In eastern Ukraine, ceasefire seems far away as children’s needs grow

I wrote this blog post while in Donetsk – the city in eastern Ukraine which only two years ago hosted the European Football Championship. Now, the humanitarian needs of the children and families here are real, intense, and still growing. Among the estimated 1.7 million children affected by the crisis in Ukraine, those living inside zones of active fighting – like Donetsk – are particularly vulnerable as humanitarian access is very limited.

On this mission, UNICEF brought over 27 metric tonnes of essential hygiene supplies, education kits, and drinking water as part of the joint UN convoy led by us. To access the affected children was not easy, as civilian supplies, especially those for children, are obviously not a priority for military personnel at the checkpoints.

Due to challenges in access and still-limited UNICEF resources, we have delivered less than what the needs are. Thus, we needed to decide how supplies would be prioritized. We followed the equity mandate and made sure that we first went to children living with disabilities, orphaned children, children affected by HIV, and vulnerable children living in inhumane conditions in underground bomb shelters. Life for these children was hard in Ukraine even before the conflict, but now they are exposed to even greater deprivations.

I have been working in emergency response for many years and I know that there is never enough available assistance vis-à-vis the needs. However, when a mother of a 2-year-old boy hugs me in a wet and dark bomb shelter to thank me for the hygiene kits and water that were delivered, I feel great frustration that this is happening to them and that we’re so limited in what we can do. People thanked me even though I was expecting them to be angry with us for coming so late with so little.

A young boy holds the pack of diapers delivered by UNICEF, intended for his little sister.
A young boy holds the pack of diapers delivered by UNICEF, intended for his little sister. (c)UNICEF Ukraine/2015/Radek Rzehak

In the Donetsk prison, I met girls and boys, some of whom have been there for more than a year and have not been allowed to see their relatives. A 16-year-old girl who was sharing a cell with four adult female inmates asked when she would be able to go home?

The head of an orphanage for babies diagnosed with HIV or babies born to HIV-positive mothers who have not yet been diagnosed, asked me when the children would be getting adequate food and HIV testing?

I was asked by a mother in the community center for children with disabilities when her child would get much-needed insulin?

“Far away in Minsk politicians agreed for a cease-fire – but it must be very far as in Donetsk nobody follows it,” told me a young man in another bomb shelter.

And indeed during all the days we spent in eastern Ukraine there was constant shelling. And whoever and whenever I asked what else they need to have delivered, their reply was the same: “We want peace, and then we will manage on our own – so can you stop the war?”

Two days ago we left Donetsk – but we will be back because the children need us.

Radoslaw Rzehak is the Emergency Coordinator for UNICEF Ukraine.


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  1. Are the prisons and shelters all being used for safe housing now? You mention a child needing insulin in a prison- is this a shelter also and is some other type of medical aid being seen to? With this much (or little) being done education is beyond reason at this point. What else is being done?

    1. Hi Jill – we will reach out to the Ukraine office to respond more fully. However, the case of the child needing insulin is in a community centre, not the prison that is mentioned – Moderator.

  2. Hi Jill. Thank you for taking the time to read the post and for your questions. To clarify, prisons are still being used as they were previously – children and women who are there now stand accused or sentenced for committing a crime. However, many children that were observed during the visit to the pre-trial detention facility in Donetsk, were arrested and still had not had their court proceeding as the court system is not working. So it means that their right to a just, fair and prompt trial is being seriously violated.

    The shelters I mentioned in my post are simply basements or underground food storages and not bunkers. They are what people have decided to use for protection – and they can protect from collateral damage but if the buildings they are in were to be hit directly, the shelters could become traps, burying everybody underground.

    The medical aid during the shelling was non-existent and also there are serious gaps in medicine provision, especially for treatment of HIV or access to insulin. Currently, the focus is on immediate assistance in terms of provision psychosocial support for children and their parents and supplying basic water and hygiene supplies. The education system is being supported to be fully operational as soon as possible. UNICEF is also starting a major polio vaccination campaign. These are some of the examples of what is being done – more details can be found on the UNICEF Ukraine website and Facebook.

  3. It seems that borders are put up everywhere for civil rights and various countries and religious and beliefs but so many basic human rights that is seems even the right to breathe may become an issue soon.