Bus project reduces isolation in eastern Ukraine’s “no-man’s land”

DNIPRO, Ukraine, 18 September 2016 (UNHCR) — People line up at the bus station in Bakhmut (formerly Artemivsk). A woman holds a new broom, while an elderly man nearby clutches a plastic tablecloth with red flowers. The bus arrives and people rush to get on, helping each other to lift heavy bags with groceries and other goods. These people arrived on the first bus ride out of Zhovanka village in two years, made possible only after extensive advocacy efforts by UNHCR.

 Photo: UNHCR/O.Gaskevych

“I arrived on the first bus at 9 am this morning. I made two spare keys for my house and went to the department of Social Protection to renew my pension documents’,  Lyubov Mykolayivna, a 62-year old resident of Zhovanka, tells UNHCR. ‘I also visited the lawyer’s office, as my father died one month ago and I needed to get an official certificate of death. I could not have done all of that without a bus. Today I did not have time to do all of the things I’ve been waiting to do for two years, but I will travel again.”

Zhovanka is in “no man’s land,” an area located between the two sides of the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. Before conflict erupted here in April 2014, Zhovanka  was a part of Zaytseve, a much larger village. When, after months of fighting, the line of contact between opposing forces split Zaytseve. The eastern part now is under the control of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” while the remainder is controlled by the Ukrainian military. Many people have fled, and the majority of those who stayed either cannot leave due to age, medical conditions, or the necessity to care for relatives, or do not have another place to go to.

Living underground, with no infrastructure left intact

Two women pack bread in plastic bags in an old garage. Inside, the smell of oil is a strong reminder of the building’s earlier purpose. Now the garage serves as an “office” for local volunteers in Zhovanka.

The bread, 90 loaves for 260 residents, is donated by the director of a local bakery, Irina Vernigova, and delivered twice a week. Today is one of those days, and to avoid conflicts during the distribution the volunteers have developed a “bread schedule”, so the southern part of the village receives bread on Tuesday and northern part – on Saturday.

Zhovanka’s infrastructure has been completely destroyed by two years of fighting. There is no school, church, cemetery, or hospital, though such facilities exist in the part of the village controlled by the so-called “DPR”. Kalashnikov fire can be heard here during the day, and shelling starts every evening like clockwork.

As part of the 2015-16 winterization programme UNHCR delivered trucks of coal to Zhovanka. At that time it was the only humanitarian organization working in the area.

Photo: UNHCR/O.Gaskevych

“We survived the winter only because of that coal,” says local volunteer Oksana. “We did not even want to take it at first, as we were afraid it would not be enough for everyone and people would start fighting, but in the end every resident received enough to live through the cold winter.”

Bread and coal, however, are not enough to sustain a village.

“We are blocked in from all sides and there is no transport,” says Oksana. “We have a bus stop in the village, my husband is a bus driver, but for two years there was no bus!”

Without public transport, people can’t access social services, receive pensions, or visit a hospital. It is estimated that more than three million people along the line of contact, in both government-controlled and non-government-controlled areas, are in need of assistance.

A bus is a step toward normal life

To improve living conditions in Zhovanka, UNHCR and its partners advocated for, and facilitated, the establishment of a bus line which will operate twice a week  - Tuesday and Saturday - to connect the village with Bakhmut (former Artemivsk).

Photo: UNHCR/O.Gaskevych

82-year-old Oleksandr Ivanovich was one of the first passengers on the bus.  “I went to buy food mostly. In Zhovanka there is no electricity, which means refrigerators don’t work. I have already forgotten how some foods taste. It is great we have a bus now, and I want to say thank you to everyone who made it possible”.

Head of the UNHCR Sub-Office Mulusew Mamo says: “The bus project is in line with UNHCR’s protection mission to promote mobility and freedom of movement. It will reduce the degree of isolation experienced by those living in the area. It also helps reduce displacement, as difficult conditions incite people to live their residence.”

Maryna, 56, enters the volunteers’ garage. It is her turn to receive bread today. “This war has destroyed everything,” she says. “My house was shelled several times. I have six children and we were hiding in the basement all the time. Now they study in a boarding school in Bakhmut, and I dreamed to have a bus,  so that I could go visit and hug my kids”.