My whole family lives in Donetsk, the city I still consider home. Going home has been an increasingly nerve-wracking and dangerous enterprise since the beginning of the war in 2014. Over the past year, such journeys have become a lot more difficult.
The border – known as the contact line – between Ukraine and its breakaway territories in the eastern Donbas region has been closed since March 2020. Millions of families are separated. Millions of people like myself have no choice but to break the law – as I did when I visited my family for the Christmas holidays – because getting in or out is only possible through Russia; a trip deemed illegal by Ukraine. And millions of us are under threat of losing our civil and property rights.
These are the unexpected consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ukraine, like much of Europe, is now seeing a spike in cases, but here in the war-stricken east the political effects of the coronavirus exceed healthcare ones, cementing divisions and consolidating new realities.
This week the war in Donbas enters its eighth year. While there are sporadic flare-ups, international attention is fading away, even as life only gets harder for many of the communities most impacted by the conflict.
The reduction of active violence in recent years has enabled people to rest a little easier and even to begin rebuilding destroyed infrastructure. But the deceptive calm of the now-frozen conflict is pushing the war further and further away from political and humanitarian agendas, condemning millions of people to a silent suffering that is largely invisible to the rest of the world.
COVID-19’s unforeseen impact
At the start of the pandemic, many worried that places stricken by wars, with disrupted infrastructure, could end up being those most devastated by the coronavirus. These concerns haven’t come true yet in the war zone in eastern Ukraine.
By the end of May 2020, there were 163 COVID-19 cases in the government-controlled part of Donetsk region, out of a population of about two million. After a relatively calm summer, there was a spike in September and October when the number of patients in an average hospital in a frontline town would reach several dozen. However, it wasn’t enough to overwhelm the healthcare system, even one weakened by seven years of war. Then the cases went down again.
“We’ve never had anything like they show on TV, in the US,” explained Nikolay Slyusarenko, the director of the hospital in Krasnogorovka, a suburb of Donetsk that is home to about 10,000 people, when we visited in January.
The hospital building was shelled at least 15 times and sustained widespread damage during the more active phase of Ukraine’s conflict and has never been properly reconstructed. A part of the building is still missing: The large opening created by shelling is now covered with plastic.
Nevertheless, it hosted a newly set up COVID-19 ward of 70 beds, of which only 14 were occupied. Cases in the area were relatively low, masks were worn reluctantly, if ever, and the virus was not on people’s daily agendas.
Nikolay, like many of his colleagues, attributed the few cases to the low population density in this semi-rural area and its relative isolation from the world, largely due to the war. With Donetsk International Airport destroyed, railway services disrupted, and major roads cut off by the front line, places like Krasnogorovka are barely connected to the outside. Ironically, this also keeps them shielded from the spread of the virus.
But while the healthcare consequences of the pandemic may be considered relatively mild in Donbas, the political implications of the virus have turned out to be fateful for the course of the conflict and for the livelihoods of those in the region. In March 2020, COVID-19 restrictions ended the movement of civilians across the contact line, cutting the rebel-held territories of Donetsk and Luhansk off from the rest of Ukraine. Thirteen months on, it’s hard to see much potential for this border to reopen, and the consequences are looking ever more permanent.
Lives across the front line
Until March 2020, despite the dangers, civilians crossed the front line in eastern Ukraine frequently and openly. The 427-kilometre contact line separates the rebel-held territories – with a population of approximately 3.5 million people – from the rest of the country, home to a total of more than 40 million.
This line isn’t based on any pre-existing boundary. It runs through what had always been one continuous region, now dividing communities in arbitrary ways. Initially, most locals perceived it as a nonsensical obstruction that simply couldn’t last long.
“Imagine you wake up one morning and discover that someone has randomly divided your apartment into two separate zones,” is how my friend Irina Kuzmenko* described it to me in mid-2018. “Suddenly you have to go through the checkpoint to use your own bathroom. There is a gunman sitting on your carpet with his dirty boots, and you have to show him ID and explain why you need to use your own toilet. Moreover, your husband happened to be in the kitchen when the whole thing happened. So, now you are technically enemies, and family reconnection may become a whole problem.”
