Ukraine's blockade on breakaway east forces tough choices on rebels

In self-styled 'people's republics' in eastern Ukraine the arrival of winter means hardship for civilians as coal and food are in short supply. More than 1,000 people have died since a Sept. 5 cease-fire was signed by Russia and Ukraine.

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
People unload a truck carrying humanitarian aid for Ukraine in Makiivka in Donetsk region, last week. According to Russian media, over 50 trucks arrived in Donetsk while another 80 trucks arrived in Luhansk.

As temperatures plunge across eastern Ukraine, pro-Russia rebels in this coal-mining village face two major challenges: Feeding schoolchildren and pensioners, and keeping homes supplied with fuel.  

It won’t be easy. Like much of this breakaway region, Komunar is deeply scarred by a 10-month-long conflict that has destroyed public infrastructure, houses, and many of the region's mines and factories. The UN estimates that more than 4,700 have died in eastern Ukraine, including over 1,000 since a cease-fire was declared on Sept. 5. The death toll includes nearly 300 passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 that was shot down near here in July. 

Since then, Komunar has changed hands – and paid a heavy price. From mid-August to late-September, Ukrainian Army and militia units were based there. Rebels bombarded the village daily with heavy artillery, and eventually forced out the Ukrainian forces, which had also shelled the area. 

When rebel commander, Viktor Gusyov, arrived in the village on Oct. 30 to take charge, he was shocked by the conditions. Nearly 40 percent of the village’s buildings were destroyed or damaged. A third of the village's 2,500 residents had evacuated. Shell-shocked families were living in houses with plastic for windows or only half a roof. There was no electricity or water and dwindling food stocks. 

"My first impression was that there was no way anyone could live in such conditions," Mr. Gusyov said. 

Since then, things in Komunar have deteriorated further. The lights and water are back on, but residents here – about two-thirds of whom are pensioners – are quickly running out of food and money.

Pensions, state services suspended

Last month Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko declared an economic blockade on self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk. International aid organizations say the presidential decree has exacerbated an already desperate situation for 3.5 million Ukrainians in the country's east. The UN warned this week that civilians are living in a potentially “dire” situation as cold temperatures set in and daily essentials run short. 

Mr. Poroshenko’s decree canceled all state services and budget payments to areas that broke away from Kiev's control in spring after the overthrow of a pro-Russian leader and a pivot towards Europe

On Dec. 1, Ukraine officially ended pension payments to millions of senior citizens in the region; many hadn't been paid in months. Banks in rebel areas have also been cut off, so even those with savings can't withdraw cash. Poroshenko has said the budget cuts are a response to the rebels' unofficial election held on Nov. 2. 

“Basically, no one has any money, so no one can buy food or coal,” Gusyov says.

Coal is a critical commodity in eastern Ukraine because many houses and apartments individually burn coal to heat their homes and don't have central heating. For a single-family home this requires roughly three metric tons of coal for winter, which many families can't afford. 

The region still has plenty of coal in the ground, both the type used for home stoves and for heavy industry, but many mines are damaged and have yet to be repaired. And even if rebels can revive the industry, it's unclear who would buy coal from an unrecognized republic. 

“Four of our seniors died last month. Officially, they marked them as having heart attacks. But I believe they died of hunger,” the commander adds.

Aid trickles in

In the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, international and local aid groups are handing out food, medicine, and clothing to the most vulnerable groups—mothers with small children, invalids, and pensioners. Across the city, long lines of seniors in winter coats and hats wait for handouts of macaroni, cereals, canned meats or fish, condensed milk, and sugar.

Some of the aid has been offloaded from Russian truck convoys, which Ukraine says crossed the border illegally. Some comes from Ukraine’s richest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov, a Donetsk native who now lives outside of the rebel-held territory.

“It’s not right what Ukraine has done to us here,” said Svetlana Bolatska, from Makiivka, who stood in line with her husband and two-year-old daughter. “I don’t know what we ever did to them to make them hate us so much that they would send their army in here to kill their own people. And now they are trying to starve us to death.”

Humanitarian aid has yet to make to remote towns and villages like Komunar, which lies about 30 miles from Donetsk. Were it not for the two large coal mines nearby, it would barely register on the map. After bridges were damaged and drivers forced to reroute, local buses stopped coming; residents said they felt forsaken by both sides of the conflict, whose guns and tanks had wrecked so much havoc.  

Coal donations

Gusyov and his rebel fighters are now running a soup kitchen here, which feeds up to 180 people every day except Sunday. Funding for the vegetables, potatoes, and rice that goes into the meal comes from Gusyov’s own pocket and donations from local residents who are still have spare cash. 

The next project will be to ask for coal and cash donations before the thermometer drops below freezing, Gusyov said. Residents also need to find construction materials to replace blown out windows and roofs before the first snowfall. 

“We do what we can to survive, what can I tell you?” said Artyom Zoblotsky, whose parents' house was hit by heavy artillery in late August, wiping out its green house, coal storage, and all the windows. Today, heavy plastic covers the windows, where his parents live. Mr. Zoblotsky brings in food and other supplies to his parents once a week from Donetsk.

"This isn’t ideal, but this is how we live. We’re living,” he said with a shrug.

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