so infuriating. Delving into USAID inspector general reports, IRIN’s Ben Parker discovered that a relief organisation had been caught diverting aid to rebel fighters in breach of US anti-terrorism laws. After trawling the likely suspects, Parker found out it was probably Catholic Relief Services, who confirmed they had “closed” operations in the region and dismissed staff. Analysts point out it is not just aid agencies but donors too who need to get real. Bad timing, bad optics, own goal.

    (TOP PHOTO: Uganda's prominent opposition politician Robert Kyagulanyi known as Bobi Wine, centre, walks ahead of appearing at the general court martial in Gulu, northern Uganda on 23 August 2018. CREDIT: AFP)


    War in Idlib, peace in CAR, and Annan’s mixed legacy
  • Forgotten Ukrainians feel the bite of winter food cuts

    As winter tightens its grip on war-torn eastern Ukraine, hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to put food on the table due to a lack of funding for emergency humanitarian aid.


    Last week, the World Food Programme wound up its food assistance operations in the east of the country, where a four-year conflict has killed more than 10,000 people and displaced millions. Citing insufficient funding and shrinking humanitarian access – especially in rebel-held areas – the Rome-based agency said: “WFP is no longer able to offer effective response in the country… It has become increasingly difficult to maintain donor interest for Ukraine.”


    Before rolling up its programme, WFP said it managed to extend assistance to the 13,000 most food-insecure people during January and February. Since March 2014, WFP has provided in-kind food assistance and cash-based transfers to slightly over one million people. It will maintain a limited presence in the country until mid-year.


    Over the past 12 months, the number of people classified as severely or moderately food insecure in Ukraine has doubled to 1.2 million.


    The response to the cutbacks from other humanitarian actors has been a sense of disbelief.


    Andrij Waskowycz, president of Caritas Ukraine, said: “It is indicative of the scandalous ignorance of the world community of the largest humanitarian crisis in Europe since WWII, which has left 3.4 million people requiring humanitarian assistance and food security.

    “For Caritas, WFP’s exit will result in significantly increased challenges to not only provide humanitarian aid for conflict-affected people, but to also develop activities ensuring sustainable food security to those in need.”

    WFP and other aid groups have faced a dire financial situation in the country: last year the UN’s humanitarian response plan for eastern Ukraine, on which they heavily rely, was just 35 percent funded, at $71.4 million. At the lower end of donor contributions to global crises that often achieve double that percentage, this funding gap has forced many interventions, not just the WFP food assistance programme, to be pared back or shelved entirely.


    “Right now, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are struggling,” Ursula Mueller, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator, told a UN conference in Brussels on Wednesday called: “A Forgotten Humanitarian Crisis After Fours Years of Conflict.”



    Elderly most at risk


    WFP’s departure will impose a gaping hole in humanitarian assistance for vulnerable people in eastern Ukraine, especially the estimated 600,000 or so elderly who cannot access their pension payments from the government of Ukraine (this requires a long and dangerous journey across the so-called “contact line” into government-controlled areas). The UN says the elderly represent about half the people in need in the region – the highest proportion of elderly affected in the world.


    The cutbacks also come during the middle of a harsh winter that has seen temperatures drop to as low as -15C. Many households have endured interruptions to their heating due to shelling of infrastructure, non-payment of bills, or breakdowns due to frigid weather. On Thursday, an estimated 100,000 people had their water supply cut off after a pumping station in a rebel-held area was put out of action due to heavy snow.


    Complicating the situation for those living in rebel-held areas is hyperinflation, which has put many food items out of their reach. That’s in addition to difficulties obtaining cash from the other side of the contact line.


    Mueller said the situation is especially difficult for people in rebel-held Luhansk, as there is only one operating crossing point to Ukrainian-held areas.


    And in government-controlled areas, many internally displaced people – especially women – have no identification documents because they fled quickly from their places of origin in the conflict zone. That means many are denied basic services.


    Evgeny Maloletka/UNHCR
    Halyna, 79, stands outside her home near the contact line in Luhansk

    UN officials say their 2018 humanitarian response plan for Ukraine calls for $187 million to reach 2.3 million vulnerable people.


    The funding situation is not entirely bleak. On Wednesday, the EU’s humanitarian arm – the largest humanitarian donor in eastern Ukraine, having allocated 110 million euros since the start of the conflict – announced it would commit 24 million euros for 2018.


    “We call on all of our international partners to increase their financial contributions,” said EU Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides.


    “Four years of conflict have put a tremendous strain on the civilian population in eastern Ukraine,” he added. “We cannot overlook that there’s a humanitarian crisis at the European Union’s doorstep. Supporting all those in need, wherever they are, is a priority for the EU. Our new aid package will provide eventual assistance such as food, healthcare and education for children.”


    While the fresh EU financial support is welcomed by humanitarian actors, as noted at the conference in Brussels on Wednesday, what is not on the horizon is an enduring solution for peace. Diplomatic talks continue in Minsk involving the so-called Normandy countries – Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France – but experts see little chance of significant movement soon.

    (TOP PHOTO: An elderly woman in the government-held town of Luhanske. CREDIT: Evgeny Maloletka/UNHCR)


    Find more IRIN coverage of Ukraine

    Forgotten Ukrainians feel the bite of winter food cuts
  • How both sides in Ukraine’s war are losing the HIV battle

    Every month or so, health project manager Yulia sets off on an arduous 24-hour, 100-kilometre journey across eastern Ukraine’s “contact line” from Severodonetsk to the rebel-held city of Luhansk. It is the front line not only of a conflict that has claimed more than 10,000 lives since early 2014 but also of one of Europe’s worst HIV epidemics.


    Ukraine’s HIV problem is compounded by a twin tuberculosis epidemic, marked by a particularly high prevalence of the more lethal multi-drug-resistant form (MDR-TB). Tuberculosis remains the leading cause of death among people living with HIV, accounting for around one in three AIDS-related deaths globally.


    Many problems face aid workers in east Ukraine: interrupted supplies of medication, shelling, military curfews. But the issue that forces Yulia to risk crossing battle lines is essentially bureaucratic.


    Most international funding and supplies to fight HIV and TB go to NGOs in government-controlled Ukraine. So, to get funding for her needle exchange project, Yulia must be registered to do business with Kiev.


    However, many of her potential patients are now on the separatist side. The two Russian-backed breakaway regions at war with the Ukrainian government – the “Luhansk People’s Republic” and the “Donetsk People’s Republic” – are not recognised by the international community. This means non-Russian aid can only reach them via Ukraine.


    Yulia makes regular trips across the front line to try to get registration on the separatist side too, because this would allow her to work openly in rebel-held areas without getting into trouble with the de facto authorities there. 


    Aid agencies are forced to walk an impossible tightrope in Ukraine. Registered or not, health workers like Yulia risk being imprisoned by both sides, either for “collaborating with Kiev” or “aiding terrorist organisations”, depending on who is calling the shots.


    It’s so hard to operate that some organisations have taken their work underground. All the while, more and more people are contracting HIV.

    “It’s a vicious circle,” Yulia, whose name has been changed for her own security, told IRIN. “Medical workers are really afraid, but it’s the patients who suffer most.”




    The eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk – part of which now form separatist-controlled territory – have always been the hardest hit by HIV in Ukraine, accounting for a quarter of the more than 240,000 infections nationwide.


    Widespread drug use, low living standards, and outdated or inaccessible medical services have long contributed to the crisis. But almost four years of war have made matters much worse.