Irina is a young professional woman who, because of the war, moved out of Donetsk to a smaller town on the Ukrainian side of the front line and was – before the border closure – travelling back regularly to visit her family. Her situation is not at all unique. Many young people left the self-proclaimed rebel republics due to the lack of economic opportunities, while their parents and grandparents remained at home. Others suddenly found themselves on the opposite side of the front line from their jobs, property, friends, even from their favourite parks or fishing spots – everything counts when your life is suddenly divided in two.
People resisted this arbitrary division by continuing to go about their business, even if it required crossing the front line. They were joined by hundreds of thousands of elderly people – the Ukrainian government obliged pensioners residing in rebel-held territories to regularly cross into “mainland” Ukraine and undergo verification in order to continue receiving their pensions.
Together, this resulted in heavy traffic across the front line – on average, over a million crossings per month. Moreover, as the conflict persisted, the number of crossings only grew – for example, in 2018 there were 15 percent more than in 2017, according to the UN.
The virus as a political weapon
Crossing the contact line was never a pleasant experience.
There were only five designated crossing points along the front line; set up in highly militarised zones, and typically just narrow passages for cars and pedestrians with everything around heavily mined. Access to drinking water, cover from the sun and rain, toilets and washing facilities, and medical asssistance were all limited.
Waiting times often exceeded many hours, sometimes even overnight – all in the middle of a minefield. Still, travelling across the front line like this persisted for six long years of the war. Many viewed this intense movement between the warring sides as positive for the chance of future reconciliation – something that kept Ukraine and its breakaway territories together.
That all changed overnight.
On 7 March 2020, Ukraine closed all five crossing points as a measure designed to stop the spread of infection, citing the presumed inability of the separatist authorities to control the pandemic due to shortages of medical staff, equipment, and drugs.
Eight months later, when the Ukrainian side decided to reopen the roads, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic refused to open checkpoints on its side. As a reason for their refusal, the rebel authorities issued a statement that mirrored the Ukrainian explanation earlier that year – the other side was impotent and unqualified to control the spread of COVID-19. In this way, the virus was turned into a political weapon, and millions of people fell victims to it, locked inside rebel-held territories – or unable to enter them.
These tit-for-tat actions translated into millions of personal dramas that continue to this day. Many people have been unable to attend the funerals of their parents or grandparents. Even more can’t see loved ones who are still alive or provide them with much-needed assistance.
At the beginning of the war, Anna Titova* moved to Kyiv while her elderly parents remained in Donetsk. In early 2020, her father suffered a stroke and, almost simultaneously, her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. She travelled back to Donetsk to organise her father’s treatment and took her mother to Kyiv with her. Her father was supposed to join when his treatment was over.
But then the checkpoints suddenly closed, cutting Anna’s father off from the rest of the family. Since then, he has stayed alone in Donetsk, suffering major consequences from the stroke without proper assistance. Anna and her mother are anxiously waiting for the checkpoints to reopen because other ways to reunite with her father, given his condition, are impossible. Any hope this family has of reuniting while everyone is still alive rests on the unlikely prospect of the border reopening. This case may sound exceptional to an outsider, but a version of this situation has happened to nearly every Ukrainian family separated by these checkpoint closures.
Currently, the only way to enter or exit the breakaway territories is through Russia, across the portion of the Russian-Ukrainian border not controlled by Ukraine – and then back into Ukraine, through the “normal” border checkpoint. Such a trip takes an average of 30 hours and costs about $100 each way. However, only businesses of questionable legality provide these rides, and on buses that are poorly maintained and prone to accidents. An advertisement for one of the services in Donetsk boasts the discomforting slogan: “Our drivers don’t fall asleep.”
