On Ukraine’s front lines, Europe’s forgotten war grinds on
Conflict continues to blight the lives of civilians still living on the front lines in Ukraine’s Donbas region.
On November 21, 2013, the Ukrainian capital Kyiv saw a wave of protests – later known as the Euromaidan – which sparked a series of events followed by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and a war in the east of the country.
The 2013 protests took place after then-president Viktor Yanukovych chose not to sign an agreement that would have tied Ukraine more closely to the European Union, and instead opted for closer ties to Russia.
The protests faced a violent government crackdown but culminated in the toppling of Yanukovych in February 2014.
However, on February 27 and 28, 2014, pro-Russian gunmen took control of the Crimean Peninsula, which has an ethnic Russian majority.
In April 2014, pro-Russian separatist activity spread to Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, escalating into an armed conflict.
Years later, the war continues.
In the front-line village of Opytne in the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donetsk, only 36 residents remain out of more than 1,000 who used to live there before the war.
Aleksandr, 86, has been forced to live in his bathroom, the only place in his house where the walls remain intact.
“I hear shooting every day,” he told Al Jazeera. “But I have lost my only son and I have nothing more to lose. After all my neighbours fled, I collected the pets they left behind. I have twelve cats and dogs who will never leave me,” he said.
The armed conflict has resulted in a total of at least 3,393 civilian deaths and more than 7,000 casualties since 2014, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’s October 2021 report.
Between 1 January and 30 September 2021 alone, 18 people have been killed, including three children. While active fighting continues along the front line, the toll includes deaths and injuries related to landmines and explosive remnants of the war.
A dire humanitarian crisis along the contact line also continues to affect civilians on both sides of the conflict.
According to the Kyiv Office of the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (or ECHO), 3.4 million people in Eastern Ukraine are in need of humanitarian assistance, including 1.3 million elderly persons and 442,000 individuals with disabilities. They frequently face difficulties with accessing quality healthcare, social care and protection, proper sanitation and coping with freezing winter conditions.
Many of these vulnerable people have no choice but to remain living in the war zone.