ISTANBUL — At a time when the imagery of death and destruction is coming from the war in Syria, there is another conflict that's almost forgotten by the world. The conflict in Ukraine is no longer officially “frozen,” experts at the United Nations say. It broke out in March 2014, when the Russian military invaded Ukraine's Crimea region to back the separatists. The Russian-backed guerillas had launched an armed insurgency against the European Union-backed Ukrainian government a few months earlier. Nearly 9,700 people have died since the conflict began, and 1.7 million have been internally displaced.
Although the Minsk Protocol, a ceasefire agreement between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany, came into effect in September 2014, the skirmishes between the warring parties continue.
Neal Walker, the head of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Ukraine, spoke to TRT World about the impact the ongoing fighting is having on ordinary Ukrainians.
It seems like the conflict in Ukraine is not as intense now as it was before the ceasefire was announced in September 2014. How are things on the ground?
NEAL WALKER: One of the challenges we face is that there isn’t enough visibility on what is actually an ongoing conflict. We have a ceasefire, we have [the] Minsk peace accord, but the reality is that there are 40,000 violations of the ceasefire a month. So you understand that along this contact line, where citizens are trying to cross back and forth, there is constant shelling, fighting. There [are] problems on both sides: the military equipment is being embedded into civilian areas, which increases the risk of death and injury for civilians and damages the civilian infrastructure. Overall, what I can say is that this is not a frozen conflict, this is a continuing, protracted conflict.
[NOTE: To bring down the level of violence, two ceasefire deals called the Minsk Protocol I and II were signed between Ukraine, Russia, France and Germany in September 2014 and February 2015]
That certainly must be continuing to displace people?
NW: There are about 1.7 million internally displaced. Now, of those, we estimate probably as many as 800,000 are displaced, but they are more or less steadily building lives in government-held areas. Another 200 or 300,000 have returned to areas beyond government control, and are trying to reestablish their lives back there. Then there is a large group that’s going back and forth, they are really torn between properties and family and connections on one side, and what they see their needs are on the other side. So this movement of people is quite important, and we highlight to government officials and to the international community that between 700,000 and one million Ukrainians every single month are crossing back and forth across this contact line. And they are doing so, even though if it can take them 10 to 20 hours [waiting] in a queue, and occasionally there is an outbreak of fighting. It is evidence that these people still consider themselves to be Ukrainian, to see their connection with Ukraine. We think this is actually positive and should be an element of consideration in building peace.
What are they exposed to when they go back and forth?
NW: It is very difficult to predict how long it takes to cross over. There is five crossing points, but in general it can take anywhere between 10 and 30 hours. Sometimes, since they don’t operate at night, what it means: it’s a long queue, and you are sitting there in your car overnight because it is just an arbitrary line on a long road in the empty countryside, where these contact positions are. At the crossing points themselves, there has been some heating tents established, and there are some facilities and there is a little bit of normalcy about it. Nevertheless, you have to understand, it is a hardship for these people. It is really looking like a border. It is looking like an international border.
What pushes the people to cross over to dangerous zones?
NW: They have their properties in non-government-controlled areas. They need to make sure those properties are okay. Often, they may leave a member of the family to somehow watch it — to make sure it is inhabited, that it is not taken over by somebody. The older people want to collect their pensions. They need to come back into government-controlled areas because there is no real banking system in the areas [held by the separatists], and there is no acceptance of credit cards. Often, there are some things which are cheaper on the government-controlled side and [which] are easier to get. There is all these mix of reasons, in which at the end of the day for them, they must do this [move between the warring zones]. From our perspective, it is a positive element. It will be a sad change if suddenly people have no interest in moving between the two zones.
We often think about rebel-held areas as something that would be devoid of any institutional setup. How is it like there?
NW: Well, we go over there (separatist-controlled areas), and I am probably one of the few heads of missions who is going back and forth. Of course, there is what you call state-like services. They have their security services; they have their education department; they have their health department. There is a functioning government, at one level.
Does it look democratic?
NW: [Laughs] It’s not really clear to me in any way. I don’t ask them what it’s like…
What's your focus at in separatist-controlled areas?
NW: Our primary focus is on humanitarian assistance, providing shelter, medical supply and food; a number of things. In the eastern part of Ukraine, there are both humanitarian and recovery needs. Humanitarian needs are what we consider to be critical life-saving requirements. People need potable water; in a winter climate they need heat; they need shelter over their heads; they need certain kinds of food and medicine ... The humanitarian needs are particularly acute in areas where there is ongoing fighting.
In the government-controlled areas, we have significant success helping the local authorities to restart lives. We focus on restoration of critical social infrastructure: hospitals, bridges, community centres, all of these kinds of facilities which are the engine of any society.
Do you see any tensions building up in neighbourhoods due to the influx of displaced people?
NW: It is very easy for communities to fall in the trap of "We were here before you weren’t" or "Well, I am sorry I am here because I have to be, I didn’t choose to be."
In my view, there is not that much difference in Ukrainian culture. I have worked in so many places of the world where the divide is so explicit. It's racial, it's religious, it's language, [but] it's none of that in Ukraine. They look alike, they speak alike.
How difficult is it to have a social cohesion in areas where internally displaced people have moved in?
NW: In Ukraine, the connection between humanitarian work and recovery development work is probably closer than in most countries where I have been and that’s because it was a middle income country to begin with. So issues of restoring agriculture, restoring some of the food processing facilities and other businesses and so on and so forth, it’s easier in a population which is used to industrialised and economised context.
Who is bearing the brunt of the violence?
NW: It is unusual. We have old people and pensioners. Old people have felt more tied to their home and their land. Some of them are living in very difficult conditions in their own homes, just near the contact line.
I visited some of them. One old couple told me, "We are here in our house," and I could see that their house was half destroyed. Half of it was hit by a shell and destroyed, so they were living in the remaining half. They said, "We left because the fighting was still continuing near here and it was dangerous." So when they went, they were given a tiny one-room place to live in, which they had to pay for. The room rent was taking all of their pension. And it wasn’t like living in their own home. So they made this very difficult decision to move back to their house. And they fixed up half of the house. And they said, "This is our home; we have a little garden, a little dog and a cat." They seemed happy to be in their house. I have met several old aged couples like that.