KRASNOHORIVKA — The sound of canon fire has become more distant of late in Krasnohorivka. But the war continues to haunt Lioudmila Sidonnka. The young mother's stories are those of soldiers running in all directions, of smoking tanks, never-ending detonations, nights spent in her building's basement, houses on fire.
Little wonder that so many residents in this hamlet, on the Ukrainian side of the frontline, have left. After three years of conflict, only about 100 people — a third of the ghost village's pre-war population — remain. Lioudmila and her family are among the holdouts. Her 14-year-old son, Vadim, shows us shell fragments that he's collected. He also shows us around his school, the only connection he still has to real life. Life before the war.
Before the fighting began, most of Krasnohorivka's inhabitants worked in Donetsk, the main city in eastern Ukraine's Donbass region, now controlled by the separatists and therefore inaccessible. Lioudmila, 35, dwells on the living nightmares she and her family have to endure. "The father is very scared. If something unexpected happens, he starts shouting, "Run to the basement!" And the boy screams in his sleep sometimes. Then he wakes up and hides. The sense of panic has never left him."
Relying on Russia
The main public utilities are gone from almost every hamlet we visit. North of Donetsk, in Avdiivka — where most of the fighting is taking place — a recent strike on a gas pipeline has ruined all hope of the heating being restored quickly. "Hundreds of thousands of people risk spending the winter without water or heating while temperatures can drop to -20 degrees Celsius (-4°F)," a group of NGOs warned in late November.
The local economy is in tatters, leaving those who weren't able to flee — an estimated 4 million people — all the more destitute. Since it began, in the spring of 2014, the war in Donbass has killed more than 10,000 people. This year, the rhythm of deaths and injuries subsided, though ceasefire violations happen on a daily basis. Ten days before our arrival, two Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 17 others wounded. But the rebel authorities only publish civilian statistics (one dead and five wounded in the same period).
"There are still deaths but nobody talks about it anymore," says Mathias Eick, spokesman for ECHO, the European Commission's humanitarian aid program.
For several months, the separatist authorities have been refusing access to most Western journalists and, in 2015, they expelled the main foreign NGOs. The oligarch and Donbass steel magnate Rinat Akhmetov, who was helping some 100,000 people, had to close his fund for fear of having his assets seized. Today, the two self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk "could not live without humanitarian aid from Russia," says Alain Aeschlimann, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Ukraine, one of the very few international organizations working on both sides of the front line.
Huge white trucks bearing the Russian eagle continue to cross the border from east to west, albeit at an irregular frequency, but the Western powers don't know what the contents are. "People here have developed a certain form of resilience, but I do not know how long they will endure all of that," the ICRC official says.
To reach the mobile clinic set up by the NGO Doctors of the World in Zolotoe, a village that has experienced a surge of tension since mid-November, it sometimes takes patients a whole day. They come for comfort as much as for medicine. "If I'm still alive today, I owe it to chance," says Tatiana Grigorievna, 83, before bursting into tears. She lives near the front line, in a house in the forest with her asthmatic son.
In a corridor, a psychologist — a profession that, before the war, was seen as basically useless — offers advice to stupefied men and women: Do not watch "agitating" television programs before bedtime, check your blood pressure daily, etc.
Exhausted by three years of constant stress, civilians who are in closest contact with the fighting no longer care about how or why it started, or which of its protagonists bear the most responsibility. They just worry about how the conflict affects food supplies and their health. "People sort of got used to it," says Valery Konovalov, the director of a badly damaged water distribution plant in Avdiivka. "They keep on working despite the shooting and the explosions."
The only tangible link that connects so-called Eastern Ukrainians to their country is the retirement pension from the state. Under a law deemed worrisome by the country's European sponsors, Kiev requires citizens to justify that they live west of the front line to be able to claim their pension on the 20th of each month. To verify the information, Ukrainian officials make surprise visits, and so a lot of people have to shuttle back and forth.
Everyday these border dwellers gather at the Mayorsk border post, the main crossing point between the two territories. Last year, 1.1 million people were counted up there, sometimes having to wait eight hours in the summer periods before being able to cross.
Since the end of October, a new problem has added to the chronic issue of traffic jams. In a show of allegiance to Moscow, the rebel republics didn't change their clocks for the winter. Meanwhile, west of the border, the period of time the checkpoint is open each day was moved back an hour —for security reasons. Under cover of darkness, the two warring sides take up arms again almost routinely, without the OSCE observers being able to identify which side violates the truce first.
"I bless my daughter for having emigrated to Germany and escaping all of this," Tamara sighs. "Here, nothing's changing." In her 60s, the woman officially lives with her sister west of the frontline. But in fact, she lives to the east, in Horlivka — alone, she says, with her cats and her fish. "I don't talk to anyone over there," Tamara adds before rushing into a minibus with her meager pension.
To improve the situation, the UN Refugee Agency — the UNHCR — has financed the construction of an additional checkpoint in Mayorsk, which the organization controls. But in doing so, the agency is being accused of validating the territory's separation, which is contrary to the Minsk agreements that then French President Francois Hollande, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko signed in February 2015.
"In fact, the conflict is frozen, and this situation benefits everybody," a humanitarian worker posted on the front line explains. The man goes on to say that the Ukrainian government "discriminates against its own population" by imposing administrative restrictions on Ukrainians living to the east.
Officially, the purpose of these measures is to encourage people to flee to the west and thus to indirectly weaken the eastern territories. But their application has been chaotic, and it has paved the way for rampant corruption. Meanwhile, Moscow is launching a diplomatic offensive aimed at deploying its own brand of Blue Helmet peacekeepers in the region, but the scope of their mandate has the Russians and Westerners opposing each other at the UN Security Council.
"The only way to make the situation evolve would be to allow them to patrol along the border between Russia and the occupied territories," says Igor Sarudnev, the Ukrainian officer overseeing the Mayorsk checkpoint. But Moscow has rejected this prospect. More recently, Vladimir Putin promised to exert his "influence" on rebel leaders to facilitate a prisoner exchange.
"The Russians are trying to stabilize the conflict, but without changing the currently prevailing status quo," says Georgiy Tuka, Ukraine's deputy minister for refugees. The liberal politician criticizes the residency justifications imposed by his own government on eastern Ukrainians. But among the hawks surrounding President Poroshenko, his voice is virtually inaudible.