To add insult to injury, Ukraine treats travelling via Russia as illegal border-crossing and prosecutes citizens for doing so. When caught, people are fined $60 per crossing, which multiplies if not paid within 10 days – a deadline that is impossible to meet for those returning to rebel-held territories since the fine can’t be paid from there. Whether one gets caught or not can be a matter of luck – or of a bribe or not to a border guard, which all adds to the cost and the anxiety levels associated with such trips.
The end of travel between Ukraine and its breakaway territories has predictably weakened the link between the two and created an incentive for the self-proclaimed republics to further drift towards Russia. Since March 2020, due to the border closure, increasing numbers of people living in the rebel-held territories have been choosing Russia, as opposed to Ukraine, as a destination for vacationing, medical services, education, and other needs. Most elderly people have given up maintaining their Ukrainian pensions, relying exclusively on separatist authorities for meagre social benefits.
There has also been a steady shift towards accepting hallmarks of Russian citizenship.
In June 2019, Russia began issuing its passports to the inhabitants of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics. For the first year, however, this opportunity enjoyed only limited popularity. Some people found it unacceptable for ideological reasons, seeing the whole enterprise as illegitimate and hoping for reunification with Ukraine. Others were afraid of losing their Ukrainian citizenship, or of being prosecuted by the Ukrainian government. Still others were put off by the bureaucracy – they first had to apply for the “People’s Republic” passport, and then for the Russian one. Finally, after many months of waiting, they still had to travel across the border to Russia to obtain the actual documents.
Since the checkpoint closure, again, this has all changed.
Finding that Ukrainian passports no longer guaranteed entrance to Ukraine and access to its services, people began turning to Russian citizenship as the only remaining means of connection to the world outside the self-proclaimed republics. As those who chose to stick to their Ukrainian passports gradually became the minority, the separatist authorities seized upon the opportunity to enforce their governance and pressure the remaining population into changing citizenship.
This January, the Donetsk People’s Republic announced its intention – in a draft law – to deprive those who don’t obtain its “passport” of civil and property rights. Anxiety over the law has since subsided as it is still to be adopted, and its stipulation that Ukrainian passport holders will be outlawed by 2025 seems a distant prospect. However, there are now widespread rumours that the separatist authorities could be about to implement exit visas for anyone wishing to travel outside their territories. Such rumours are hard to verify, but many people working in the public sector, such as doctors or teachers, have also reported being pressured into obtaining Russian passports.
This is how, during just one year of the pandemic, a seemingly innocuous border quarantine measure has opened a Pandora’s Box of political ramifications that are cementing the division of Ukrainian society and dimming any prospect of reconciliation.
Finding hope in the ruins
It’s not all bad news.
At the same time as the walls of political division have been strengthened, the noticeable decrease in active fighting over the last few years has brought some relief to frontline communities that were living under constant shelling between 2014 and 2017.
The town of Krasnogorovka, for example, has just lived through its seventh winter without heating or gas. But this may be the last year it has to do so.
Since the outbreak of hostilities, the gas distribution station has been stranded in no man’s land. About 20 apartment blocks in Krasnogorovka had central heating systems and gas-fuelled cooking stoves before the war. Since neither is in supply anymore, occupants have had to install wood-burning stoves, in violation of all imaginable safety measures.
With winter temperatures falling as low as -20 °C (-4 °F), there aren’t many alternatives. Those who can afford it buy firewood or pellet fuel. Those who can’t have to get by on brushwood from the parks, or from furniture, doors, windows, beams – whatever they can harvest from the many abandoned apartments.
Zinaida Minchenko, 75, is one of those forced to camp this way inside her own apartment. In late December, while carrying a load of firewood from her hallway-turned-woodshed, she fell and broke her right arm. When we visited her in mid-January, it was time to remove the cast, but Zinaida had no money for a trip to the hospital or for medical services – she spends about half of her monthly pension on firewood.