    Vital infrastructure has been damaged, while mass migration has increased, along with unsafe sex and sex work driven by high unemployment, rising prices, and the influx of a ready clientele – male fighters.


    Exact numbers are hard to come by from areas not controlled by the government, but recent research based on data collected between 2012 and 2015 found that HIV rates had shot up in some parts of Ukraine due to displacement from the main rebel-held cities.


    “In this study we found that virus migration has increased rapidly and follows a westward pattern,” lead author Tetyana Vasylyeva, a PhD candidate in Oxford University's Department of Zoology, told the University of Oxford. “Donetsk and Luhansk, two large cities in the east of Ukraine that have not been controlled by the Ukrainian government since 2014, are the main exporters of the virus.”




    Fighting HIV and TB takes money, and in December 2014 Ukraine stopped sending supplies, funding, and salaries to state organisations no longer under its control – including hospitals and other treatment facilities.


    The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which was already financing some treatment and prevention programmes in Ukraine, stepped in with emergency funding. Working through UNICEF and local partners, the Global Fund now provides anti-retroviral drugs formerly paid for by the state for up to 12,000 people living with HIV in separatist-held territory, as well as medication for MDR-TB patients, and supplies of syringes, condoms, and rapid HIV tests.


    The Global Fund’s grant is to Ukraine, though it applies to areas not under the government’s control. To receive the money, aid organisations must be registered in Ukraine, but to do business across the front line, they must also be registered with the de facto separatist authorities.


    In the context of Ukraine’s bitter conflict, this has become increasingly difficult.


    By the end of 2015, almost all international aid agencies, including Médecins Sans Frontières, which was providing TB treatment in prisons, had been banned by the separatist authorities. Currently, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is permitted to work in Donetsk and Luhansk, and the Czech NGO People in Need in Luhansk. *Several UN agencies also operate in non-government controlled areas of Donetsk and Luhansk. 


    The situation in government-held territory isn’t straightforward either. The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) recently opened an investigation into the two major NGOs that administer grants there from the Global Fund – the All-Ukrainian Network of People Living with HIV and the Alliance for Public Health. No case has been filed, but potential criminal charges for health workers may include assisting terrorist organisations and collaborating with Russian security services.


    “It's getting too sensitive,” Alliance for Public Health Executive Director Andriy Klepikov told IRIN. “We worked with MSF until they got kicked out; we worked with the ICRC… It’s always challenging. And then we got the SBU [investigation].”




    It’s not just funding that is complicated – delivering supplies is tricky too.


    Donetsk currently allows in international aid delivered via, but not from, Ukraine. Luhansk no longer has any road access to government-controlled areas and gets aid deliveries via Donetsk. It took international and local organisations three months to negotiate the delivery of a year’s worth of HIV and TB medications and related supplies to Donetsk in December 2017.


    In January, the Ukrainian parliament approved a law on “temporarily occupied territories”, confirming it will provide no financial or other aid to them and holding Russia solely responsible for all damages and social services in non-government controlled areas. The law does permit international humanitarian aid to rebel-held areas, but international organisations are worried they might still lose the ability to work there due to growing pressure from both sides. 


    Oleksandr Ratushniak/ECHO
    Thousands of Ukrainians travel across the line of contact every day to visit relatives, access services and find basic goods

    “We have always to explain that what we are doing is humanitarian,” Alain Aeschlimann, head of the ICRC delegation in Ukraine that delivers medicines on both sides of the conflict, told IRIN. “We are not at all involved in politics, but it’s clear that this context is highly politicised and there is nothing you are doing which is not in one way or another linked to some political issues, and this is very, very difficult.”




    As If they didn’t have enough to worry about, health workers also struggle to deal with the different approaches the respective parties to the conflict take to tackling HIV.


    Ukraine has long adopted a strategy of harm reduction, which includes: providing sterile needles to intravenous drug users; providing safe ways to dispose of used sharps; condom distribution; and outreach to those potentially at risk – this is the work Yulia does.


    Russia continues to deny its involvement in the conflict, although it does deliver some medical supplies to Donetsk and Luhansk. But the Russian government, battling its own HIV epidemic, opposes the harm reduction approach and has declared Russian NGOs who use it “foreign agents”. The de facto authorities in Donetsk and Luhansk take a similar position and in 2014 launched a “war on drugs” that saw armed militants shooting drug dealers and arresting harm reduction clients and social workers.


    NGOs in these regions have taken down the signs on their offices and stopped their awareness-raising campaigns, resorting to arranging needle exchange and other outreach work in clients’ homes, and spreading the word by phone.


    “They work like mice, quietly and without advertising themselves anywhere,” Viktor Isakov, head of grant management for the Alliance for Public Health, told IRIN.




    Yulia continues to attempt, so far unsuccessfully, to get authorisation to work in separatist territory, even as her organisation unofficially continues its activities there.


    But local and international health workers are increasingly concerned about the future of the epidemic, and the response to it, in Ukraine.


    Michel Kazatchkine, special adviser to the Joint United Nations Programme on AIDS in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, has visited Kiev, Donetsk, Luhansk, and Moscow several times since 2014 to advocate for the maintenance of public health services in the conflict.


    “To ensure sustainable uninterrupted life-saving treatment in the coming years, everyone will have to think about it and take responsibility,” he told IRIN. “The Ukrainian government will have to think about it, the Russian Federation will have to think about it, whether the de facto authorities [in separatist-run areas] care about the public health of their citizens I don’t know, but I would hope they will at some point.”


    For now, the responsibility is being shouldered by health workers on the ground like Yulia – some driven by their loyalty to patients separated by war, others desperate to hold on to their hard-to-come-by jobs.


    “It’s all in a hanging state,” said Yulia, worried she could lose access to those in need across the contact line at any time. “We don’t know if we’ll still be working [there] next year or not.”


    (TOP PHOTO: Children being tested for HIV in Ukraine. CREDIT: Yuri Mechitov/World Bank)

    *An earlier version of this story did not include the presence of UN agencies. 


    Displacement, aid delivery issues, and different strategies are all feeding a raging epidemic
    How both sides in Ukraine’s war are losing the HIV battle
  • Improving the mixed fortunes of Ukraine’s 1.7 million war-displaced

    Imagine at 50 years old having to leave a region you've called home your entire life. And imagine having to leave almost everything behind, including your livelihood.


    That’s the story of Oleksandr Dovzhenko, now 53, who left war-torn Donetsk at the height of Ukraine’s almost four-year-old conflict to relocate in safer Poltava Oblast. There, he took over a folk arts workshop and produces large-format, traditional carpets. Through crowdfunding he plans to improve working conditions for workers and expand the business further with weaving workshops and an exhibition space.


    Khrystyna Yatskiv used to work for a Crimean television channel in Simferopol until she felt no longer safe to report the news. She relocated to Kiev in 2014 to seek a job as a newsreader in the most competitive – and most expensive – market in the country. With the help of local friends she eventually landed a plum job as anchor with Espresso TV, which started broadcasting independent news during the EuroMaidan protests of 2013-2014.


    After almost four years of displacement, the nearly two million people who have fled the Donbass region have their fair share of positive and negative stories to share. Along with several new surveys and studies, it’s now possible to obtain a more accurate picture of their situation.


    To be sure, the success stories of Oleksandr and Khrystyna are, sadly, the exception. The vast majority face a host of challenges – ranging from a lack of shelter and joblessness to difficulties crossing the 457-kilometre contact line and obtaining social benefits. Many complain of difficulties in obtaining residency permits, healthcare, and exercising the right to vote.


