After negotiating through the night in Minsk on Wednesday, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's Petro Poroshenko reached an agreement for long-term peace in eastern Ukraine. This will begin with an immediate ceasefire which will take effect from midnight on Sunday, followed by the withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops over the subsequent fortnight. Ukraine will take control of the affected region, ahead of local elections and constitutional reform aimed at securing greater autonomy for eastern areas.
“People are simply tired”
“Even if it's a temporary peace, we will take it,” says Svetlana, who works on the SOS team in one of Ukraine's worst-affected cities, Lugansk (sometimes known in the news as ‘Luhansk’). However, she does not expect a return to normal. “Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations, there is no way we are getting back our lives as they used to be before the conflict. It will be difficult – but at least there is no more war.”
She speaks of people's exhaustion after nearly a year of conflict. “We have people whose houses were hit five times and [destroyed]. People are simply tired. They are tired of being afraid for their own and for their children’s lives.”
The situation has deteriorated rapidly. January estimates suggest that the number of internal refugees in the Lugansk region had more than doubled from 30,000 to 80,000 since November. Shops are open, but families face extreme hardship as commodity costs escalate.
“Prices have doubled, because it's difficult to bring food into the city,” says Lyudmila, who works alongside Svetlana in Lugansk. And although work is available, decent wages are not, pushing many into poverty. “There are many people on the streets of Lugansk who are begging for money – elderly people and children mostly,” says Svetlana.
Since December, it has become tougher to travel to and from Starobilsk, the nearest big city outside the conflict zone. Whereas in December, the journey was manageable in two hours by car, today it takes 15 hours and involves crossing the border into Russia. This means getting outside supplies to residents in Lugansk is becoming increasingly hard, putting pressure on prices and leading to greater scarcity. For now, the situation remains stable – just. “Basic food is available,” says Lyudmila. “Bread, tinned food, even fruit – the variety is not great, but at least we have something.”
There for those in dire needCurrently, SOS Children is the only international charity helping children in Lugansk. “[People] hope we will stay here because the food parcels and the hygiene kits help them survive.” Today, we are helping more than 60 families in Lugansk. We are not only providing food and hygiene products, but also money and building materials so that families can repair their war-ravaged homes.
With many children traumatised by months of fighting, psychological support is critical to their long-term welfare. Svetlana remembers the case of a five year-old-boy who lost his hair. “It's the fourth case I know of... the doctors have said that it's a body's response to the stress. Now he gets medical treatment and psychological help as well.”
“This is my home, and my city”
However, the team is under pressure, says Lyudmila. “The need is great in Lugansk. We estimate that 1,500 families need support. We now have a new social worker and we can support additional families... Unfortunately, we cannot take everybody who needs support.” With the World Health Organisation reporting that five million people in the wartorn east lack access to decent healthcare, a sustained ceasefire is critical if sufficient humanitarian aid is to reach those who need it.
Throughout the conflict, we will remain in Lugansk, providing food and support for as many families as we are able to reach. “We see that the help we are providing is needed,” says Lyudmila. “In some cases people simply don't believe in a stable future, but everybody keeps going. Believe me, when I come to my office in Lugansk I don't want to be anywhere else. This is my home, and my city. Yes, it's a... destroyed and tired city, but it is my home.”
How can you help?
Families in eastern Ukraine are desperate after months of war. You can make a difference today:
Alternatively, become part of a vulnerable child's life by sponsoring in Ukraine today. Find out more.