Hot topics:

Report: Aid for civilians and soldiers in the ATO zone

1. Introduction

The anti-terrorist operation zone (ATO) can practically be divided into two zones: the zone of active hostilities, and the zone of ‘villages near-the-frontline’ where Ukrainian troops are stationed, but where no direct hostilities are taking place. The situations as regards supply in the first and second zones differ, as different needs and different opportunities for delivering aid exist.

In the vicinity of the front line, the situation is more complex. Depending on the intensity of shelling, getting to certain locations can be difficult, and hence, there are problems with the supply of goods. This applies to both soldiers and civilians. The soldiers, however, are more mobile, and currently, every unit has ‘their’ volunteers, which means that during periods when the intensity of shelling is reduced, soldiers can count on supplies.

Civilians who have not decided to leave and still reside in the territories being shelled by the so-called ‘separatists’ can use the stock that they have accumulated in their homes. Also, using the experience acquired with regards to the frequency and timing of shelling, they sometimes go to the few shops which remain open where prices are currently 1.5-3 times higher than usual. Medicines and other necessities which cannot be bought are usually offered by soldiers or volunteers who bring aid should civilians address them for help.

Most of the humanitarian aid and assistance for soldiers gets to the “near-the-frontline’ area from the rear. That is where military bases and warehouses which store goods imported by volunteers are located. Villages in the ATO zone behind the front line are also the places where, predominantly, the so-called ‘displaced people’ appear. Here, they are usually accepted by the local community and either rent apartments (or settle in apartments, made available to them free-of-charge) or venture further towards the centre of Ukraine. Usually, that’s where they can access necessities (basic items, food, medicines).

Another problem is delivering humanitarian aid to the territories occupied by pro-Russian forces, the so-called Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics. Since the beginning of the military operation, this task has been dangerous for Ukrainian volunteers due to the risk of kidnapping or being shot. For this reason, most of the volunteers avoided exiting the zone controlled by the Ukrainian army. More frequently, it was done by religious organisations, which had a greater chance of convincing militants of their neutrality in the conflict. For example, the ‘Tvoya Peremoha’ organisation, associated with the Protestant community from Slavyansk, delivered bread to small, poorly-stocked villages on the pro-Russian side in the autumn of 2014. However, the main way to get humanitarian aid to the population remaining outside the occupied area was by travelling to the appropriate (Ukrainian) side of the frontline.

Since 21 February, 2015, this possibility has been limited by the obligation to have a pass, issued by the Ukrainian side only in justified cases. This means that any person wishing to cross the ‘border’ must submit a relevant application, including personal data, and their reason for wishing to exit the territory of the so-called Donetsk/Lugansk People’s Republic. The same applies to people who want to leave the territory occupied by the pro-Russian armed forces – they must report to the post occupied by the Ukrainian forces in order to file their application, which is then processed by the local police.

The obligation to have a pass has limited mobility between the zones for both civilians and volunteers, thus limiting the possibility of potential delivery of humanitarian aid to the region.

At the same time, Ukrainian legislation seeks to ensure the safety of volunteers, who render support to civilians and soldiers in the ATO zone. On 1 April, 2015, the Law on Volunteering was amended, and now it officially defines two new areas of voluntary activities related to emergencies, such as states of war, anti-terrorist operations or social conflicts: aid for refugees and internally displaced persons as well as assistance to Armed Forces of Ukraine and other military formations (including volunteer battalions). According to the provisions of the Law, volunteers have the right to provide assistance in the area of military operations on behalf of the organisation that they represent. In case of a volunteer’s death or disability due to injuries sustained while carrying out activities in the conflict zone, appropriate compensation is provided for (a detailed analysis of the content of the amendment is attached to this report).

2. Problems with breaking through to the front lines with aid: restrictions within army structures

Soldiers on the front line as well as volunteers who help them, often express the opinion that “if something arrives at the headquarters, it usually stays there“. The best items (according to them) are usually taken by those who are at the rear while only unwanted remaining items reach the front line. Moreover, practice has shown that items of aid are not delivered to the front lines from the headquarters in an organised manner – soldiers can get a new jacket or other things only when they leave the so-called ‘forefront’ and go to the rear and personally appear in the warehouse. Items are taken directly to the soldiers at the frontline only by volunteers; the more experienced volunteers try to act by bypassing the headquarters.

