When 5,000 people flooded into a city of 500,000 in one night with little more than the pajamas on their backs, they were greeted by the mayor and an assemblage of churches and civic groups ready to embrace them with shelter, food, clothing and moral support. The scene might sound like something from Europe’s west, where refugees are flooding in from the Middle East and Africa. But this is Ukraine in the midst of a war and an economic crisis, and two years into upheaval, the strain is beginning to show.

A woman walks among the tents at a refugee camp in Donetsk, Aug. 22, 2014. The United Nations reports that more than a million Ukrainians have been displaced by war. (Sergey Ponomarev/The New York Times)
Photo Courtesy of The New York Times/Sergey Ponomarev

In a nation of 44 million people, about 2.6 million Ukrainians have fled the war in the east initiated by Russian-backed separatists, and more than 1.4 million of them are still in the country. About two-thirds find refuge with friends, family or others who’ve been displaced, and humanitarian agencies are bracing for the long haul. Ceasefire terms reached in Minsk, Belarus, in February and September have largely held, but spurts of renewed fighting include a battle that killed six Ukrainian soldiers last weekend. More than 8,000 people have died since the war began in April 2014.

“What does it mean to be internally displaced? For some of the people I met, it meant that they got on a train in Donetsk and they wound up in Mariupol in their pajamas.”

International attention on Ukraine tends to be dominated by talk of whether the U.S. and European Union will extend their sanctions against Russia and whether to step up arms supplies to the Ukrainian government. But meantime, the conditions for the country’s internally displaced people (IDPs) and their host communities have become what former U.S. Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues Melanne Verveer calls an “invisible crisis.” Verveer serves as special representative on gender issues for the chairmanship in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is monitoring the ceasefire in Ukraine and coordinates projects such as legal reform.

During a recent visit to Ukraine, Verveer said, officials clearly were overwhelmed by the massive and unfamiliar demands for assistance and coordination, though the government in Kyiv remains the largest single provider of aid to the displaced. The impact of the war and displacements are profound, said Verveer and Natalia Karbowska, chairman of the board of the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, an organization that provides grants to women’s organizations in Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova and is affiliated with the Global Fund for Women.

The two spoke at an event at USIP on Nov. 19 that explored how Ukraine’s civil society networks and the goodwill shown amid the humanitarian crisis might provide a foundation for social understanding and reconciliation, and how those displaced could find a voice and connections to political and economic life.

The discussion occurred just days before the second anniversary of the day protests began on Nov. 23, 2013, in Kyiv’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan. They were spurred by then-President Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection, under Russian pressure, of a planned association agreement with the European Union. The demonstrations, also known as the “Revolution of Dignity,” ultimately broadened to reflect public outrage over corruption and ineffective governance. Yanukovych fled the country and Russia soon swept into Ukraine to occupy the Crimean Peninsula and send fighters and weapons to back separatists in the eastern Donbas region.

“The Revolution of Dignity won, but we knew at that time that the change that we all campaigned for will not come immediately,” Karbowska said. Still, neither the demonstrators in the Maidan, nor the military were prepared for the Russian armed incursions. And the country’s institutions had no experience in dealing with the floods of displaced people fleeing the war zone.

Welcomes From Volunteers

So volunteers stepped into the breach. They mobilized to support the army and those displaced by the fighting, raising millions of dollars for aid in a country with no culture of philanthropy, Karbowska said. They have successfully lobbied for national and local measures to reform corrupt governing structures, though the pace of change has been sluggish. Advocates have pushed for laws to ban discrimination against displaced Ukrainians and to give them priority for places in kindergartens, the equivalent of day care in a country where parents desperately need jobs and can’t afford child care on their own.

“For me, this is a real indication of civil society in Ukraine – people mobilizing to achieve results, people mobilizing to change policies in their country,” she said.

Volunteers in the eastern city of Kharkiv make a point of expressing strong words of welcome to people fleeing the war-torn region nearby. And it was the city of Mariupol to the south where the mayor turned out to greet 5,000 displaced people who arrived by train one night. 

“What does it mean to be internally displaced?” said Dawn Calabia, honorary advisor at Refugees International, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization. She visited Ukraine in August. “For some of the people I met, it meant that they got on a train in Donetsk and they wound up in Mariupol in their pajamas because the shelling had started at night and they had fled.”

“The deputy mayor said to us, `What do you do when 5,000 people come on a train in the middle of the night? So we called the people we knew, and people came out to respond to the needs,’” Calabia said in the USIP discussion.

Verveer, who also is executive director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security in Washington D.C., said she saw “vibrant civil society leadership” in Ukraine, with a non-profit sector that has knowledge and capabilities but suffers from too little support from the international community.

The U.S. Congress currently is in negotiations over the final budget for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1. Those talks include an aid package for Ukraine that contains economic support, military equipment and humanitarian assistance. Verveer and William B. Taylor, USIP’s executive vice president and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said it’s important to maintain vigorous support for Ukraine.

