Ukraine: Shattered Lives, Unbroken Spirits

Millions of people struggle to survive winter in damaged homes near the contact line in eastern Ukraine. Pictured: Opytne. IOM/Volodymyr Shuvayev.

Kyiv — This year the conflict in eastern Ukraine, largely forgotten by the international media, will mark its fifth anniversary. IOM and other humanitarian agencies working in the country estimate that 3.5 million people in Ukraine still need assistance. The number has risen slightly in the past year, due to the impact of landmines and the mental and psychological scars of the drawn-out conflict.

More than 30 per cent of people in need of assistance are over 60, and more than half are women and children. Women are particularly affected in the areas closest to the conflict zone, where they head six in every ten families.

Every week, civilians are injured or killed near the contact line, the 427-km-long divide between the non-government-controlled areas (NGCA) and government-controlled areas (GCA), due to active fighting or landmines. Over 3,000 civilians have already been killed and up to 9,000 injured since 2014. Homes, schools, hospitals, water and sanitation facilities are often shelled.

IOM has been assisting the most vulnerable conflict-affected people on both sides of the contact line in eastern Ukraine. Their stories speak more eloquently than any reports.

Mykola, 78. IOM/ Polina Perfilieva

Mykola is 78. He and his wife live in the small town of Yasynuvata, 16 kilometres north-east of non-government controlled Donetsk. He worked as a coal miner for 33 years, right back to Soviet times, a hard, rough job. Now his children live in the nearby city of Makiivka, and though his granddaughters often visit him, he and his wife cope with their shattered lives alone. He received coal from IOM to get him through the bitter winter months.

“The shelling is constant,” Mykola says, “Last year, on 30 January, there was a loud bang, all the windows smashed, the window frames were torn out. My wife was injured and now she is bedridden.”
He sighs. “Let there be no more war, let peace prevail”.
Viktoria, 80. IOM/ Polina Perfilieva

Viktoria is 80 years old. She lives alone in the non-government controlled village of Styla, situated 34 kilometres south from Donetsk and just four kilometres from the contact line. For the moment it’s quiet here, but the situation remains tense.

She is a victim of the conflict

“I got caught in the crossfire. I was pushed by the blast wave and fell on the right side of my body, now I am blind in one eye, deaf in one ear and my thigh hurts all day and night.”

Her granddaughter is 40 years old and she sometimes comes to visit. Three great-grandsons are studying in Donetsk. One of them will come to help install the stove IOM provided.

Oksana, 35. IOM/ Polina Perfilieva

In the non-government controlled town of Shakhtarsk the sound of machine-gun fire is clearly audible, sowing panic among the local population. Local resident Oksana is 35 and has three children aged from four to six.

“I receive some small social benefits for the children and sometimes some humanitarian aid,” she says. “This is enough only to get food and clothes for kids.” She is trying to find a job, but it is challenging for a single mother of three. Job opportunities are scarce, and all that’s in Oksana’s CV is “homemaker”.

Every weekday she gets up at 6 am, walks her kids 2.5 kilometres to school, gets on a bus to Shakhtarsk, applies for jobs, leaves in the afternoon, walks to the store, gets food for dinner, and helps her kids with homework while she prepares the evening meal. She has relatives in town, but they have their own families, and can’t help, she told us.

“Raising my family is all on me.”

Liliia. IOM/ Volodymyr Shuvayev

Liliia, a mother of four, who has a hearing disability, made a tough decision not to move from Avdiivka, an industrial town located just six kilometres from the contact line in the GCA, after heavy shelling in 2015.

“My mother died of cancer in December. She could hardly walk,” she says. “I could not leave her, and we spent all those terrible days here, together with my children.”

She still recalls the terrifying incidents of shelling in February 2015.

“We were hiding in the doorway, lined with pillows, our hands held together, and praying,” Liliia recalls. “Then a shell broke the window in my mother’s bedroom. Shards of glass and bits of furniture fell on us. I tried to cover up my children — look, I have scars after that day.”

During the months they spent without electricity, heating and water, Liliia tried to do various kinds of crafts with her children.

“In the candle light, we were drawing and painting, sewing and embroidering, making collages, artificial flowers and pieces of furniture. We tried to keep our hands busy to cope with our fears and feel we were still alive.”

Another disaster happened when the central heating was restored: the pipes had cracked from being frozen, and hot water flooded their flat. Liliia and her children completed all the refurbishment works by themselves.

As a person with a disability and mother of four, Lillia receives social benefits, but this money can hardly cover all her expenses. Recently she participated in IOM programme providing self-employment opportunities for conflict-affected people and received a professional sewing machine and related equipment.

“Clients came immediately after I posted an announcement on social media,” says Liliia. “People ask me to mend, sew and alter clothes and now I am able to pay for my children’s school and dancing classes.”
IOM offers an array of assistance to conflict-affected populations in eastern Ukraine. IOM/Volodymyr Shuvayev.

This article was written by IOM staff, Polina Perfilieva and Anna Pochtarenko.