(Kyiv) – Ukrainian civilians are exposed to risks to their health and safety – even grave danger – as they face endless waits when they need to go back and forth across the contact line between government-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine and the separatist-held Luhansk and Donetsk regions, Human Rights Watch said today.

Lack of adequate sanitary and other infrastructure at crossing points, and exposure to landmines can make an already grueling crossing – often involving long waits in freezing or hot temperatures – dangerous for civilians, Human Rights Watch found. Fighting, which has recently flared up in the vicinity of the contact line, means civilians waiting at crossing points, including overnight, are exposed to shooting and shelling. All parties to the conflict should uphold their obligations under international humanitarian law to take necessary measures to protect civilians. Authorities on both sides of the contact line should ensure that civilians are not exposed to undue hardship or unnecessary suffering.

“Civilians living in eastern Ukraine have many ties on both sides of the line of contact, such as family, friends, or property or may need to access government-provided services,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The parties to the conflict recognize that civilians need to cross from one side to the other, and so they should facilitate that and avoid measures which make crossing a threat to their health or even lives.”

Civilians waiting at the Novotroitske crossing point around 11 a.m. in the government-controlled Donetsk region, December 21, 2016.

© 2016 Tanya Cooper for Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 80 civilians on both sides of the contact line in November and December 2016, and visited all four functioning crossing points in the government-controlled part of the Donetsk region and the so-called grey or neutral zone. That area stretches along the 500-kilometer line of contact between the crossing points – controlled on one side by the Ukrainian government and on the other by the de facto authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LNR) – and is only a few hundred meters wide in most places. Human Rights Watch also interviewed people who use the only crossing point in the Luhansk region open solely to pedestrians, and spoke with staff of several groups that help people affected by the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Every person interviewed who had tried to cross said that they experienced significant hardships, especially long waits, made more difficult by freezing winter weather, rain, or summer heat. Long waiting times are the result of an insufficient number of crossing points and personnel operating them. More than half of the people interviewed said they had experienced long delays more than once, including having to spend the night at a crossing point. Crossing points often lack basic facilities such as toilets and waiting areas.

People interviewed also said that military personnel on both sides behaved improperly, such as arbitrarily refusing to allow crossing, using rude and abusive language, and taking bribes.

Civilians travel across the line of contact for many reasons. People who live in government-controlled territory said they need to see family members, to ensure their property was safe, or to return to their homes after spending the week working on the other side of the line. People in areas controlled by separatists said they regularly needed to cross to collect their pensions and other social payments, to visit family members, to seek medical care, and to take care of such essential administrative issues as registering with the pension fund or registering the birth of a child. Civilians also cross to buy groceries, household items, and medicines that are too expensive or unavailable in areas where they live, and to visit cemeteries where loved ones are buried.

In a January 10 letter to Ukrainian officials, Human Rights Watch expressed concern over restrictions on movement in and out of areas not under Ukrainian government control and urged Ukrainian authorities to take urgent measures to ease hardships for thousands of people crossing the line of contact in eastern Ukraine.

Official statistics, which Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service provided to Human Rights Watch, show that between 3,000 and 7,000 people crossed each point every day both ways in December 2016 and January 2017. The State Border Guard Service said at a February 8 meeting, that the number of crossings peaks between the 15th and 25th of every month, when people from the non-government-controlled territory cross to collect pensions and other social benefits.

Recent heavy fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists in the area of Avdiyivka, a government-controlled town of about 22,000 in the Donetsk region close to the line of contact, has underlined the vulnerability of people living next to and crossing the line of contact, Human Rights Watch said. Nearly two dozen people were killed on the government’s side, including at least three civilians, between January 29 and February 3 alone. According to the town’s authorities, 114 houses and eight apartment buildings were damaged in Avdiyivka. Other surrounding towns near the line of contact also suffered damage. On February 2, a crossing point near the government-held town of Mariinka was attacked. No one was waiting overnight that night, but some facilities were damaged and the checkpoint lost electricity.

On the DNR side, the city of Donetsk and the neighboring Makiivka were shelled by Ukrainian forces between January 31 and February 3. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine confirmed nine civilian deaths on both sides of the line of contact in the Donetsk region between January 29 and February 9.