    The OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, which has international observers stationed throughout the country, says it has noticed “a process of integration and co-existence” between IDPs and host communities. However, returning home is not an option for most for as long as ceasefire violations continue in the east. So far this year, more than 400 people have been killed and injured. “As long as the ceasefire is violated, no one is safe,” an OSCE official told a Kiev conference on IDPs this month organised by the Atlantic Council.


    With about 1.7 million registered displaced people – about four percent of its total population – Ukraine has the ninth-largest number of IDPs in the world. Many live in non-government controlled areas (NGCAs) but cross back and forth on a monthly basis. That line they cross is now described as one of the most mine-ridden stretches of land in the world.


    Still, according to UNDP Ukraine, as many as one million people pass through official crossing points along the contact line each month, often braving bad weather, shelling, demands for bribes, and waits of several hours.


    No peace, no return


    Many IDPs in Ukraine are vulnerable – a large percentage are the elderly, women, or children – and the poverty level is estimatd to be as high as 80 percent. Very few own their own accommodation and some 6,000 still live in collective shelters.


    As time passes, IDPs are becoming more integrated into local communities and many say they don’t plan to return home. A March 2017 World Bank report found that 34 percent of IDPs in Ukraine plan to stay put outside the conflict zone.


    M. Bociurkiw/IRIN
    Tetiana finds a wedding portrait – one of the few things not stolen or damaged

    Without lasting peace it is easy to understand why. I first met Tetiana in the fall of 2015 in the frontline town of Pisky, which faces the flashpoint of Donetsk airport. I accompanied her on an impromptu, emotional inspection of her ransacked and heavily damaged flat to retrieve personal belongings such as wedding photos. The village is on the government-controlled side and Tetiana’s access is at the mercy of Ukrainian soldiers, who use the neighbourhood as a base to fire back at the rebel side. Seeing the scale of the damage it is hard to imagine families moving back into Pisky.


    And yet, Tetiana has it lucky – at least comparatively. Seventy-seven-year-old Rayisa Isikova, a pensioner and former resident of probably the most bombed-out town in eastern Ukraine, Shyrokyne, cannot return as the threat of mines and constant shelling makes it too dangerous. Incredibly, some relocated residents of Shyrokyne – formerly home to 2,000 people – can actually see the daily rain of five or six shells falling on their town from apartment blocks on the eastern fringes of Mariupol.


    With tens of thousands in the same predicament as Tetiana, who lives in a safe village away from the front line, Ukrainian government officials need to put into place new long-term policies for IDPs that ease their settlement into new areas and help with the important issues of residential permits and pensions (at the moment an estimated 350,000 IDPs are without pensions). Because of the lack of clear legislation, changing residency or status can trigger a loss of benefits.


    Lack of assistance


    Critics say the national government has so far taken a minimalist or piecemeal approach to addressing the needs of IDPs; a dedicated ministry was established in April 2016 but it remains poorly resourced and politically weak. NGOs and UN agencies have helped fill the gap, but appeals remain severely under-funded.


    There’s also a need for reconciliation in order to smooth integration of IDPs into host communities, especially further away from the Donbass region.


    “IDPs are perceived by the host communities as the reason for increased rental prices and for creating a competing demand for available accommodation,” says one report. I’ve heard first-hand locals in Kiev blame a surge in arrivals from the east for creating unwelcome business competition to exacerbating traffic.


    Instead of being viewed as a burden, analysts and representatives of NGOs dealing with IDPs say that IDPs should be regarded as potential bridge-builders between occupied and government-controlled areas of Ukraine. Many either travel to the east, speak frequently with friends and relatives behind the contact line, or post frequently on social media.


    The authors of an Atlantic Council report perhaps put it best:  “We argue that Ukraine’s displaced persons can and should play a role in a sustained peace process, and many are already building bridges and fostering local reconciliation.”



    With government help and better integration, civilians caught up in this protracted conflict could be seen as a bridge not a burden
    Improving the mixed fortunes of Ukraine’s 1.7 million war-displaced
    Global affairs analyst and former OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw explores what Ukraine's conflict, now in its fourth winter, means for the war’s displaced civilians
  • Security lapses at aid agency leave beneficiary data at risk

    Aid agencies have put some projects on hold while reviewing the security of a popular online system for handling aid distributions, IRIN has learnt. Sensitive personal and financial data on tens of thousands of people in humanitarian aid projects is at risk from hackers, according to a damning security analysis by a financial technology startup.


    In a report, Mautinoa Technologies said it identified several security problems in a software platform used by aid agencies to store the data of vulnerable people, exposing them to "very significant risks". The company behind the platform, Red Rose, denies the claims.


    Mautinoa, a new provider of payment systems and technologies, was able to enter a cloud-based server of the NGO, Catholic Relief Services, and access names, photographs, family details, PIN numbers and map coordinates for more than 8,000 families receiving assistance from the NGO in West Africa.


    In response, Oxfam, one of several customers of the platform, told IRIN it has “temporarily suspended uploading new data,” to its Red Rose systems, as a precautionary measure. A spokesperson told IRIN the NGO, depending on its assessment, may review plans to implement the system in Bangladesh, where it is currently training staff. In recent days, a Red Rose server used for a CARE project in West Africa until May was taken offline. IOM told IRIN it is making plans to reduce its use of external “vendor support.”


    The incident is a real-world reminder of the possibility of personal details of aid beneficiaries falling into the wrong hands and the potential for fraud, as aid agencies increasingly turn to voucher systems and digital cash transfers as more efficient forms of assistance.


    The risks are significant: gaps in legal and ethical frameworks for humanitarian operations and a lack of professional skills in digital data amount to “a disaster waiting to happen,” according to a recent paper from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative.


    Humanitarian security analyst Rakesh Bharania, now of Tarian Innovation LLC, and former co-chair of the security and privacy working group of humanitarian-corporate alliance NetHope, told IRIN “the risks to vulnerable people are extremely serious” and there's an “under-appreciated obligation” on aid groups and donors to tackle the issue.


    To manage its cash and voucher transfers, CRS – like at least 10 other aid groups – uses the web-based system run by Red Rose, a young company based in Turkey and the UK that has rapidly emerged in recent years as a leading vendor of online data management platforms and apps for humanitarian responders.


    By following instructions and clues in a public training video, Mautinoa got access to CRS’s administrative dashboard, giving it full control to view and edit financial and personal details, and to download data. The system, although not connected to the banking system, contains financial records totalling about $4 million, provided by donors including USAID and the European Commission.


    CRS, an NGO which manages $900 million of annual income and works in over 100 countries, confirmed the incident to IRIN, blaming an error in “password management”, but Mautinoa said it had found deeper flaws in the software. These claims Red Rose vigorously denies.


    The revelations could cause a “shockwave” in the aid sector, according to one analyst. Another said the implications of a bigger security breach could be “terrifying” for the safety of vulnerable refugees and other people in crisis situations.

    "very poor cyber-hygiene practices going on"

    Isolated incident?


    In a statement provided to IRIN, Red Rose said “this is an isolated incident which we believe does not pose a risk of harm to our clients or beneficiaries.” The company argued that “the unauthorized access is not a system-related issue, but a username and password management issue.” It would however commission an independent “full penetration test of its system to review and test its security infrastructure.”


    Red Rose said Mautinoa’s actions were motivated by “corporate gain”. Mautinoa’s access to the system was “reckless”, the statement said, and likely the result of “unlawful activity”.

