The Ukraine Crisis went viral in November 2013. The country temporarily rejects the Association Agreement with the EU. Chaos, Civil War and War broke out as a subsequence. Many people in the german-language areas of Europe took to the streets, in order to mark a sign against War in Ukraine by vigils at the begin of 2014.
Today, the streets are empty, the vigils are - with a few exceptions - a thing of the past. The War and the Chaos in the country however, are not. On the contrary: The war in the east of Ukraine is a bitter presence up to this very day - and presumably also tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and next week.
And the people are - as in all the wars - the actual victims. Hit the most - as with any wars - old people, the sick and children. After 5 years of war, destruction, hunger and - now currently again - coldness in the war zones, the hope for peace and a "normal" life have nearly completely disappeared within many people there. These are at least the impressions, which several members of Humanitarian Aid Organisations bring back with them to Germany after having visited the place.
The association "Aktionsbündnis Zukunft Donbass e.V." is involveld in projects in the Luganskaya Narodnaya Respublika (LNR), as is the russian name for the People's Republic of Lugansk. The Association "Friedensbrücke Kriegsopferhilfe e.V." is mainly engaged in the People's Republic of Donezk or as well Donyetskaya Narodnaya Respublika (DNR) and manages various projects there.
In a conversation the activists of these organisations describe their impressions of the Donbass. These are subjective impressions of the reality of war, which is not a priority for most mainstream media today. Firstly Ivana Steinigk, member of the Board of the Association "Aktionsbündnis Zukunft Donbass e.V.".
Andrea Drescher: How do you perceive the situation in the LNR?
Ivana Steinigk: In my view, it is continuously bad since 2014, since ultimately nothing has moved. The people are tired of war and the permanent exchange of fire is making them brittle. The recent elections, which are not officially recognized by many, did give the people some encouragement.
Despite the negative propaganda before the election, people could express their political will. Now there are legitimate responsible officials, who can talk with Kiev about the implementation of the Minsk Agreements or with Russia about better trade relations.
The socio-economic situation is a heavy burden for the people. The minimum wage is around 3600 rubels. That's roughly 50 Euros. The pensions are at a comparable level. A doctor in a hospital earns about 8 to 10 thousand rubels, office workers perhaps 5 thousand.
The general pricing is only a little below the russian level: 15 - 20 rubles for a kilogram of bread, 50 rubles for a litre of milk, sugar is 40 rubles per kilogram. Meat is a luxury good - starting at 300 rubles per kilogram upwards. 45 rubles for gasoline, if it is availble. Rent, water and other communal costs have to be paid too. The people in the city, however, live relatively well.
Lugansk is located about 76km east and 12km south-west from the demarkation line. The closer one gets to the frontline, the more difficult the survival is. The hospitals, which are taken care of by us, have been hit harder.
What is the situation there?
Pervomaysk is only 5 kilometres away - and therefore in the war zone. One can continuously hear the shell fire and especially villages near the frontline are being hit frequently. Before the war, it was a large District Hospital with a capacity of up to 20 thousand patients. After heavy shell fire only parts of it could be rebuilt, such that today around 3 thousand people can be taken care of. The hospital in Stahanov has been hit less hard, as it is farther away from the war zone.
Therefore, more people go to Stahanov to be treated, also because many have moved into the interior hinterland areas. My impression is that the situation there is not as severe as in the DNR, but it is still enormously brittling, not knowing when and why the artillery fights intensify. My own analysis of the OSCE-Reports shows me that it is mostly the Kiev-Side, which is active and only rarely the people's militia. One can easily retrace this conclusion by reconstructing the geographic directions reported by the OSCE.
It can be heard that the Russians are very active in the Donbass - is there russian support for the people?
Right from the beginning, there were humanitarian transports from the Russian Federation. 60-70 truck loads with nutrition, medical materials, staple food for the poorest. They were driving frequently - also to private aid organisations as ours.
If they still deliver aid in the same frequency I don't know. The last transport arrived in Lugansk in October 2018. I also heard that the support will be more strongly shifted toward the political level. Meaning financial aid instead of goods delivery, in order to support the economy and to finance the necessary reconstruction and infrastructure rebuilding.
What kind of Aid do you deliver as an Organisation?
We have decided for ourselves to support hospitals with donations in kind. These are institutions, which anybody needs at some point. If one is sick or injured by accident or war: Hospitals for the people - especially in the war zone - are indispensable. At the same time there is a large demand for consumables, medicine and surgical instruments.