This method of delivering assistance, however, was recently restricted by the directive issued by the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine on 24 June, 2015. Access to the positions on the front lines for both volunteers and non-accredited journalists, became restricted. This has been justified by safety reasons. However, in practice, this may mean that aid which has, thus far, reached soldiers directly, will be received at the rear (for example, the A sector which covers the city of Svatove). Volunteers have already begun to express their dissatisfaction with this decision and questioned the motivation behind it.

The fact that volunteers frequently operate outside of official channels (they deliver clothing and equipment directly to soldiers), they also justify by the restrictions that relevant provisions of the law impose on the army. According to the regulation issued by the Ministry of Defence, soldiers carrying out duties in the ATO zone are entitled to one complete uniform. This has been confirmed by a representative of the staff of the ‘Aidar’ battalion who stated that officially, everyone has one complete uniform and if it’s damaged or gets dirty, a soldier has no other clothes to put on. Aliona Chorna, a volunteer responsible for the distribution of uniforms, provided officially by Canada to the Ukrainian army, quotes an officer of one of the brigades: “as soldiers already had one issued uniform at that point, official acceptance of the uniforms would have brought about their transportation to the warehouse”.

According to the relevant provisions, in cases where a uniform is damaged in the course of duty including performing combat tasks in the ATO zone, the Ministry of Defence is required to issue a new uniform. However, a correspondent of the Open Dialog Foundation (ODF) has not confirmed the enforcement of this right in practice – soldiers are sceptical about the possibility of applying for a new uniform. According to officers, it would be months before such an application is granted, and the only opportunity to obtain necessary items, without unnecessary and lengthy paperwork, is by requesting the help of volunteers.

The same situation arose when it came to the supply of spare parts to the repair bases of the Armed Forces, located in the ATO zone. According to a commander of one of them, which services the 80 Mechanised Brigade vehicles, orders sent to the competent structures in the army are fulfilled to an extent no greater than 15 percent. The interlocutor told the ODF correspondent that frequently, they don’t receive the parts they request, but – as he said – they get what the army has in stock. This is why mechanics and drivers of vehicles themselves purchase necessary parts with their own money or ask volunteers for help.

3. Suspicions of corruption

The issue of providing aid to soldiers also raises other kinds of doubts related to the distribution of obtained uniforms and equipment. More and more frequently opinions are voiced that both within the army structures and in volunteer battalions mechanisms are in place that allow persons to make money on supplies allotted to them by the state and material aid, delivered by voluntary groups. It is difficult to prove whether such assertions are true, but the fact that so many individual cases have been cited suggests that such activities are undertaken by some, at least.

A case in point is the ‘assistance from Canada’ – approx. 30,000 uniforms and 7,000 pairs of military boots, officially transferred by the Canadians to Ukraine. According to Bohdan Kovalev who coordinates the cooperation in this field at the Ministry of Defence, the main role of volunteers is to control the system in accordance with which uniforms are issued, in order to avoid irregularities. Kovalev believes that the problem is not with the system itself, but with the human factor – for example, officers and private soldiers who have a desire to get rich. That is why it is volunteers who segregate, count and catalogue every item of clothing, receive applications from units, issue appropriate numbers of uniforms to individual branches. The ODF correspondent was present during their work in Odessa and was able to observe that the commanders of units were unhappy, to say the least, with the presence of volunteers – activists themselves believe that this is because they hinder the conduct of their ‘business’.

A. Chorna recalls the case of an officer of one of the army units who asked for 300 uniforms from Canada for his brigade, but when it was explained to him that he must submit a list of clothing sizes for his soldiers, and then present photos of the latter in the new uniforms for confirmation, he withdrew his request and, as reported by the volunteers, ‘disappeared’. A situation which raises doubts was also described by volunteers from Starobelsk. One of the soldiers requested the purchase of an expensive optical instrument. It transpired that at that time, his service in the ATO zone had come to an end and so he requested that the equipment be sent to him to Kiev. When volunteers offered to transfer it into the hands of the soldiers, appointed by him, who were in need of the instrument in the ATO zone, he insisted that it be sent to Kiev, and after the volunteers refused to transfer the instrument into the hands of a person who is not present at the frontline and requested again that he nominated recipients who serve in the ATO zone, he ceased communication with them.

The ODF correspondent was told in the ‘Aidar’ battalion that the Ministry of Defence had transferred 800 uniforms to the battalion. During the two-week stay in the battalion, A. Góralska saw the ‘state’ uniform only once, and at the time it was being worn by her interlocutor who served as a logistician. None of the soldiers with whom she spoke had ever even heard about the possibility of acquiring uniforms from the Ministry of Defence; they were all dressed in uniforms from donors or had bought their own. According to the headquarters, all 800 sets were distributed to the soldiers of the battalion.

