As millions of football fans tune in to watch the Champions League Final this weekend, children will be dodging landmines as they play in war-torn eastern Ukraine, just a few hours’ drive away from the festivities.
Welcome to Europe’s forgotten war, where the frontline lies just a mere 500 miles from Kiev at the Russian border.
Here, in the rural Eastern Ukraine regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, 10,000 innocent people have been killed in four years, more than 200 hundred of whom were children.
Meet Olha* a four-year-old girl who almost lost her life when she picked up a mine while playing with her friend. She almost lost her thumb, and now has to wear a colostomy bag as shrapnel ruptured her intestine.
Her best friend Boris*, a nine-year-old boy, lost four fingers in the accident.
Olha’s mother, Valentyna* recalled the horror for Save the Children:
Valentyna recounted the incident and the effects on her daughter, saying:
The children phoned me and started telling me that something exploded… I did not see a hole in the child’s belly at first. I saw a detached thumb. I saw a bone sticking out. There was a lot of blood.
She remembers everything; our way in the ambulance, how I was holding her in my arms in the ambulance, being put on the surgical table. She even remembers her clothes being cut apart… until her anaesthesia started working.
She is afraid of different loud noises… Not only noises, but if someone picks up something similar, she starts asking whether it’s going to explode or not. She keeps asking. She’s afraid of it.
Olha, still with a hole in her stomach and ‘many fragments left in her liver, urinary bladder, stomach and intestines’ which will remain there for life, was discharged by the overrun hospital – four hours away – and sent home for her mother to bandage her daughter’s wounds.
Valentyna said the small town of Krasnohorivka, where she lives with Olha and her 15-year-old daughter Marina*, wasn’t always a war zone.
It used to be a thriving mining town bustling with small business.
The reality is far-removed in 2018. Now, fearing poverty and warfare, half of the 13,000 residents have fled their hometown, which lies two kilometres away from the frontline. The other half are too poor to leave.
Just last week a 13-year-old boy and his father were killed when their house was hit by shelling. Four schools were damaged in separate attacks. Many children were sitting in their classrooms when the shells struck.
April has seen a dramatic increase in violence, with 13 people killed and 33 injured. Yet, there’s no escaping for the children of these forgotten ghost towns.
In just over four years, eastern Ukraine has become one of the most mine-contaminated places on Earth, endangering children who live, play and go to school in the area.
Tragically, Olha’s story is not unusual because playgrounds, fields and forests are littered with landmines, trip wires, and booby traps.
Save the Children Programme Manager Margaux Wetterwald told UNILAD:
As the eyes of the world focus on this weekend’s Champions League Final in Kiev, people need to be reminded that a bloody conflict still rages in the east of the country, killing and maiming hundreds of children.
Hundreds of thousands of children could be at increased risk of mines, unexploded ordnance and remnants of war.
This is happening on Europe’s doorstep and it’s been forgotten by the world.
In 2017 an average of one child was injured by the conflict every week. Landmines, explosive remnants of war (ERW) and unexploded ordnance (UXO) were the leading cause of child casualties, leaving some with lifelong disabilities.
In a recent report by the Geneva International Centre for Humanitarian Demining, Ukraine was said to have the highest number of vehicle mine casualties in the world, more than either Syria or Afghanistan.
Wetterwald described the conflict, saying the conditions are ‘unacceptable’:
Areas that were once safe for children to play, playgrounds, the forest, are littered with lethal explosives.
Children we work with describe seeing their friends and parents blown up by mines in front of their eyes, many are so distressed they cannot sleep through the night.
It’s completely unacceptable that children are risking their lives when they go out to play with their friends. Every child should have a safe place to play.
What started the conflict in Eastern Ukraine?
On 21 November 2013 then-president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, suspended plans to sign an association agreement with the European Union, sparking a period of protest and civil unrest between pro-Russian and pro-EU civilians.
The movement for closer ties with the EU, dubbed Euromaidan, swelled into a revolution which led to Yanukovych’s ousting in February 2014.
