MIUSYNSK, Ukraine — Natalia Shevchenko, 57, doesn’t know if she and her husband are going to survive the winter. Her last pension check arrived in June, and since then, she and her husband have eaten through most of the pickled tomatoes and canned food on their shelves. “Now we understand that no one needs us,” she said.
Shevchenko lives in Miusynsk, a village in eastern Ukraine of fewer than 2,000 people that hugs the border between Luhansk and Donetsk, the two regions controlled by pro-Russian rebels fighting Ukrainian forces.
Elsewhere across the region, some help has trickled in. Russian Cossack commanders have set up a soup kitchen for the elderly and distributed a one-time payment of 1,000 hryvnia, about $63, to pensioners in other cities. Russian and international aid groups have delivered food, clothing and basic medical supplies to the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. Ukrainian aid trucks made a delivery to other parts just before the New Year.
Slideshow: Surviving in war-torn Donetsk
And medical supplies are dwindling at state hospitals to the point that “only the very basic procedures” can be performed, said Igor Bilodid, the deputy director of the Donetsk People’s Republic’s Center for Reconstruction.
“The Russian aid convoys are for the needy, but now almost everybody needs help,” he said, referring to the hundreds of white Russian trucks, which Ukraine says cross the border illegally. Ukraine, the United States and NATO say Russia is supplying the rebels with weapons and finances, an accusation the Kremlin denies.
Despite warnings from the United Nations and other international organizations that the situation in the east is rapidly deteriorating, attempts to find a political solution to the conflict have been futile. Peace talks moderated in Minsk, Belarus, by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have failed. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said he will meet with Russian, German and French leaders later this month in the hopes of speeding up the peace process, but few people in places like Miusynsk have faith it will return their lives to normal. The high-level talks are confirmation to them that the conflict between the rebels and Ukraine was never about them.
“This war is about America versus Russia. That’s it,” Shevchenko said. “No one is paying attention to what we wanted. We just wanted to speak Russian and be left alone.”
Now several politicians in Kiev are calling for legislation to further isolate the rebel-held areas financially. Proposed legislation would place an embargo on any commercial trade with businesses in the rebel-held areas.
Humanitarian workers criticized Ukrainian battalions in late December for blocking several truck convoys from We’ll Help, a charitable fund owned by Ukraine’s wealthiest oligarch, Rinat Akhmetov.
Rima Fila, a spokesman for the fund, said the trucks contained food and warm clothes for civilians living under rebel control — the same kind of aid the organization has been distributing for several months. He said We’ll Help has been one of the biggest aid organizations operating in the region. Without new shipments, they would would run out of supplies within two to three days, volunteers said.
But the battalions, backed by several newly elected Ukrainian parliamentary deputies who showed up to the checkpoint to inspect the convoy of 23 trucks, accused Akhmetov’s fund of sending supplies for the rebel fighters, including what they said were cigarettes and camouflage pants and jackets.
“We can’t allow the financing of these terrorists by allowing unknown shipments to cross over without Ukrainian approval,” said Hennady Moskal, the Kiev-appointed governor of the Luhansk regions that remain in Ukraine’s control. About 40 percent of the oblast, or administrative territory, is still part of Ukraine, but there are daily firefights along the border with the rebels.
If the civilians living in the rebel-held areas are unhappy in their situation, they have the right to rise up against the “illegal terrorist groups” ruling their lands, Moskal said.
“Don’t underestimate our babushki,” he said, using the Russian word for grandmothers and referring to the large elderly population that remains in the rebel areas. “They supported these armed, illegal bandits, and they can rise again and toss them out.”
Moskal’s blunt stance is little consolation to the pensioners in Miusynsk, however.