What is happening to civilians trapped in eastern Ukraine’s war zone?

No place to live. Stringer/Reuters

It may not be making many headlines in the American news media, but – despite an official ceasefire – the killing continues in eastern Ukraine. Since May 2014, over 6,000 people have lost their lives in the fighting, fighting that has been largely orchestrated by the Kremlin.

It was the bloodless occupation of Crimea in February 2014 that paved the way for Russian President Vladimir Putin to take another bite out of Ukraine, this time in the eastern part of the country.

As an anthropologist and a Fulbright Scholar in Ukraine, I have been interviewing people displaced by the conflict in the East throughout May and June 2015. What the mainstream American news has failed to report is the disregard for basic human rights on the Ukrainian side.

Revolution and counterrevolution in 2014

Here is how the Ukrainian story is usually told.

In February 2014, the “Revolution of Honor” (called the revolution of dignity in the US) led to the fall of the Russian-friendly (and egregiously corrupt) Yanukovich government. This in turn sparked a separatist pro-Russian movement in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Lugansk.

Then, after newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko began a counter-offensive in June 2014, the Kremlin sent in more soldiers, armed with more sophisticated weapons.

What has followed is the loss of some 6,200 lives, along with 1.2 million displaced, and tens of thousands of wounded.

Living in the war zone. Baz Ratner/Reuters

The aggression against Ukraine violated the post-Cold War international order and called into question its basic principles. And failing to coordinate an adequate response tempts other, potentially even more egregious, violations.

But is Putin really the only one to disparage? We are too accustomed to seeing this war in comfortable black-and-white terms, with Ukraine the underdog, struggling to survive.

In fact, Ukraine faces the perpetual dilemma of statecraft: balancing the need to maintain national security while also attempting to observe individual human rights.

And just as the border regime between Mexico and the United States often privileges national security over human rights (to the detriment of the most vulnerable migrants), so too in Ukraine, where, since April 2014, the military operation has been reframed as an “Anti-terrorist Operation,” in which very different rules apply.

The upshot is that innocent civilians are being prevented from escaping mortars, shelling and firebombing.

Caught in the war zone

As the lead for a Ukraine-based humanitarian organization told me,

We have laws that the civilian population has a right to exit an active war zone. However, our government has announced that we don’t have a military operation, we have an anti-terrorist operation: ATO. Therefore, you can’t leave until you have obtained a permit.

And obtaining that permit can be very difficult indeed.

Learning to live as refugees. Greta Uehling, Author provided

My conversations with people who have made it out of the war zone, as well as with the human rights and humanitarian organizations that serve them, have documented that the waiting list for a permit has been as long as two months. Fortunately, a new electronic system for giving permits has been introduced and is bringing the wait time down to about 10 days.

This is still a long time to wait in a region where there is active shelling, basic food supplies are lacking and the only safe place is often one’s basement.

Worse, as an attorney at another humanitarian organization put it,

there is mind-blowing corruption at the border check points. If you pay money, you get through. The SBU (State Security Service of Ukraine) says that they are catching terrorists. But they aren’t catching terrorists. They are catching only women, children, and the elderly.

While authorities are working to improve the situation, the scene at the border crossings is a disturbing one.

Even having a permit does not solve all the problems: the line of cars waiting to leave the zone stretched for about six kilometers for most of June, and it took between 16 and 24 hours to cross. One informant stated that even when she is transporting a sick or elderly person, it’s better not to attempt to move ahead in the line: out of despair, people have become aggressive. There are instances in which mobs have slashed tires or bashed cars to prevent someone from moving ahead.

A disproportionate policy?

While these policies have become a problem for law-abiding citizens, officials point out that their intention is – above all – to stop people who have participated in the bloodshed in the East from moving freely about Ukraine.

Is it working? According to the figures of one humanitarian organization, Vostok SOS, or East SOS, 290,000 people have received permits, and some 300 have not been let out because they present a threat to Ukraine.

In other words, the Security Services have found one in 1,000 known applicants to present a viable threat to Ukraine.

But those most dangerous to Ukraine are also most likely to have the funds or connections to circulate freely within Ukraine. The fine for going around these border checkpoints – using paths known only to locals – is 2,500 hryvnia (US$113), about half the average monthly salary.

Ultimately, it is the economically disadvantaged, who postponed departure because they lacked the funds to move or adequate support in the rest of Ukraine, who suffer most as a result of this policy.

It is widely accepted that Ukraine and the United States are united by a common enemy in the face of Vladimir Putin. On July 23, for example, the State Department announced that US troops will begin to train Ukrainian soldiers later this year.

What is less obvious is that we in the United States face some of the same challenges, and are making some of the same mistakes. For example, one side effect of the fortification of the US–Mexico border is that the most vulnerable migrants – people who have suffered human rights abuses and may have asylum claims – are not always let in to the US.

The story in Ukraine is similar. It is the most vulnerable people who are having the hardest time leaving the danger and the hopelessness that is the war zone.

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