Reaching families on the front lines of conflict


July 2, 2015

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  • Like many homes in eastern Ukraine, this one was destroyed by an artillery hit. People are now displaced and living in cramped and often unsanitary conditions. All photos: Mercy Corps

A fragile ceasefire is holding in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and Mercy Corps’ water and sanitation expert Mugur Dumitrache has been traveling to war-torn villages in eastern Ukraine to talk with displaced people and local administrators about their experiences with the current conflict.

His task has been to find out what people need, and the best ways to provide aid to those affected by the war.

Mugur has seen for himself that shelter is the most immediate concern. Many people have been forced to abandon their homes due to damage from the fighting between Ukrainian forces and separatists.

The mayor of Popasna city told us that before the February ceasefire, 115 out of 198 multi-story apartment buildings were damaged, and more than 700 single-family homes will need serious repairs. The shelling there killed at least 45 people, and most residents have fled in search of safer housing.

To help people displaced by the conflict, initial aid focuses on the “one warm, dry room” concept — ensuring that each family has at least one room that is protected from the elements. But even as the conflict drags on, people like those in Popasna want to start rebuilding their homes and their lives.

Mugur and a coworker discuss shelter needs with the mayor of Popasna city.

“We are aware of the risk that armed hostilities could begin again, bringing new damages,” says Mugur. “But we should adapt our strategy to meet the needs and aspirations of the people we are helping.”

When visiting people in the small front-line towns of the conflict, it’s clear how important home is during this crisis. Some people have chosen to stay, and others are forced to remain because of other circumstances.

In Stanitsa Luhanska — a small town split in half by the “line of contact” that has seen shelling by both sides — an elderly couple shows the holes in their kitchen and bedroom ceiling left from when six mortar rounds smashed into their home. One of their sheds was leveled and their garden pocked by craters. Today, they live in a neighbor’s borrowed spare room.

“How can we live like this, without a home of our own, like dogs?” asks the woman. “This isn’t living, we’re just torturing ourselves!”

A family of five lives next door in a home that’s scarred by shrapnel but has luckily not been shelled. Mikhail and Tanya have stayed with their six-year-old daughter and his elderly parents throughout the fighting — Mikhail’s mother is bedridden and can’t be evacuated.

Mikhail shows off the homemade wheelchair he made for her by welding a padded metal chair to the chassis of a baby carriage. They’ve been sleeping in a basement shelter for the better part of six months. Because the entrance to the basement is partially exposed to the outside, Mikhail has built a sturdy wall of pine logs in front of it.

“It’s a shrapnel barrier,” he says. “To protect our daughter if a shell lands outside the basement door.”

This crowded basement is where Mikhail, Tanya and their family have been staying for safety.

Another woman in the neighborhood, Svetlana, explains that she has stayed in Stanitsa Luhanksa because “this is our land, we won’t abandon it.” She remembers back to her birthday during the fighting in January. “My girlfriends came over, they brought me flowers and read me poems in the basement.”

To help people like Svetlana recover, we are providing assistance that will help people rebuild their damaged homes. But access to clean water is another clear challenge for people living in damaged homes, temporary shelters, or crowded rooms.

To ensure that everyone has the clean water they need, we’re focused on helping affected municipalities restore damaged water and sewer lines. The toll the fighting has taken on public infrastructure is severe: the mayor of Popasna said that in January, 60 shells landed on or near the city’s water facility in one night.

Mugur, Mercy Corps’ water and sanitation expert, has met with local officials to determine where strategic support from Mercy Corps could have the greatest effect, be it repairing damaged pumps, replacing shattered pipes or procuring equipment for utilities.

Many of the towns most in need of such assistance are located in non-government controlled territory. To reach these hard-hit places, our team works out of an office in Luhansk city to provide aid.

A man in Stanitsa Luhanska surveys the damage to a neighboring home.

In the coming months, Mercy Corps will work to ensure that everyone has access to clean and safe water. This work will include repairing water pumps and damaged pipes, rehabilitating catchment basins, and trucking water into smaller villages that have no usable infrastructure.

It’s expected that these initial projects will help provide clean water to about 38,000 residents of eastern Ukraine.

Before the war, Stanitsa Luhanska sent water across the Severskiy Donets River to Luhansk, and in turn received its electricity from the other side. Today these connections are disrupted, either by physical damage or by a lack of communication between Ukrainian and non-government controlled territories. “We’re learning to be self-sufficient,” he says of having to adapt to the new conditions.

In this time of crisis, local administrators, volunteers and international aid organizations like Mercy Corps are coming together to help the people of eastern Ukraine by repairing homes, helping displaced people find shelter, and providing much-needed food, water and medical aid.

This community effort has inspired an unusual and warm appreciation for public workers in eastern Ukraine. “All the ambulance drivers in town were out every night under the shelling, helping people who were hurt in their homes,” said Svetlana. “They’re all heroes, one hundred percent!”

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