“We have no problem with heating here. No heating, no problem!” joked Ivan Pryadka, the head of Krasnogorovka’s evangelical church and a humanitarian activist.
Ivan said people were better off now than in the first years of the war. “In the beginning, we were bewildered, people were freezing in their apartments in winter,” he said. “Now that everyone has those wood-burning stoves, we are much better adapted to the situation.”
The still-desperate situation, however, might soon see further improvement. In late January, both sides of the conflict agreed on a ceasefire to repair and maintain the long-suffering gas distribution station. The Donetsk People’s Republic did threaten a few days later to withdraw its permission for these efforts, but the mere fact there was some negotiation going on gave hope to people in Krasnogorovka – and nearby Marinka – that next winter they might not have to heat themselves with furniture and brushwood.
The village that refuses to die
In a similar vein, there was also a more hopeful mood this winter in Opytnoe, a village stranded in the grey zone between rebel-controlled Donetsk and government-controlled Avdeevka.
For almost seven years now, Opytnoe has existed without electricity, water, gas, heating, grocery stores, or medical services. Not a single building in the village remains intact. Both roads connecting Opytnoe to the outside world are inaccessible due to landmines and military positions. Instead, people have to use a mud road through the minefield. But this track is only usable when the ground is dry. During periods of rain – or in early spring when the snow melts – the people of Opytnoe find themselves completely cut off.
Despite these conditions, about 30 people remain in the village – each of them camping in whatever room remains most intact, whether that’s the barn, the basement, or even the bathroom. Most are elderly and have nowhere else to go. Without sufficient support from the Ukrainian authorities, their survival depends almost entirely on one person: Rodion Lebedev.
The former small business owner turned humanitarian activist is keeping Opytnoe going almost single-handedly; an unsung hero of this war.
Rodion finished building and decorating his house in Opytnoe three months before the conflict started. The war has since been hard on him. He was beaten and humiliated by Ukrainian volunteer soldiers, who suspected him of helping the enemy. They even looted his home in his presence and threatened to rape his wife, Elena. Two of their three children moved away, and Rodion almost never sees them. The house itself was shelled multiple times and almost became a ruin. His many pets – three dogs, two cats, a guinea pig, a parrot, and a turtle – all died during the war; some from shelling, others from stress.
Despite these traumatic experiences, Rodion and Elena stayed and committed to helping their neighbours – mostly elderly people more vulnerable than themselves. Rodion’s yellow minivan is the only means of transport for the village. Free of charge, he drives people, groceries, cash, and humanitarian aid along the mud road through the minefield to nearby Avdeevka.
Every time Rodion reached out for help to the local authorities in the government-controlled part of the Donetsk region, they would dismiss his pleas, saying it didn’t make sense to rebuild the village, and that everyone should leave. At the same time, they failed to offer residents alternative housing, financial compensation, or any viable evacuation plan.
Rodion has been as resourceful as he has been stubborn, keeping the village alive by knocking on every door imaginable. Recently, he solicited an electric cable from an aid organisation, and soon he plans to lay it and connect Opytnoe to the electrical grid in Avdeevka.
While he proudly showed off photographs of the cable reels to his neighbours, they shook their heads in disbelief – after almost seven years of living without any utilities, they didn’t dare believe they might finally have electricity again.
When help comes too late
But not all Opytnoe residents survived to hear Rodion’s good news.
When we started reporting from this village in 2018, there were about 40 people living here. Now, only 30 are left. “People are dying out,” observed Rodion. “It’s too hard for the grandmas and grandpas to live in such conditions. We are dealing with strokes, heart attacks on a regular basis. Some people lost [their] sight and hearing from stress.”
And like many others in communities near the front line, some in Opytnoe have fallen victim to “accidents” that are in fact indirect consequences of the war: Often the results of civilian neglect by the warring sides, these deaths never end up on official casualty lists.
One such person is Maria Gorpynych, or Baba Masha as she insisted on calling herself. A warm and familiar figure for any visitor to Opytnoe, her light-heartedness and generosity in the face of the misery around her made her a living symbol of the struggle and resilience of the village.
