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Nervous aid workers in Ukraine fear a humanitarian 'disaster'


Civil society groups in Ukraine are preparing for war, and some have already pivoted their programming to deal with a potential outbreak of conflict.

Some aid workers fear that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could bring wider bloodshed and displacement than the last major outbreak of violence in 2014. Around 1.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes in the eight years since that conflict in eastern Ukraine began, according to the ​​United Nations.

The Russian military has been massing at strategic points on Ukraine’s borders, and the U.S. and U.K. governments have warned that an invasion into the country could happen at short notice. Strained diplomatic talks are ongoing.

But humanitarian groups operating in eastern Ukraine say the resources they would need to respond to an escalation of violence in the country are far beyond their current means.

Civil society groups in Ukraine are preparing for war, and some have already pivoted their programming to deal with a potential outbreak of conflict.

Some aid workers fear that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could bring wider bloodshed and displacement than the last major outbreak of violence in 2014. Around 1.5 million people have been forced to leave their homes in the eight years since that conflict in eastern Ukraine began, according to the ​​United Nations.

The Russian military has been massing at strategic points on Ukraine’s borders, and the U.S. and U.K. governments have warned that an invasion into the country could happen at short notice. Strained diplomatic talks are ongoing.

But humanitarian groups operating in eastern Ukraine say the resources they would need to respond to an escalation of violence in the country are far beyond their current means.

In the event of a Russian invasion, Depaul’s services would be extended from the “poorest of the poor to everybody,” said Novak. “We have to respond to all these challenges, [but] we do not have the resources, like food, medical care, shelters, clothes, everything will be needed,” he added. “We pray to God it [doesn’t] happen but to be prepared, we don’t have any resource[s] for now.”

Novak said his organization, which between 2013 to 2015 saw the number of people using its services in Ukraine increase by 40% because of the influx of people who are displaced, has not received any increased funding since the military buildup began.

Artur Aheiev, a staffer at the Drukarnia Civil Society Center Sloviansk in the Donetsk region, warned that it is those who are unable to flee, such as elderly people and people with disabilities, who would be especially vulnerable. He also cautioned about the risks to supplies of water, electricity, food, and personal protective equipment for COVID-19 amid an outbreak of violence.

Human rights defenders are gravely worried about attacks on civil liberties they expect to accompany any invasion.

“Based on my experience … war crimes and especially… illegally detained people, political persecution, torture, and extrajudicial killings, are a deliberate policy of Russia and Russian proxies,” said Oleksandra Matvychuk, head of the Kyiv-based Center for Civil Liberties.

When Russia needs to control a population, it intimidates “any active people with a public position and some potential possibility for nonviolent [resistance] to occupation,” such as civil society activists and journalists, added Matvychuk.

“We observed it in Crimea, we observed it in occupied Donbas, and if Russia will start a new armed invasion, they will use this terror against civilians, which will lead to massive human rights violations,” said Matvychuk. Depaul staff from the former central office in Kharkiv were in the process of relocating to Kyiv on Thursday. They followed key documents which had already moved to a “safe place” elsewhere in western Ukraine, according to Novak, who said most Depaul staff in Odessa, a large port city, had opted to stay in place despite the potential danger. Novak expressed concern about coordinating Depaul’s work and staying in contact with staff in other parts of his organization in the event of an escalation. Despite contingency plans to move coordinating offices to western Ukraine — further from a likely attack — he said “on the ground, I am unable to imagine how it will be.” Ivan Paramonov, vice director of NGO Shutka, is also worried about coordinating with his staff in the event of further violence, which destroyed telecommunications infrastructure. “Every day we are [under] this pressure; it could happen anytime. Everybody knows it is very serious if [it] goes ahead. … But we will continue to do our daily responsibilities.” — Vitaliy Novak, chair of trustees, Depaul Ukraine “We don’t have satellite phones,” he said. Shutka’s work involved reintegrating military veterans back into society, but Paramonov said the former soldiers are now working for the charity to help teach civilians first aid and how to react to incoming artillery, as well as helping the charity with its contingency planning. Shutka’s programs, which included environmental, gender equality, and cultural projects in Donetsk, have been frozen until at least the summer, amid concerns about the conflict, according to Paramonov. The constant threat of cyberattacks and other methods of hybrid warfare, alongside conventional violence, lingers over aid workers in Ukraine. Human security and technology expert Nathaniel Raymond told Devex Monday that NGOs operating in Ukraine should be “doing scenario planning [immediately] for what a multidimensional, multispectrum cyberkinetic and cyberinformatic layered attack is going to look like by the end of the week.” A cyberattack on Wednesday saw Ukrainians unable to use their banks. While Depaul’s work was not directly affected, Novak feared that if an invasion began, it could be accompanied by a similar cyberattack, which could mean they would be unable to buy food or meet the daily expenses needed to run Depaul’s services. “The main problem is financial because Ukraine is widely digitized especially in big cities, a lot of people are used to not using cash,” said Paramonov. “If this system falls apart a lot of people don't have cash at home. And if you don't have money, you will have suffering, especially during a conflict.”

William Worley

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