Following the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, supporters of Yanukovych’s pro-Russian separatist ideologies rebelled against the revolution in armed insurrection, overthrowing Ukranian control in the Eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk – known collectively as the Donbass.
In response, the Ukrainian government sent the army to the self-titled Peoples’ Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, alongside National Guard and volunteer forces, to reclaim the occupied area.
Since, a stalemate has been reached yet daily shelling still ravages the landscape of eastern Ukraine and those who live there.
An initial ceasefire agreement signed by all parties failed. A second – agreed in Minsk – has been ignored.
Stefan Jajecznyk, a freelance reporter for UNILAD travelled to Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine, in 2017, and met the soldiers who are so poorly equipped, they’re rarely able to return fire when ambushed.
The army supplies basic rations of food and water, while other vital supplies are donated by civil society volunteers.
A Ukrainian soldier, using the nom-de-guerre ‘Doc’, explained to UNILAD:
We’re living under Minsk [ceasefire accords] but we still have soldiers here who can’t sleep because of the fire from [separatist] tanks. But I will be here until the end.
Many of the soldiers on both sides are reportedly suffering PTSD, which you can learn about below:
Data from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), who monitor peace violations, states the ceasefire was violated in eastern Ukraine 400,000 times in 2017, including the use of heavy weapons which are banned under the Minsk agreement.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is negotiating with both sides to prevent warfare destroying key infrastructure, like water treatment facilities, schools and hospitals.
Yet, many children are shelled in school – 740 have been damaged or destroyed on both sides since the beginning of the conflict, and five being razed this month alone.
Milan Bogetic, spokesperson of the ICRC in Ukraine, told UNILAD:
Our office in Ukraine was originally very small – only one or two people. Now it is the eighth-largest delegation in the world.
We are currently focusing on the issue of unidentified remains and locating missing persons. We also have a team of psychologists in Severodonetsk who provide counselling to those affected.
We provide technical assistance to those fixing property after damage from fighting, and we are providing short-term aid kits, including food and water, for those who are in danger of being cut off from local amenities.
Meanwhile, the war which world leaders euphemistically call a ‘crisis’ on the rare occasions it makes headlines, rages on just hours down the road from the one of the biggest sporting events of the year, hosted by the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.
Cognitive dissonance doesn’t even cover it.
What can you do to help end the conflict in eastern Ukraine?
Dr Taras Kuzio, non-resident fellow at the Centre for Transatlantic Relations at John’s Hopkins University, and author of Putin’s War Against Ukraine, thinks the conflict will continue for the foreseeable future.
He places the blame exclusively at the feet of Russian President, Vladimir Putin.
Speaking in 2017 to UNILAD, Kuzio explained:
The Donbas [war] is not a frozen conflict – it is an on-going war that claims civilian and military fatalities daily.
He claimed the two Russian proxy ‘statelets’ would ‘disintegrate from internal weakness and Ukrainian forces’ if Putin decided to ‘no longer provide a security guarantee to its proxy states’ in eastern Ukraine or ‘threatened to invade’.
Meanwhile, Save the Children is calling for all sides of the conflict to recommit to the ceasefire and allow mine clearance activities and ensure the protection of children at all times.
Simon Edmunds, of Save the Children, visited the front line in eastern Ukraine last month and met Olha and her mother.
After witnessing the devastating effects of this stale and bloody conflict, he’s never been more certain the UK government must ‘help rebuild shattered lives, prevent children being put at risk, uphold international laws and hold violators to account’.
After four years of conflict, he said, children want to be able to study in schools safe from shelling, and play in fields where they aren’t at risk of mines.
They are ‘petrified of where the next shell may land’, he concluded:
From my own experiences children have told me they just don’t want to be afraid anymore. All children wish for is peace.
Thousands of happy childhoods are being sacrificed on this brutal political playground in eastern Ukraine, and it must stop.
*Names have been changed to protect victims’ privacy.
Around the globe children are more at risk now than at any time in the last twenty years. Support Save the Children’s Protecting Children in Conflict campaign here.
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