Baba Masha never left her home in Opytnoe, despite artillery hitting her house and garden six times. Her son was killed by shelling in front of her.
Each time we visited, she insisted we take some cucumbers or plums from her garden. “Girls, I am ok, I have plenty of everything here,” she would say. “I just want them to leave us alone, and also the electricity back.”
But Baba Masha didn’t live to see the long-awaited restoration of the electric supply. In late November 2019, she died a gruesome death: burned alive inside her home. Like everyone else in Opytnoe, she used candles and gas lamps as sources of light, and one night a gas lamp started a fire. There was no water supply to put out the fire, and firefighters refused to come to Opytnoe as it was considered too dangerous. Neighbours – most of them also elderly – didn’t manage to save Baba Masha on their own. When the fire burned out, Rodion and some other volunteers found what few charred bone fragments they could to give Baba Masha a proper burial.
Hard road ahead
In many frontline areas, the regeneration of shattered communities in the short-term is impossible due to the lack of infrastructure and services.
A range of humanitarian organisations has been operating in the border area since 2014 – from UN agencies and Red Cross programmes to the Danish and Norwegian Refugee Councils. However, as the Ukraine war disappears from the news, the aid for its victims is gradually drying up, with some initiatives closing and others operating with the reduced funding.
The 25,000 inhabitants of Avdeevka have no access to quality healthcare. Before the war, its residents chose to use the much better hospitals in Donetsk, only a 15-minute drive away. As a consequence, the local hospital was always neglected and underfunded. It has been further damaged by shelling since, and most of the medical staff have fled the town.
With Donetsk out of reach, the local hospital remains the only accessible medical facility in the area, despite the absence of virtually every specialised doctor – there is no cardiologist, no endocrinologist, no ophthalmologist, no pulmonologist, no gastroenterologist. The list goes on. The hospital only coped with the coronavirus by sending severe cases to facilities further away.
Even standard medical procedures can pose a serious problem here. For example, only one gynaecologist remained in the town during the war, and the maternity ward has been closed completely since March 2019. Women in labour now have to travel 50 miles to a hospital in another town, but because major roads in and out of Avdeevka run through Donetsk and are inaccessible, they have to use a bumpy dirt road through the field.
Even getting an X-ray in Avdeevka can be a drama. The department is situated in a hospital building that was badly damaged by shelling. While everything else was moved out, the X-ray machine proved too bulky to move. It continues operating on the fourth floor of an otherwise abandoned and deteriorating building, which has no functioning elevator.
When 86-year-old Avdeevka resident Anastasia Shevchuk* fell in her apartment earlier this year and suffered a suspected hip fracture, her family didn’t know what to do. In the end, the family doctor suggested the only workable solution: hiring four men to carry Anastasia up to the fourth floor and back.
The reduction of hostilities in the last year has allowed many of those living near the front line to breathe more freely, and to hope for a return to something a bit more like normal. But the chances of a healthy recovery and the rebuilding of most of these communities are slim.
While the people of Krasnogorovka are holding out for the restoration of gas supplies and heating, even this progress is unlikely to lure back many former residents currently living as refugees and internally displaced persons.
The main reason is the lack of job opportunities.
Before the war, most residents worked in Donetsk – Krasnogorovka being its immediate suburb. With the city now cut off by the front line, few economic opportunities remain. Young people are compelled to leave; even those who would like to stay.
Danil Gluschenko, 19, runs a municipal youth centre called “Hope”. He organises concerts, movie screenings, dance lessons, and other activities for teenagers like himself who have virtually nowhere else to go in a town devastated by the war.
“I love Krasnogorovka and want to stay here and help to rebuild the town,” Danil said. “At the same time, I eventually want to create a family, have children, and I know that this is not the right place to raise them. So, probably, I will have to leave sooner or later.”
*Name changed to protect the person’s identity.