This Sunday, Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, which follows the Julian calendar, will celebrate Easter, the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The importance of this religious holiday has led the government and separatists backed by Russia to agree to a total ceasefire in this five-year old conflict. Ukrainians celebrate Holy Week with religious and family gatherings, music, feasts and exchange of traditional pysanka, beautifully painted and colored eggs. This year, they hope to commemorate the Easter Pascha holiday in both government-controlled and separatist-held areas without the threat of attacks or shelling.
No doubt, the civilians living along the 450 km line separating the warring parties remain skeptical. Despite two negotiated Minsk peace agreements and multiple previous cease fire agreements encouraged and monitored by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), no previous total ceasefire has lasted for more than 12 days. Without a ceasefire, these civilians are almost entirely cut-off from basic services, including police, fire, ambulance, markets and regular transport.
This suffering has been compounded by repeated violations of the laws of war. Civilian populations and structures have been repeatedly targeted. The war has killed 11,000 and injured tens of thousands of civilians. The use of land mines has been extensive. Last year, together with unexploded ordinance, they injured 158 Ukrainians. Over 1.6 million Ukrainians have been forcibly displaced from their homes in Crimea, Luhansk and Donetsk, and thousands more fled abroad. With the loss of Russian markets and factories, mines and rail lines in the east, unemployment, utility prices and inflation have all soared.
Ukraine’s elderly have been particularly hard hit. According to the UN’s Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator Ursula Miller, Ukraine has the highest proportion of elderly in need. Pension recipients must register in person and be re-certified as IDPs every three months – despite their health, incapacities or risks and costs of travel. Otherwise they lose their payments. Refugees International urges the government to follow its court rulings that pensioners are entitled to their earned pensions without registering as IDPs, a cumbersome system often taking months. One NGO recently reported that of the one million elderly IDPs in the east needing recertification, many are “too frail or isolated to make the journey…or face long queues in freezing temperatures.”
Ukraine is emerging from one of the most brutal winters in recent years, with heavy snowfall and temperatures falling to minus 20 degrees Celsius. The UN reports that 3.4 million Ukrainians need humanitarian aid this year and appealed for $187 million to reach 2.3 million with food, water, health, medicines, shelter, education and support for livelihoods. Attacks on water and gas utilities daily threaten water and power supplies for 4 million residents. Adding to the misery, a measles epidemic struck 1,200 this winter. The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) needs $23 million to continue vaccinations, repair of damaged school buildings, offer psychosocial counseling, and support for water supplies and sanitation efforts.
Yet international humanitarian aid for the displaced and war effected continues to dwindle. After multiple appeals, the EU pledged $24 million at the end of February stating: “Thousands of homes, hundreds of hospitals, schools, and water and electricity facilities have been damaged due to the hostilities. The rapid and increased contamination of the conflict-affected area by mines and unexploded ordnances is threatening the lives and livelihoods of millions of Ukrainians.” To date the United States, a past generous humanitarian donor, has not contributed to the UN’s appeal.
This week, the OSCE reminded the parties of the ceasefire terms: ”…the issuance of, and compliance with, the respective ceasefire orders; the effective use of disciplinary measures for ceasefire violations; avoiding forward movements and reconnaissance missions; no firing, including to return fire; strictly forbidding, in particular, firing to and from populated areas, the presence and use of heavy weapons in and close to populated areas and the targeting of civilian infrastructure, including schools, kindergartens, hospitals, and public premises.”
Civilians in both government and separatist-controlled areas are now watching closely to see if the parties will honor these commitments. Some fear Putin’s re-election and new Western sanctions might trigger expanded hostilities in the east. Other Ukrainians cling to their national anthem’s patriotic promise that: “As in springtime melts the snow, so shall melt away the foe, And we shall be masters in our own home.” They live on hope for spring, for an end to the war, for the reunification of their families, and for the rebuilding of their nation. Time will tell.