    Some aid agencies are looking at Bitcoin technology to provide more efficient ways of delivering ca

    Ben Parker/IRIN
    Smart cards are taking over from paper vouchers in humanitarian response (2015)

    Emerson Tan, the CEO of Mautinoa Technologies, freely acknowledges his company is working on a rival product. Tan has 20 years of experience in cyber-security in government and the private sector and has also worked in humanitarian response for more than a decade. He told IRIN his team were checking on the competition and decided to “kick the tyres” of the Red Rose system. (Analysts point out that technology companies routinely search for bugs in others’ products, one example being Google’s Project Zero.) Tan said he had rapidly become alarmed at his findings and decided to alert aid agencies using the platform.


    Tan claims many of the problems found are “fundamental” security flaws and could ultimately expose vulnerable people’s identities and locations. His report suggests weaknesses in encryption in the system and that smart cards issued to families on the basis of their aid entitlements could theoretically be faked or manipulated. Red Rose said its smart cards could not be cloned and its security systems are “robust” and “in line with industry standards”.


    Dominic Chell of UK security consultancy MDSec pointed out the report relied largely on the access possible from a single weak password on only one deployment of the system. He said the report did appear to reveal "very poor cyber-hygiene practices going on," but they did not seem very unusual nor absolutely critical: "we see this stuff all the time".


    CRS told IRIN that it would be tightening up its security practice and had already established more stringent requirements for IT vendors. Paul Eagle, vice president of marketing and communications for CRS, told IRIN the organisation was awaiting the outcome of Red Rose’s tests: “We will wait to pass judgement until we review those results.”

    Other NGOs using the software defended it.

    “ZOA is confident in the security of the Red Rose platform,” said one, while the Norwegian Refugee Council said: “We believe that our current implementation of the Red Rose platform is safe.”


    Mautinoa’s easy access to the CRS system was in large part due to human error, as well as system design, but that doesn’t make it any less serious, according to security specialists. Bharania, of Tarian Innovation, told IRIN “security vulnerabilities don't have to be fancy or exotic to be problematic.”


    Several humanitarian professionals contacted by IRIN agreed that this episode, regardless of the details of the software engineering, vividly highlights risks and responsibilities in data management that demand greater attention.

    See also:

    Irresponsible data and Rohingya? 

    Microsoft on cyber-conflict

    Slave to the algorithm

    Humanitarian biometrics

    “We don't understand the full implications of the data we hold and share, the same way we didn't when we were doing in-kind distributions via Excel,” an NGO manager said. “I think we are too trusting of companies that say they have data protection under control.”


    The risks of data


    Increasing volumes of personal data are collected from refugees and other aid recipients and stored digitally in the aid industry. These may include names, photos, fingerprints, physical addresses, ID numbers or iris scans, and are stored in a variety of databases and systems managed by aid agencies, banks and private companies. The UN World Food Programme’s SCOPE system alone has details on 20 million people. These systems allows aid agencies to combat fraud, control expenditure, and offer convenient benefits, such as cash and vouchers. On the flip side, that data, in the wrong hands, could facilitate surveillance, discrimination or persecution.


    Senior humanitarian specialist Zehra Rizvi, told IRIN she didn’t expect much impact due to structural issues in the sector: "There will be some head-shaking and calls for investigations and better rules and regulations..." However, part of the problem, she argued, is too many aid agencies "ramping up on using technology... and trying to one-up each other" in “a rush to be seen as innovative.”


    “It's truly inefficient", she added, suggesting a collaborative research and development effort would be ideal.


    Another analyst told IRIN that aid agencies should simply “get out of the business” of trying to deploy such advanced enterprise-quality software and outsource it to experts in financial services.


    Red Rose customers react


    Red Rose systems are used by at least nine aid agencies, according to IRIN’s search of public sources. Current customers may include: Action contre La Faim, Danish Church Aid, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), International Organisation for Migration, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, Première Urgence Internationale, UNICEF and ZOA.


    An ICRC spokesperson said the organisation was testing out the system in three countries, including Ukraine, with an initial caseload of 9,000 people. Juliette Ebele said no data had been compromised, but that the ICRC took data protection very seriously. She said the organisation, like others, was looking into the platform and Mautinoa’s report, and would suspend the pilot project “should alleged flaws be confirmed”.  


    Most of the agencies that responded to IRIN’s questions, said they would be checking their procedures and were tightening up processes. IOM, which uses the platform for 25,000 Syrians in Turkey, said its data was safe and carefully handled. However in a statement, IOM said it “is making plans to reduce its dependence" on external IT vendors, including Red Rose. Some referred to Red Rose’s denials and others took aim at the source of the allegations being a competitor. Four had not replied by publication time.





    Ben Parker/IRIN
    UNHCR uses biometrics such as iris scans to register refugees
    Red Rose, one of few such providers in the non-profit sector, has been used in conflict zones in Syria and Ukraine. Bharania said in locations like these, humanitarian responders find themselves in a theatre of conflict with "some of the most sophisticated threat actors on the planet", often government-sponsored.


    He says there is no reason to expect cyber warfare to "spare the organizations that are involved in the humanitarian response (or the people they're trying to help)." In a response to the 2015 Nepal earthquake he reported evidence of a state-sponsored attempt to hack into relief workers’ communications.


    Bharania believes there is a long way to go to bring up standards in humanitarian data management, and donors need to invest. As well as financing data security, he said finding qualified staff will be challenging, and a system of responsible disclosure alerts and warnings is needed. The new EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) sets stringent rules on personal data and privacy and will be a further wake-up call, he added.




    (TOP PHOTO: Presentation from Noble House, the company that originally offered the Red Rose platform)

    Leading software used by aid agencies "insecure" - report
    Humanitarian agencies face online security challenge
  • Frozen and forgotten: The neglected displacement crisis on Europe’s doorstep

    Many of the world’s humanitarian catastrophes are described as forgotten emergencies, but only this one is playing out relatively unnoticed on the doorstep of Europe, over an area roughly the size of Switzerland.


    The frozen, low-intensity conflict in Ukraine’s Donbass region will mark a grim, four-year milestone in April. And the numbers aren't pretty: more than 10,000 killed and at least 23,000 injured.


    At the beginning of 2014, Ukraine had no displaced people. Now, it’s on the world’s top ten list, with an estimated two million.


    The roots of the conflict can be traced back to the winter of 2013/2014, when then-president Viktor Yanukovych backtracked on a promise to enter into an association agreement with the European Union. That, in turn, sparked the Revolution of Dignity, which ousted the pro-Russian president in February 2014 but cost the lives of at least 100 civilian protesters. Shortly afterwards, thousands of armed separatists invaded Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine and remain there to this day. Several ceasefire agreements, including the latest “Back to School” initiative in September, have failed to bring about an enduring peace. The two regions, knows as oblasts, are now self-proclaimed pro-Russian republics.


    Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians face an uncertain winter as the shelling continues unabated. Two major water plants are located near the front line (known as the contact line), so these civilians have to live with the constant threat of having their water and heating cut off. And there’s the added risk of a chlorine gas explosion should a wayward shell hit storage areas at the plants.


    Mariia Aleksevych/OCSE
    Civilian showing impact on her house by shelling in the Trudivske area of Donetsk City

    The sharp decline in conditions from an escalation in hostilities and lack of access for repair crews has led the UN to warn of “grave consequences” for millions of Ukrainians if water or heating is cut off, and a reminder that the intentional disruption of quality water supply or critical heating systems is a violation of International Humanitarian Law.