Of course also large machinery like MRT devices or functional beds are urgently needed. In 2018 we could send 6 trucks with humanitarian and medical goods to Lugansk.
We are collecting donations in Germany, where we are located in Thuringia and Saxony. We write to Doctors and Hospitals and call for support via Facebook and Betterplace.org, store the goods temporarily and organize the transport. As soon as we have the money for the transport together - per transport we need 3 thousand Euros - the truck starts rolling.
In Lugansk we cooperate with the local authorities via an accredited partner called "Boomerang of Goodness", such that it is ensured that the donations reach their targets, where they are needed most. We don't want to wake lasciviousness, we want to help. This is why we don't make too much noise about the transports.
Do you encounter problems during the transports?
Actually nothing serious, since we work together with an accredited organisation. Of course things are not always working out in a crisis zone as perfectly as we would wish for.
Sometimes there is just no gasoline to transport the goods to the hospitals. We also had difficulties once to pay the haulage company from Belarus. And: you never write the target area of the truck onto the remittance slip, always just the invoice number.
The german authorities were not pleased about our work at the beginning, but because they realized that we act apolitically, they relaxed somewhat. At the end it is about helping people.
When was the last transport?
It was just very recently at the 18th of November. We could deliver a Dentist Chair, two surgical desks, two sterilizers for surgical equipment, a medical bathtub and many hospital beds. Furthermore, we managed to collect and deliver about 200 christmas packages for orphaned kids in Lugansk. And of course large amounts of consumable materials, which we got from 2 thuringian doctors, who work in the Netherlands.
Because of the very strict hygiene rules there, opened packages of material may only be used for so long. From a large pack of diapers, sometimes 30 or so are left and also unopened cannula packages have to be thrown away after some time, when the overall packaging is opened. Those two doctors collect the materials in their Hospital and take it to their parents in Thuringia, where we pick it up and send it off.
Do you have plans for 2019?
Of course! We got a donation of 2 small busses for transporting handicapped people, as well as 17 metric tons of baby food. These transports have to be financed now. Also we possibly would like to continue to send a truck every 2 months. I also want to visit Lugansk again and plan on escorting the small busses.
Why are you doing this?
When I am at the location in Lugansk I can document what is going on. Now, during winter time, the situation is particularly tough, especially along the frontline in the destroyed villages. I talk to Doctors and the staff and assure myself that everything works out and check where the goods are going to.
The material, which I produce doing this - meaning Pictures and Videos - I would like to show in a little touring exhibition together with russian war reporters in 2019.
There is way too much silence. One has to make the suffering visible.
For this purpose we also do our PR work, which is the more credible when I report directly from the location. Only in this way we can gain more support.
Which form of support do you need?
Of course, money - the trucks have to be paid. And people, who help us to get the organisation work and administrative tasks done, to which belongs the correspondence with Doctors and Hospitals, the organizing of the medical goods at our collection locations, the distribution of flyers and the collection of money donations. There is always a lot to do and we are happy about anybody, who wants to help.
More on that at www.zukunftdonbass.org
Also Liliane Kilinc, Head of the Board of the association "Friedensbrücke Kriegsopferhilfe e.V.", describes the situation at the location from her own experiences.
Andrea Drescher: Also to you the first question: How do you see the situation in the DNR?
Liliane Kilinc: In Donezk the situation is very tense. Especially after the murder of Alexander Sachartchenko there is a lot of tremor. The political development is intransparent for me.
At the dawn of the election there were exclusions of candidates and parties, i.e. the communist party. I can't say were it will evolve to. Additionally, there is the permanent shelling, many villages at the frontline never get to rest. Minsk2 is completely ignored.
In my view the situation of the people there has worsened. But one has to differentiate; in the city of Donezk people live better than those in the villages. In downtown Donezk nothing from the war is felt, but as soon as you cross the outskirts of the city it becomes pretty hefty.
Let's take Heating for example: In the cities it is no problem, but in the villages there are different categories. Directly at the frontline people get coal for free, but if you are further away from the frontline you have to pay.
This is of course a big problem for pensioners or single parents. Also, there are categories with the reconstruction work: There appears to be no point to reconstruct buildings near the frontline. But sometimes it would be a small thing to repair a roof to protect the building from water incursion . But that does not happen, when the building falls into the wrong category. Also in terms of medical care there are remarkable differences.
In many villages the simplest things are lacking. Every place, which is far away from the city and near the frontline is a nightmare concerning the supply and care situation. In villages, where previously 1 thousand or more people had lived only 300 old and ill, as well as wifes and kids of fallen fathers are left.