The same applies to bulletproof vests and protective helmets, which, according to the Ministry of Defence, should be issued to all soldiers called to arms within the next wave of mobilisation. According to the Ministry of Defence, each of the soldiers should receive basic equipment; still, frequent requests for this kind of support, addressed to the Open Dialog Foundation and other organisations helping soldiers, coming from the recruits and their families, contradict the official declarations. Separate cases, gathered by the Open Dialog Foundation, prove that many soldiers are going to the front line without proper equipment. The answer to the question as to what has caused this situation is currently the object of our interest. The results of the Foundation’s activities in this area will be published in a separate report.

The cited cases can prove the veracity of the belief, formulated in private conversations, about ‘business’ conducted by some of the soldiers/officers in some volunteer battalions and divisions of the army (these opinions are repeated, for example, in relation to the ‘Aidar’ battalion and the now defunct ‘Shakhtyorsk’ battalion). It is difficult to prove that such practices take place, but the fact is, that in the vicinity of the town of Shchastya, many civilians wear military jackets; it is also common knowledge that such clothing can be bought at the marketplace.

According to volunteers, working every day in the ATO zone, there are divisions and battalions which limit their list of needs to a minimum. On the other hand, there are those which ‘need everything’ – in relation to the latter, there is a suspicion that the surplus is sold on the ‘black market’.

The same situation applies to aid for displaced persons. In the city of Svatove, the city Mayor Yevgen Rybalko stated in an official conversation that “when five quilts for refugees arrive, three of them are delivered to the needy, and two are taken to the local marketplace”. According to him, ‘volunteers’ in the city are often those with a dubious reputation, who suddenly became committed to the refugee cause on a large scale. He also stated that such a mentality is typical for a large part of Ukrainians and that it will be very difficult to fight against it.

4. Possible irregularities at ukrainian posts in the ATO zone.

Traffic control near the front line is carried out through checkpoints, which are in place every few dozen kilometres – closer to the occupied territories the number posts increases. Restrictions on movement in the ATO zone were initially aimed at strengthening security in the area. Increasingly, however, information is being spread by volunteers and civilians that irregularities occur at the checkpoints.

According to unofficial, yet regular reports, it transpires that bribes are being requested at the checkpoints. Restrictions on movement between the zones make it difficult for inhabitants of the occupied territories to leave, as they do not have immediate access to the offices which issue permits. The necessity to travel to the Ukrainian checkpoint in order to submit documents, and then return to obtain the completed document (which is not always ready on time), exposes civilians to unnecessary danger. Therefore, according to unofficial sources, fixed rates are chargeable at the ‘border’, settlement of which allows individuals to pass without having proper documentation.

A similar problem exists with regards to the demanding bribes for movement within the ATO zone by police officers who are on duty there. A recent example of such regards artists returning from Slavyansk having performed at the cultural event ‘Ukrainian Spring’. According to them, their car was stopped on the road between checkpoints and they were forced to pay UAH 2000 to pass. Presented with the fact that the passengers in the car were musicians and writers who are well-known in Ukraine and who had given a free-of-charge performance as part of the patriotic project in the ATO zone, did not serve to affect the behaviour of police officers.

Similar reports, in the majority, relate to locations where policemen man the checkpoints, rather than volunteer battalions. This raises the suspicion that the problem is systemic, involving the use of previously existing corruption mechanisms in the new conditions. Certainly, this is not true of all the checkpoints; still, the number of similar reports raises concern.

The problem with demanding bribes relates primarily to civilians while it affects volunteers working in the ATO zone to a lesser extent. This may be also due to the fact that soldiers and policemen are direct recipients of the aid, delivered by volunteers. However, the recently introduced restrictions on the latter may bring about the creation of another ‘grey zone’, similar to that functioning on the border of the occupied zone.

5. Conclusions and recommendations.

Laws often prevent the smooth and swift transfer of necessary items directly to those in need of them. Despite official assurances that the army is equipped with everything that is needed, numerous observations have shown that virtually no soldier has been fully equipped by the state. The state structures work very slowly and inefficiently. Evidence indicates that irregularities occur at all levels.