    Humanitarian crisis


    A recent UN appeal targets 3-4 million people in need of humanitarian aid and protection. Of those, 70 percent are either elderly, women, or children. Many live in unbearable conditions such as abandoned sanatoriums. UNICEF estimates that more than 200,000 boys and girls live within 15 kilometres of each side of the contact line, of which about two percent are regularly forced to take refuge in improvised bomb shelters. The children’s agency also estimates that one school in five has been damaged or destroyed.


    About 700,000 civilians cross the 459-kilometre “contact line” each month to purchase groceries, visit relatives, withdraw money, or receive pensions. What should be a short journey is often turned into a long ordeal because of excessive waits at checkpoints on both sides. Although the situation has improved in the past year, travellers are exposed to shelling, the threat of land mines, and, in winter, to sub-zero temperatures. Bombed-out roads and bridges add to the frustration.


    The situation in eastern Ukraine can best be described as a low-intensity conflict that spikes regularly. As of mid-November, the number of ceasefire violations has increased. In just one day there were almost 2,000 explosions. “This, I believe, was the saddest record in the second half of the year,” said an OSCE representative.


    A huge barrier to peace is the concentration of heavy weaponry and the close proximity of the two sides. When shelling occurs, it often lands in densely populated areas, inflicting maximum damage and casualties. When one side fires, the other retaliates. It’s now hard to find apartment blocks, bridges, schools, or hospitals in the towns dotted along the contact line that have remained untouched by the heavy shelling.

    Land mines are also becoming an increasing problem. In November a police car near the southeastern city of Mariupol drove over one, killing a police officer and severely injuring two others. Many farmers are afraid to work their land for fear of unexploded ordnance. Earlier in the conflict, cluster munitions – banned by international treaties – were used by both sides, according to Human Rights Watch.




    The prospects for progress couldn’t be much bleaker: Experts and diplomats at the recently concluded Halifax International Security Forum said even the tightening of sanctions against Russia may not be enough to force peace.


    The diplomatic tool box appears shockingly empty after several failed attempts in Minsk and elsewhere to achieve a long-lasting, sustainable peace. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, which has about 700 monitors in the east, is being continuously targeted or denied access, especially to strategic areas along the Ukraine-Russian border.


    Desperate for progress, both sides have proposed a UN peacekeeping mission. However, Ukraine is demanding it be deployed throughout the conflict zone, including the international border, while Russia wants a mission limited to the contact line. Aside from reconciling vastly different proposals, UN diplomats would also need to secure commitments from member states and a unanimous vote in the UN Security Council.



    Mariia Aleksevych/OCSE
    OSCE Special Monitoring Mission speaking to a civilian in Kamianka
    As for the OSCE, it shows little enthusiasm for a UN mission, preferring instead to press ahead with a multi-level diplomatic negotiations track based on the Minsk Protocol, an accord to halt the war reached in September 2014.


    But more than three years after the Minsk agreements, both the peace process and the conflict appear deadlocked, and millions of Ukrainians are digging in for yet another hard winter.



    Frozen and forgotten: The neglected displacement crisis on Europe’s doorstep
    Global affairs analyst and former OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw lays out the parameters of Europe’s forgotten but enduring conflict as it heads into its fourth winter 
  • Bots and bombs: Does cyberspace need a “Digital Geneva Convention”?

    Cyber-attacks are on the rise, threatening power grids, driving up geopolitical tensions, and even crippling hospitals. Countries should agree a new “Digital Geneva Convention” to contain the risk and set up a new international organisation to police the new rules.


    These proposals from Microsoft’s chief legal officer, Brad Smith, also say that neutral companies dealing with the fallout should win protected status, like a technological Red Cross. Opinions differ on where the gaps are, if any, in international law, and whether Microsoft is a credible voice on the issues or just looking after its own vested interests.


    In a public speech in Geneva, Smith argued that cyberspace is a new battlefield and not properly governed by international law. Nation states and murky hacker groups have shown their potential to take out public infrastructure and services, sow political discord, and sabotage businesses, causing extensive social and economic harm.


    Experts in international law and the International Committee of the Red Cross, however, give his proposals a cool reception. Cyberspace may throw up some legal dilemmas (for example, how to distinguish military and civilian data travelling on the same network), but it is far from a legal vacuum. Microsoft's proposal for tech companies to be recognised as "first responders" on the cyber battlefield, borrowing language from the Red Cross, has met with surprise and scorn from critics.


    Smith spoke to hundreds of diplomats, officials, and visitors at the UN in Geneva, recalling the city’s heritage as “a place where the world has come together” on difficult issues. Introducing Smith’s talk, the head of the UN in Geneva, Michael Moeller, said “algorithms can be as powerful as tanks, bots as dangerous as bombs”. Smith said the global technology sector should reposition itself as “a trusted and neutral digital Switzerland”.


    Recounting the bloody Battle of Solferino in 1859, which led to the creation of the Red Cross, Smith said a hi-tech arms race is accelerating in cyberspace and international law isn’t configured to tackle the challenge. He raised examples of cyber-attacks affecting Iran, Ukraine, and the WannaCry malware attack that scrambled 200,000 computers, including some in the British health service.


    The laws of armed conflict


    Firstly, ICRC is the guardian of international humanitarian law and its representative at the event argued firmly that the law of armed conflict already governs cyber operations. As an example, ICRC’s Philip Spoerri said attacks against essential civilian infrastructure in wartime already constitute violations of international humanitarian law, unless the infrastructure is a military objective.



    Carlo Bossoli/Wikimedia Commons
    The Battle of Solferino, a painting by Carlo Bossoli.

    Spoerri said there may be value in clarifying other parts of international law about actions that don’t meet the threshold of armed conflict, but noted that political appetite seemed lacking.



    Other international law


    While telling the story of the laws of armed conflict as a scene-setter, Smith’s proposals also appeared to cover the less well-defined area of international law in peacetime.


    Hacking and sabotage may not count as acts of war, but equally they “do not occur in a legal vacuum”, according to a major study. “States have both rights and bear obligations under international law”, according to the Tallinn Manual, updated in February. This NATO-supported review interpreted existing international law as already being applicable and came up with 154 “rules” that can apply to cyber operations in peace or war.


    The field is nevertheless politically charged. Issues around attributing the source of attacks, defining the threshold for what constitutes an “armed attack”, and the right to self-defence and countermeasures, once opened for debate, have become controversial. An intergovernmental expert group to confirm ground rules on the applicability of international law in cyberspace failed to reach agreement in June, partly due to a polarised international climate.


    Dustin Lewis, senior researcher at the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict, told IRIN: "the legal and political aspects are difficult, if not impossible, to completely dissociate".




    Microsoft’s proposals are flawed, critics say, both from a legal point of view and due to conflicts of interest. Since security holes in Microsoft’s software are often exploited, it would benefit commercially from wider protection from liability. Also, at a time when Silicon Valley is under scrutiny for wielding a dangerous level of unregulated power, Microsoft’s attempt to rebrand as a neutral paramedic on the cyber battlefield may appear a convenient distraction.


    Microsoft proposes tech companies could sign up to an accord of neutrality and cooperation that would justify a special legal status. Smith suggests they could pledge: “we will not aid in attacking customers anywhere”, and adopt a “100% defense” strategy. However, under the Geneva Conventions, whether an individual is working in military defence or in attack makes little difference to whether or not they “make an effective contribution to military action”.


    This means that Microsoft engineers, for example, fixing a military computer could potentially be a military target. Microsoft has won 1,432 contracts with the US Department of Defense alone in the last five years, worth $888 million, according to public data.