Out of 250 houses only 40 are halfway habitable. In some areas clean drinking water is pure luxury. There are no staple foods and without the self provision from home gardens and the help from Aid Organisations the people there would simply die.
Where did you get this information from?
I have been at these locations myself from October 22nd to November 2nd 2018. we are visiting the area twice a year since 2015. These are my own concrete experiences. The villages at the frontline are barely accessible and largely cut off from the supply line. They are also under permanent shelling fire. Not a good feeling at all.
I had to witness myself again this year, what this means. We had been up to 500 metres away from the front line during the distribution of aid. Help there is only possible with an armoured vest.
Why do you expose yourself to this?
There are multiple reasons. Firstly, I would like to continue to control our projects, which are running for years now, by myself. I want to know, what is really needed, what happened in the last months and where we can help the best. We are recognized as an Aid Organisation in the DNR and are allowed to work at the location together with the authorities, ministries and volunteers. The Meetings, agreements and contact relations are very important.
It is also a personal desire of mine to show the people there that we do not forget them. I would like to let them feel this solidarity. I know, how important this is for people. The help, which we can provide is only a drop in the bucket, but the people always let us feel how precious this drop is for them. They are infinitely grateful for this.
Which kind of aid do you deliver?
This is a broad spectrum: From Emergency Deliveries of nutrition, medicine and heating material to help to help one-self und support for reconstruction, as well as promotion of culture and sports for children and youngsters. We also help particularly those, who fall outside of the categories mentioned earlier.
We repair lightly damaged roofs - accepting the danger that it will be destroyed again. We are financing the coal, where people can't afford to buy it. The autism center, which we support, did not even have enough money to finance the repair of the water connections in the bathroom.
All in all we have completed at least 80 projects. The biggest one was the evacuation of nearly 600 kids out of the bunkers and cellars from the frontline areas to peace-camps in Russia, Rostov, Krasnodar and Taganrog. A few weeks bunker-free - which means a few weeks rest from war. Just to live without fear for a certain time. Many of these kids I met there, being in tears. They expressed their gratitude for this time again with selfmade handicraft work.
Is Russia not supporting?
On our way back home, we met a transport convoi of 18 white trucks. But the people perceive it differently. In my many conversations from Donezk to the frontline I got the impression, that the help from Russia has become significantly less.
One feels really left alone, without hope, especially for a political solution. This is really bad for the people - but this is for me, as well as for the organisation motivation to continue the work. Even if it becomes more difficult.
Why is it becoming more difficult? Where are the problems?
In Germany things are still being reported from a strong pro-ukrainian angle, and according to the pro-ukranian propaganda there, Russia should be sanctioned further and stronger and the people of the Donbass shall be punished for their desire for self-determination. We are being attacked from time to time and there are threats against our activities from supporters of the Kiev-Regime. Therefore, some well-intentioned people retreat out of fear, understandably.
Due to the change in government in Donezk, we had to get newly accredited again. This has worked out quickly and seamlessly. But now, we only may enter the frontline areas with an escort, which is mandatory. That provides us with more security, but makes us less flexible.
As a non-profit organisation in Germany and accredited aid organisation in Donezk we are subject to strong oversight, but we have completed all tests without problems - but this is not so easy for our donors to differentiate. The war is in its 5th year now.
But you plan on continuing?
In any case, yes. Our Christmas Activities and another transport are being prepared. We will also continue to take care of our projects in 2019. We will particularly continue to force the Help for Self-Help project and more humanitarian aid transports are also in the planning.
In April, we will participate in an international conference in Donezk, where the aid by various organisations from Germany, Russia, France, Italy and other countries will be coordinated more efficiently.
Then we have a Choir-Event in Moskau, with choirs from Germany and Russia, Donezk and Ghorlovka, which we organize together with the veteran association of Moscow. The latter will take care of the Lodging and Catering for the kids in Moscow.
Do you need Support?
Also here: In any case, yes. We are mainly asking for money donations, since many goods can be bought much cheaper in Russia or in the Donbass and the transport costs from here to there are much higher, such that we will only transport dedicated and particularly needed goods from here. A list with concrete activities, for which we collect donations, can be found on our homepage.
More on that at www.fbko.org
If one looks at the situation in Eastern Ukraine alone, all this gives only little hope. But what gives a lot of hope is the fact that there are people, who get involved and who show solidarity and help for other people.
Perhaps one or the other Rubicon-reader would like to give support as well. Then there will be a few more drops, by which help is given.