'We Need to Do More'

The United Nations refugee agency reported in October that it has been able to raise only 56 percent of the $41.5 million it says is needed to serve Ukraine’s 1.5 million internally displaced people. Overall, 5 million people need $316 million of humanitarian aid, and only 45 percent of that has been funded or pledged.

“This is a critical time for our own country” in relation to support for Ukraine, Verveer said. “We need to do more.”  Verveer emphasized a comment from the audience that the problems of Ukraine aren’t intractable but rather that it’s entirely possible for Ukraine, with its vibrant civil society and the resilience of its local communities, to fully address its issues with sufficient international assistance.

As it is, Ukraine’s extended political, military, economic and social crisis is straining the country’s social fabric, Karbowska and others said in the USIP discussion. Soldiers coming home to an economy with no jobs are lashing out at their families. Local residents resent the priority given displaced Ukrainians for the precious kindergarten spaces. And then there’s the backdrop of tensions between the east and west that contributed sparks to the war in the first place.

Karbowska noted a growing lack of tolerance in communities amid the new competition for resources. That creates tensions between those displaced and local residents.

Ukraine is, in some ways, at a tipping point, said Lauren Van Metre, USIP’s acting vice president for applied research on conflict.

The significant support of the central government despite its strained coffers and the leadership that civil society “allows us to imagine very important possibilities for Ukraine,” Van Metre said. “Could this goodwill and community openness contribute to internal reconciliation?”

“Could this change perceptions of Kyiv by populations from the east?” Van Metre said.  “While the potential for constructive engagement…does exist, winter is also near and local economies are constrained.”

Oksana Shulyar, a political affairs counselor at the Embassy of Ukraine in Washington D.C., notes that Ukrainians staying in the country alleviates the risk of adding to the flow of refugees entering western Europe. About 1.12 million have fled Ukraine, most to Russia, according to U.N. figures.

“The winter is coming and we urgently need additional assistance for rebuilding infrastructure in the conflict-affected areas,” said Shulyar, who attended the USIP event.  “The solution to the IDP problem in Ukraine is an inclusive combination of larger financial support, Ukraine’s further reforms efforts and continued pressure on Russia until the Minsk agreements are implemented in full.”

'The Ground Truth'

Women particularly are critical to addressing the plight of internally displaced people, pressing for government reform and shepherding any reconciliation efforts that might emerge, said Karbowska and Verveer. Fully two-thirds of those displaced in Ukraine are women, and the economic crisis has thwarted their ability to get jobs to earn a living if they are the only source of income while men are deployed.

“Women are critical agents of change,” Verveer said. “They have the ground truth.”

Women’s non-government organizations have provided emergency aid, jobs skills training and initiatives to prevent domestic and community violence. They also are trying to advance women’s participation in decision-making and dialogue to defuse conflict.
“We see that society is really ready for new faces in politics, for new values in politics,” Karbowska said. “And we do think that women could bring these values.”

Verveer said women in parliament – they make up 11 percent of the members -- are working together across party lines to address the country’s crisis, even traveling to the East in groups to assess conditions. They expressed a serious need for information from other places that have experienced similar situations, to learn about practices and policies that work, she said.

With Ukraine considering decentralization of authority to address grievances in the east by distributing more government revenue to the local level, citizens need training in how to analyze policies and lobby for change, Karbowska said.
“There is also a need for initiatives to build tolerance in communities,” Karbowska said.

Building the capacity of local civic organizations to provide humanitarian assistance also strengthens civil society in transitional countries by connecting it to official structures still struggling to break their top-down habits. And it can prepare citizens for more active roles when they return home.

USIP and the Ukrainian Women’s Fund will conduct a needs assessment to determine what skills and resources IDPs require, beyond immediate humanitarian assistance, so that they can advocate for their rights, and perhaps catalyze future reconciliation and war recovery efforts.

“We as peacebuilders know that successful IDP resettlements secure durable peace processes,” Van Metre said. “We know that giving IDPs a voice introduces critical local knowledge into policy discussions.”

In the meantime, Karbowska urged the U.S. and others in the international community to keep up the pressure on the Ukrainian government to implement the reforms they have promised and to improve conditions for citizens, including those displaced by the war.

“It is important for us that you all do not give up on Ukraine,” Karbowska said.  “I know there are many terrible events happening in the world these days, but I do think that they are connected. After the Paris [attacks] last week, pro-Kremlin separatists in Ukraine became more active.”

She said more people are being killed again and there is a danger that the ceasefire will be broken by the end of the year. She hearkened back to the 2008 war between Georgia and Russia, recalling that Ukrainians sympathized but “thought it was far away.”

“But now we know it is not,” Karbowska said. “We all live in the same reality…the problem of one country might become a global problem in just one day.”

Viola Gienger is a senior editor and writer at USIP.

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