    A prominent critic of the technology giants, Evgeny Morozov, suggests the proposal is “entirely selfish”. Writing for the Guardian, he claimed “the conflict of interest here would be mind-boggling: the more insecure Microsoft’s software, the greater the demand for its cybersecurity services to protect it”.

    Another critical article, from a NATO-affiliated think tank, also suggests Microsoft’s interest stems from self-interest: that cyber-attacks in peacetime are “bad for the business of transnational ICT (tech) companies in that they reveal exploits of vulnerabilities in their products.” Smith confirmed that Microsoft was in part seeking regulatory clarity regarding their customers’ data.


    A senior UN human rights official, Kate Gilmore, was warmly applauded at the event when she said that governments were outsourcing too many decisions on critical issues to the corporate sector. She said there was “an accountability framework that is not fit for purpose” for “corporates larger than countries”.




    The issues aren’t only legal.


    Lewis told IRIN that “currently there is insufficient political consensus… concerning when and under what circumstances certain relevant parts of international law are applicable".


    The Harvard researcher suggested Microsoft’s foray into the arena might even make things worse: “A key question becomes whether the Microsoft proposal is likely to do more damage by questioning the applicability of international law or to have more beneficial effects by spurring interest in legal norms.”



    Microsoft's proposals

    For states

    No targeting of tech companies, private sector, or critical infrastructure

    Assist private-sector efforts to detect, contain, respond to, and recover from events

    Report vulnerabilities to vendors rather than stockpile, sell, or exploit them

    Exercise restraint in developing cyberweapons and ensure that any developed are limited, precise, and not reusable

    Commit to nonproliferation activities to cyberweapons

    Limit offensive operations to avoid a mass event

    For technology companies

    No assistance for offensive cyber operations

    Assistance to protect customers everywhere

    Collaboration to bolster first-response efforts

    Support for governments’ response efforts

    Coordination to address vulnerabilities

    Fighting the proliferation of vulnerabilities


    Bots and bombs: Does cyberspace need a “Digital Geneva Convention”?
    Microsoft is calling for a new international legal framework for cyber conflict with tech giants earning neutral “protected status”
  • Elderly fare worst in Europe’s forgotten conflict

    “A bullet flew in right here,” explains Nadyezhda Semyonovna, 65, to her local pastor, Yura, in the dining room of her home near Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine.


    “I was wearing pants like this and it went through here,” she says, pointing to the front of her thigh where it sliced through the cloth. “But I wasn’t wounded. Bullets were flying; the dog was scared, but I wouldn’t let her out of my arms.”


    Despite such near misses, Semyonovna, along with many other elderly people, continues to live a short distance away from the front line of a conflict, now entering its third winter.


    Daniel Gerstle/IRIN
    Nadyezhda Semyonovna serves tea to neighbours in her recently-repaired home

    By September, the fighting between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists had killed 9,574 people, including at least 2,000 civilians, according to the UN. Aid agencies – assisting 2.5 million people, including 800,000 still living close to the contact line – face increasing obstacles as they try to deliver aid to separatist-held areas.


    Earlier this week, one of only two international aid agencies still operating in separatist areas, had its accreditation revoked by security officials from the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR). Tens of thousands of beneficiaries, including many elderly people, stand to lose the assistance the organisation (which asked not to be named) was providing with food and house repairs just ahead of winter.


    Across the region, elderly people who lack either the means or the will (or both) to abandon their homes, pets, friends, and communities, have been particularly hard hit by the war. Their experiences differ greatly, depending on whether they live on the government-controlled side, in the frontline area, or deep inside the isolated breakaway region. 


    Divided by the front line


    Donetsk’s northern twin suburbs of Avdiivka and Yasinovataya lie just seven kilometres apart, but are divided by the front line, where artillery battles rumble nearly every night. Semyonovna would like to cross to see her family in separatist-held Yasinovataya, but has postponed the journey indefinitely due to security risks and lack of money.


    “Everything, the cemetery, it was all mined,” she explains. “It’s impossible to cross that way. Before, I used to go with my bike to Yasinovataya. But when this all broke out, they closed the crossing.”


    Transport between Avdiivka and Yasinovataya used to cost only about 10 UAH ($0.40) and take just 15 minutes. Now it requires crossing the front line and costs about 400 UAH ($16) for a five- to six-hour journey by shared car, or a slightly cheaper route involving several buses and a possible overnight wait. The result is that many people haven’t seen their loved ones living just a few miles away for more than two years.

    See also: The struggle for survival on Ukraine's frontline

    On the government-controlled side, retirees are eligible for a pension of about 1,250 UAH ($50) per month, while disability grants are an additional 600 UAH per month ($24). Until a few months ago though, elderly people made homeless by the war or living on the separatist-controlled side could only collect government pensions if they could register proof of residence on government territory.


    Although the separatist authorities began to absorb responsibility for paying pensions in the summer of 2015, the total amount in Russian rubles was equivalent to only about 800 UAH ($32) per month.


    The Ukrainian government, the UN, and aid agencies debated how to urgently fill this gap and in October the registration rule was eased. More pensions are now being paid out, but are still extremely low in purchasing power.


    Humanitarian agencies, which for some time had disqualified those receiving pensions from also receiving aid, have also started assisting pensioners with food and hygiene kits, adult diapers, cash grants and special winter support.


    Raining shrapnel


    One Sunday in Avdiivka, Semyonovna and others joined Pastor Yura and his lay leader Sasha, at the Frontline Mission, a local Protestant community group in a former second-hand clothing shop downtown.


    Yura started to tell a story about how his wife had caught a large fish in the nearby lake. Suddenly, there was an explosion nearby. Some heads turned; others shuddered. “Don’t worry,” said Yura, “probably a mine.” He continued his story, delivering a punchline that got a laugh. 


    Daniel Gerstle/IRIN
    Ludmila Vasilevna lives a few hundred metres from the frontline in Avdiivka

    After two years of shelling, people mostly ignore the booms, but this one sounded close. As the service ended with a prayer session, the elderly members of the congregation were the first to come to the front and ask for additional prayers. The service finished with hugs, and more than a few tears.


    Yura and Sasha, who also work with PIN on house repairs, drove out of downtown Avdiivka southeast toward Semyonovna’s home. They crossed the train tracks that go towards Yasinovataya and onto a road that descends through the Prom industrial zone, where some of the fiercest fighting of the war has taken place. Just before the turn off to the frontline itself, they met Ludmila Vasilevna, a woman in her mid-60s, whose shrapnel-damaged house they’d helped rebuild.


    She paced around her yard showing them how her family had finished repairing the damage. “Shrapnel, you can see, cut all through the water tank and everything…. You can see over there where another landed and blew up everything, putting holes in another water tank…. We would sit in the basement during all this bombing.”


    Vasilevna had been collecting ordnance from around the house and yard like windfall fruit after a storm. She displayed six heavy-calibre bullets, 20 pieces of mortar shrapnel, and a 10-centimetre-long shard from a heavy artillery shell. Despite the ongoing risks of shelling, Vasilevna refuses to leave. This is her home, she said, and she has nothing else.


    Daniel Gerstle/IRIN
    Ludmila Vasilevna shows the shrapnel that blasted through her home

    The lonely ones


    Despite the ongoing risk of shelling and lack of money, Semyonovna, Vasilevna, and their neighbours, still have their health and a roof over their heads. Others are even less fortunate. Isolated from family even before the war, bed-ridden or senile, some elderly people were simply forgotten when fighting began. Local church groups going door-to-door sometimes find them too late.


