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Security officials from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) visited the offices of People in Need, one of the two international aid groups still operating in the separatist-held areas of eastern Ukraine last week. People in Need has been providing food and other basic goods and has helped to repair homes damaged during hostilities ever since the early days of the armed conflict. When DNR officials arrived, they told staff that the group’s accreditation had been revoked, and ordered all international employees to leave DNR territory within 24 hours. They took over People in Need’s warehouse which is stocked with humanitarian supplies. There was no warning, and no explanation. 

A woman walks out of a residential building that was damaged during battles between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed separatists, in Donetsk, Ukraine November 25, 2015. © 2015 Reuters

The same day, DNR security officials detained two journalists with the Russian independent TV channel Rain for more than six hours. According to TV Rain, security officials demanded to see the journalists’ footage and then deleted it. Officials said the journalists had provided a false telephone number on their DNR press accreditation application, which the journalists insisted was not true. The real reason almost certainly lies in TV Rain’s unflattering coverage of the DNR leadership’s policies. Now the journalists are banned indefinitely from returning to the DNR.

The de-facto DNR authorities are steadily isolating this region, leaving the local population at their mercy without support from the outside.

A colleague and I got back from eastern Ukraine a couple of weeks ago. We spent several days on both sides of the conflict witnessing people’s everyday hardships. Families close to the line of contact separating rebel-held areas from the rest of the country are exposed to frequent shelling, plus the danger of landmines and explosive remnants of war. They can only hope that another night of shelling will not cut off their electricity. They queue up for hours in the cold to cross to the other side to see a relative, check on their property, process a document, or visit a loved one’s grave.

For many of them who need food or other vital goods from the other side, this is a daily ordeal. They cope by getting aid from humanitarian organizations.

In seemingly peaceful Donetsk city, we witnessed the sheer fear to talk about abuses by the local security services, which operate outside of the rule of law and enjoy complete impunity.

Aid groups like People in Need and independent media like TV Rain play a vital role in protecting civilians and keeping them informed – no matter which side of the armed conflict they find themselves on – and DNR’s de facto authorities have an obligation under international law to facilitate humanitarian help. Without this support, civilians there face extreme hardship this coming winter.

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