When delivering aid to the ATO zone, one should consider the following recommendations:

  • avoid passing aid through official channels, state structures and official structures of the army
  • it is best to deliver aid with the help of local volunteers
  • each new request for aid should be validated in person or by trusted people – whether this particular division/soldier really needs the help they have requested
  • irregularities witnessed by people delivering aid should be exposed and publicised

An example of this might be an attempt to coordinate assistance between a volunteer, cooperating with soldiers of one of the battalions stationed in Starobilsk, and a volunteer from Shchastya (who regularly delivers aid to soldiers in Stanitsa Luganska). The first withdrew from cooperation, consisting of rendering help in the delivery of items, prepared by volunteers cooperating with soldiers of the ‘Aidar’ battalion in the town of Shchastya to Stanica, because “she does not trust them”. Meanwhile, the volunteer, helping in Shchastya, stated that “if someone goes and carries only three stretchers, but refuses to take any other aid, they obviously have other aims than helping people”. In this way, antagonism developed between volunteers and productivity is reduced. In one case, two cars were driven to the same place, although – if the action had been coordinated – just one car would have been sufficient.

In light of the most frequently voiced doubts, mentioned above, when delivering aid to the ATO zone, one should consider the following recommendations:

1. Avoid passing aid through official channels, state structures and official structures of the army.
2. It is best to deliver aid with the help of local volunteers as they are well-acquainted with the situation at the local level, or volunteers from outside the region who know the local situation well.
3. It is important to work with volunteers and units which have proven to operate without irregularities; avoid cooperation with those where doubts appear (the Open Dialog Foundation has already gained experience in this field).
4. In every, even the most heavily criticised battalion/division, there is a large number of honest, patriotic soldiers who are poorly equipped due to the very fact that at the level of headquarters, irregularities occur. They should be helped, but only directly, using the rule of ‘passing into the hands’.
5. Each new request for aid should be validated in person or by trusted people – whether this particular division/soldier really needs the help they have requested.
6. At the same time, irregularities witnessed by people delivering aid should be exposed and publicised, and all possible tools should be used in order to regulate the situation.

6. Prospects

Interviews with soldiers and their families, as well as volunteers from the ATO zone, helped to highlight another area where help is needed more and more. It transpired that soldiers’ families who remain in their homes – both in the ATO zone and outside – are often in very difficult situations. Some of these families lived meagrely even before the start of the war, and the departure of a husband/father/son to the front line has further deteriorated their financial situation. But the problem also applies to many soldiers whose families were previously financially stable.

Soldiers occupy the ATO zone on the basis of one of two procedures: they are subject to mobilisation or they sign a contract when joining the army (or special police battalion). However, many volunteers, especially in the first phase of the ATO, went to the east of Ukraine without relevant documents. Over the following months, some of them signed contracts with the army (in the case of battalions of the Armed Forces) or started working in the police ranks (special police battalions) and began to receive salaries.

However, not all soldiers can pass the appropriate procedures, for example, due to a criminal record or because they exceed the age limit. Some say outright that “they did not come here for the money”, and they want to fight, and not to earn money. [19] Their families mostly accept this choice, but – after a year of conflict – this often causes a necessity to live on the verge of poverty (especially for those families in which the man was the sole breadwinner). The same applies to the soldiers who have submitted the relevant documents. Often, the process takes so long that they wait a few months for the first salary that they can send home. If a soldier is wounded or killed during this time, it makes the process of providing compensation and covering the costs of medical treatment difficult.

Some organisations in Ukraine began to deal with controlling the process of obtaining official status by soldiers, and revealing procrastinations and irregularities in this connection; they also assist soldiers in obtaining appropriate statuses and – hence – obtaining due financial compensation. The Open Dialog Foundation has also began to provide assistance in this regard, as it has prepared a booklet informing soldiers about the procedures for obtaining the status of an ‘ATO participant’ and on their entitlement rights in this respect.

However, this top-down process should be accompanied by bottom-up activity, which consists of providing emergency assistance to the families who need help now. At this time, the families of soldiers (both those killed and those who cannot support their families for other reasons) remain largely under the care of volunteers who have direct access to information about them due to personal contact with them and their families. But it seems that – with the prolonged conflict and the deteriorating economic situation in Ukraine – the number of families in need of material support will grow.

For now, soldiers’ families which are in a difficult situation do not receive aid, which is, however, given willingly to refugees. Men who fight on the front line are often too proud to admit that the situation at home is hard. Therefore, we believe that it is worth becoming involved in this type of aid more systematically.

For more detailed information, please contact:
Agnieszka Góralska – [email protected]
Lyudmyla Kozlovska – [email protected]