    “We see the majority of elderly and disabled people in contact line areas living alone,” said an aid agency worker who asked not to be named. “Their caregivers, usually their children, left for somewhere else to find employment opportunities.”


    Yura and Sasha’s next stop was Avdiivka’s recently re-opened Home for the Elderly.


    Sergei Sarok, 64, explained how he came to be there.


    “I was in the kitchen. I wanted to cut a slice of bread with sausage and make a sandwich and there was an explosion in the neighbouring apartment and glass went all over the kitchen. I ran to look and the biggest piece of glass was stuck in me. I went out in the hallway and there was nothing left [next door].”


    Daniel Gerstle/IRIN
    Many homes on the front line have been so badly damaged by shelling that they remain abandoned

    Sarok said he stayed with an acquaintance for a year and then at a sanitarium before returning to Avdiivka. He survives on occasional aid assistance and a disability grant that is just enough to buy potatoes, vegetables, and soap. For anything else he needs, he must beg or borrow.


    The rebel side


    Although Semyonovna has not been able to go to Yasinovataya, on the rebel-held side, Yura travelled there recently with the Frontline Mission to assess conditions.


    “Life is difficult over there,” he said. “Many people from there came here [to Avdiivka] early on.” He added that some had since returned because they missed their homes, neighbours, and communities.


    Throughout the war, both Avdiivka and Yasinovataya have suffered heavy shelling, but while Avdiivka is open to the north and can be restocked with food, hygiene, and other goods from central Ukraine, Yasinovataya is tucked into a corner of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic, behind numerous military checkpoints.


    Aid agencies repair roofs and do food and hygiene kit distributions regularly in Avdiivka, but must overcome complex logistics and delays to cross the frontline and deliver aid in Yasinovataya and elsewhere in Donetsk.


    Last year, during the heaviest fighting, aid convoys were often only able to deliver supplies every two months. Russian humanitarian aid providers coming from the other side attempted to fill the gaps, setting up a distribution point right next to the international aid point in downtown Donetsk.


    Cold months ahead


    For the elderly in separatist-controlled areas, the coming winter will be particularly tough. Night-time temperatures can drop to -10 degrees Celsius or even lower while gas, electricity, and water are often cut for long periods. Some people have wood stoves, but firewood isn’t always available.


    The aid agency worker told IRIN that elderly people have urgent needs, particularly for hygiene items. “There are negative coping mechanisms when elderly people must save their income, buy cheaper food, save on the cost of clothing and hygiene items, [to] buy medicines.


    “The situation is the same on both sides of the contact line, but is more problematic on the non-government side since there are only a few organisations left there to support these people.”


    The International Committee of the Red Cross is now the only international aid agency accredited to work inside the DNR, where authorities are rumoured to want to increase cooperation with local NGOs.


    With access so limited, organisations including HelpAge International and the UN have had to focus their efforts on advocating for the elderly with the government and donors, and working with local groups to find those who may have fallen through the gaps.


    At Semyonovna’s house near Avdiivka’s frontline, her dog circles Yura, Sasha, and other friends, as she pours tea. She says she has lost faith that the international community or the government can solve her hardships. “I think only God will help us now.”

    (TOP PHOTO: Olga Ivanovna plays her mandolin in the hope of earning a few coins towards the re-building of her home in Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine. Daniel Gerstle/IRIN)


    Elderly fare worst in Europe’s forgotten conflict
  • Polio hopes and Zika fears in the vaccine race

    It’s busy times for the vaccine industry – a new vaccine against dengue fever has been deployed in the Philippines, research for a vaccine against Zika virus is gaining steam (although questions remain over the threat it poses), the Ebola outbreak refuses to go away, and a yellow fever outbreak in Angola has exposed an alarming lack of stockpiles.

    Against this backdrop, the biggest-ever effort in human immunisation might finally be reaching the beginning of the end. Wild polio, once crippling hundreds of thousands a year, is found now in only two countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan. There have been just nine reported cases so far in 2016.

    If polio were in full retreat in 2017, it would mark 40 years since the last natural case of smallpox – the first disease to be completely wiped out in human history, in 1977.

    The multi-agency polio eradication programme led by the WHO since 1988 shows that the road to eradicating any disease is long and expensive, even one with relatively simple characteristics (unlike a number of other diseases on the global agenda, polio can only survive in humans; there’s no reservoir in animals or insects). The Polio Eradication Initiative has a budget of more than $1 billion per year.

    The research and development stages of any drug or vaccine take years, but that’s only one ingredient. Public education and mobilisation, funding, and, inevitably, tackling anti-vaccine suspicion and rumours, have all played their part in the twists and turns of the polio campaign. The same will surely be true of any future eradication programme.

    The next steps of the anti-polio drive require a synchronised switch in the type of vaccine, due between now and 1 May in 155 countries, and then, in the years to follow, a gradual transition to injectable vaccines to replace the oral drops so many countries are familiar with.

    Unintended consequences

    Until this year, the most common oral vaccine protected against all three types of polio. Since type two is now eradicated in the wild, the new version of the vaccine only protects against types one and three.

    Some surprising data is a factor behind this move.

    While the number of naturally-acquired cases of polio last year were 74, the total number was 106. How?

    In a tiny minority of cases – the WHO suggests it’s a 2.7 million to one chance – the oral polio vaccine backfires and causes paralysis: the signature symptom of polio.

    Given the right circumstances, both in the patient’s stomach and an unhygienic environment, the polio virus can further survive in faeces and be transmitted to others. This, circulating vaccine-derived polio virus (cVDPV) is most commonly a variant of type two, so it makes sense to remove the pathogen from the vaccine now if it’s not present in the wild.

    In 2015, 32 cVDPV cases were reported from Madagascar, Laos, Guinea, Myanmar, Nigeria and Ukraine.

    Therefore, the old oral polio vaccine was in fact the cause of about a third of cases of polio-related paralysis last year. Governments accept the rare incidents of vaccine-derived polio as an acceptable price to pay along the road to worldwide eradication. Using only the new bivalent (two-pronged) vaccine should reduce this unintended consequence significantly, while concentrating firepower on the remaining two types. Developed countries now tend to use the injectable polio vaccine, which carries no risk of vaccine-derived polio. The rest of the world should also graduate to the injectable model if the frontline battle against polio can be won by the oral vaccine.


    Ben Parker/IRIN
    A Sanofi Pasteur employee visually checks a vial of vaccine. Manual and automated quality control is a significant part of the vaccine manufacturing process.

    What about Zika?

    Vaccine controversies, unfounded in science, have surfaced in Europe and the United States in recent years. There is no proof of a link between autism and vaccines, and a dropoff in vaccination rates has caused an upswing in cases of measles. Such scares and debates have always accompanied vaccines and are inevitable part of the public conversation, according to Sanofi Pasteur spokesman Alain Bernal.

    Much of the recent media hype involving vaccines has centred on the Zika virus, which has exploded in the Americas this year and has been categorised as a public health emergency of international concern by the World Health Organization.

    Sanofi Pasteur head of global research, Nick Jackson, told IRIN that in addition to being a major producer of polio and other vaccines it is among a number of bodies moving towards early-stage “wet experiments” on Zika.

    For Zika, there is a particular lack of data and research on the virus, its mosquito hosts and means of transmission. There’s also debate about the normal incidence of various congenital and neurological conditions that have so far been linked to it. Building baseline data will be critical both for researchers and for subsequent public confidence in any vaccine. A recent review of expert opinion by Scientific American explores a range of risks and complicating factors, all suggesting a quick win in vaccine research unlikely.

    One of the conditions that may be linked to Zika in adults is a severe neurological disorder called Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS). “What is tricky is to be able to measure the level of GBS without vaccination… The background level exists naturally. It’s very important for a vaccine producer to demonstrate the level of these events before the vaccination, so that after the vaccination people don’t blame the vaccine,” Bernal told IRIN.

    Pressure for Zika treatment and prevention is an acute international priority according to the WHO – and the outbreak’s development in the Americas has triggered the early promise of US cash and research resources. At a recent consultation in the US, researchers, drug company officials, medical journals and public health officials compared notes. “Ebola’s scary because we know what it can do. Zika’s scary because we don’t know yet what it can do,” said Jackson.

    [Sanofi Pasteur provided travel expenses for IRIN's visit to its facilities in Lyon.]

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  • Hard lines: Access issues deepen Ukraine aid crisis

    Elena is about to go through a Ukrainian government checkpoint near the eastern town of Stanytsia Luhanska and cross the blown-up bridge into rebel-held territory.

    She is waiting to get back to Luhansk, the de facto capital of the “Luhansk People’s Republic”, after a quick dash across the frontline of Ukraine’s war to pick up essential items.

    She didn’t even try to get medicine for her 86-year-old mother, who has an illness affecting her central nervous system.

    “We don’t have any money, so we don’t even go to the pharmacy,” Elena, who doesn’t want to give her last name, tells IRIN.

    Her mother gets a so-called “pension” from the rebels, but she is too frail to cross over to get her official state pension or disability benefits.

    Elena says that in September she called an ambulance for her mother but was told they don’t come for the elderly anymore because they can’t help them.

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    All Elena can do is try to save money by crossing the frontline as often as she can to buy as much food as possible to carry back. This time, she has meat, apples and a few sweets.

    Last March, IRIN reported from the other side of the same broken bridge, describing how people had to clamber over to government-controlled Ukraine, where medicine, state pensions and cheaper food were available.

    Almost a year on, we have to interview people from the government side as it’s become increasingly difficult to enter rebel-held territory. But it isn’t just journalists whose freedom of movement is being impeded.

    A report yesterday by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted how tighter restrictions are affecting both civilians and the aid agencies trying to reach them.

    In the report, which covers mid-November to mid-February, OHCHR says it regularly observed up to 400 vehicles – cars, minivans and buses – waiting to cross. Ukraine’s State Border Service says between 8,000 to 15,000 civilians cross the so-called “contact line” on a daily basis.

    “Passengers spend the night in freezing temperatures and without access to water and sanitation,” the UN report says. “During the reporting period, two elderly people (a man and a woman) died while queuing at the checkpoints due to lack of timely medical care.”

    A tough crossing

    The conflict, which started in April 2014 when pro-Russian separatists took control of parts of eastern Ukraine, has led to at least 9,160 deaths. According to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, 3.1 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

    As of November 2015, an estimated 2.7 million people live in the rebel-held parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, regarded by the separatists as independent people’s republics.

    Although there’s been a general decline in the level of hostility and fewer military and civilian casualties during the winter months, residents of rebel areas wanting cheaper and/or essential goods still have to make the dangerous trip across no man’s land, only it’s getting harder.

    “The freedom of movement of civilians in Luhansk is particularly restricted,” the UN report explains. “As of 15 February, only four transport corridors between the areas controlled by the government and those controlled by the armed groups (rebels) remained operational.”

    Three of those crossings, all allowing vehicles, are in Donetsk. The only one in Luhansk is the pedestrian one, via a broken bridge and steep stairs, where IRIN encountered Elena and where there’s an obvious limit to what civilians can carry.

    “People just don’t have the discretionary income they used to, and so the majority of it goes to food, and it’s not getting any better."

    Rebel-held Luhansk residents wishing to cross with more goods or in a vehicle have to go via Donetsk or through Russia: routes that offer their own restrictions and challenges.

    On the government side, Ukraine’s State Border Service took over control of checkpoints in August and started imposing the stricter rules and procedures that one would associate with leaving a sovereign territory.

    And to make matters worse, according to the OHCHR report, as of 19 January, movement between the two sides has been further restricted because the rebel Donetsk authorities began requiring the registration of passport data.

    When the fighting flares up, checkpoints near affected areas often close (this happened on 3 February at the Zaitseve crossing point), making it more difficult for civilians to flee and more likely they will try to find alternative routes in areas that may have been mined.

    Aid restrictions

    Last July, the rebels banned international aid organisations. UN agencies have since been granted permission to operate in rebel-held Luhansk, allowing them to deliver treatment for those with HIV, for example. But the ban has had a crippling effect on aid efforts, with the UN report mentioning particular shortages in rebel-held Donetsk, which is still off-limits to most outside help.

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    The Russian government provides some assistance to rebel territories and local humanitarian groups try to fill the gap.

    Mercy Corps is another aid organisation that has been able to return to its work in rebel-held Luhansk, where it can carry out distributions. It has provided more than half a million people there with food aid, materials and water, and plans to help an additional 250,000 people up until April.

    However, it still doesn’t have official recognition from the rebel authorities, which slows down its ability to get permission to enter new towns.

    For a few months, the organisation was ordered to stop most of its work. Civilians had to source food themselves, even as prices rose due to the Ukrainian government preventing commercial goods from entering rebel-held areas.

    So-called “pension” payments from separatist groups come in rubles. Due to the currency market, the threat of further hikes in inflation, and the worsening Russian economy, this makes the financial situation in rebel areas even more perilous.

    “People just don’t have the discretionary income they used to, and so the majority of it goes to food, and it’s not getting any better,” Stuart Willcuts, Mercy Corps country director for Ukraine, told IRIN.

    Unemployment is also on the rise, and some 69 percent of households in rebel areas have difficulty accessing food markets due to rising prices and poverty, according to OCHA.

    An estimated 1.6 million people have been internally displaced by the conflict and more than one million Ukrainians have sought asylum or protection abroad, the majority in Russia and Belarus.

    The UN said in its report that it had noticed an increasing trend of returns since September but noted that many arrive back only to find their home in ruins or commandeered by one side or the other.

    Time is not a healer

    With the conflict poised to enter its third year in April and no end in sight, the sense of lawlessness and despair in frontline areas is growing.

    Where effective administration has been lacking for a prolonged period, so-called “parallel structures” have sprung up on the rebel side. These really amount to armed gangs, no rule of law and widespread human rights abuses.

    “OHCHR is concerned that the situation is worsening in the ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’, where armed groups continued to block or excessively control access to the territories under their control to humanitarian assistance, preventing proper monitoring of places of detention, and impeding the delivery of assistance that can relieve people from illness or even death, hunger and suffering,” the UN report says.

    Back at the checkpoint near the bridge, IRIN encounters Yakov Ivanovych. On this cold windy day, the 64-year-old will meet his wife, who is coming from Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. All he knows is that she is bringing a bag of clothes.

    She had cancer and had to flee Luhansk after being stuck in the city during two months of fighting. Her health had deteriorated and she had lost significant weight and needed to seek treatment at a hospital in Kiev, while Ivanovych stayed behind.

    His health is not that much better.

    “I need medication for my heart but I can’t buy it because it’s very expensive for me,” he says.

    Ivanovych is unemployed and gets 4,000 rubles ($50 USD) a month as his “pension” from the rebel authorities. Asked if it’s enough to get food and other essentials, he simply laughs.


    Access issues deepen Ukraine aid crisis
    No respite for frontline communities

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