The Ukrainian government has the right to control movement in and out of separatist-controlled areas, but all parties to the conflict should allow and facilitate civilians’ access to areas on both sides of the contact line without arbitrary and unreasonable delays, Human Rights Watch said. While the Ukrainian government has no obligation to provide financial assistance to government structures operating under the control of separatists, its human rights obligations to the civilian population do not cease on account of the ongoing conflict.

“The protection and well-being of civilians should be a priority of both Ukrainian authorities and Russia-backed separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” Cooper said. “Civilians should not continue to bear the brunt of the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.”

For detailed findings, please see below.

The Eastern Ukraine Crossing Points

Human Rights Watch conducted research missions along the line of contact in November and December.

In November, two Human Rights Watch researchers who are native Russian speakers interviewed more than 50 people who live on both sides of the line of contact, including in Donetsk, Makiivka, Starobesheve, Severodonetsk, Slavyansk, Kramatorsk, Mariinka, and Krasnogorivka. One researcher interviewed people in the government-controlled territory at the crossing point near the town of Mariinka, the second researcher entered the Mariinka crossing point from the separatist-controlled area, the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, and interviewed civilians on that side and in the zone between the two sides’ checkpoints – the no man’s land commonly referred to as the “grey” or “neutral” zone. While this zone is officially controlled by the Ukrainian government, very few functioning governmental institutions are left there due to the armed conflict.

A Human Rights Watch researcher interviewed 32 people on December 20-22 at all four open crossing points on the government-controlled side of the line of contact, in Mayorsk, Mariinka, Novotroitske, and Gnutovo (Pishchevik). The researcher visited the Mayorsk and Mariinka crossing points at night, while they were closed, and Mariinka, Novotroitske, and Gnutovo (Pishchevik) during the day.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with staff members of seven Ukrainian non-governmental groups and international organizations that provide assistance to internally displaced people and civilians living next to the line of contact.

In its meeting with Human Rights Watch on February 8, Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service, said that the agency is taking steps to improve the situation for the civilians living on both sides of the line of contact, including increasing the number of border guards at each crossing point, prosecuting officials who take bribes (59 were charged in 2016), and installing cameras providing live feeds from all the crossing points to the anti-terrorist center in Kramatorsk and the State Border Guard Service headquarters in Kyiv.

The State Border Guard Service acknowledged that some serious shortcomings persist and noted that the cooperation of all parties to the conflict, not just the Ukrainian authorities, is required for the situation to improve meaningfully for civilians crossing the line of contact.

Insufficient Number of Crossing Points

There are five functioning crossing points along the 500-kilometer line of contact, which separates the territories under the control of the Ukrainian government and the separatist forces in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions. Mayorsk, Mariinka, Novotroitske, and Gnutovo (Pischevik) are in the Donetsk region; and the pedestrian only Stanitsa Luhanska crossing is in the Luhansk region. The crossing points are open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. during the summer and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the winter.

When either side shuts down a crossing point temporarily for security or other reasons, people travel to those that remain open, increasing congestion and reducing people’s chances of making it to the other side by the time a crossing point closes. Many of those who do not manage to cross stay overnight, either on the road close to crossing points – including in the neutral zone – or in a nearby town, and try their luck the next day.

The statistics the State Border Guard Service provided to Human Rights Watch said that between 15,000 and 27,500 people crossed the line of contact each day in December. On February 13, almost 18,000 people crossed.

Most civilians living on both sides of the line of conflict whom Human Rights Watch interviewed said the insufficient number of crossing points was a serious problem. In particular, they said that since there is only one crossing point in the Luhansk region, people often have to wait a full day or sometimes longer, and that winter weather caused additional suffering as people are forced to wait several hours outside with only one or two small shelters on the Ukrainian-controlled side.

While some people pass through crossing points in private vehicles and take shelter in their cars, those on foot face the cold, rain, or heat. In a June 2015 decree, Ukrainian authorities banned direct public transit services to the separatist-held territories, so passengers disembark at the Ukrainian government crossing points and line up on foot with their luggage. Then they board other means of transportation on the other side. Some pay so-called ferrymen who transport passengers in large vans from side to side.

Several local and international aid workers said that having only five functioning crossing points along the 500-kilometer line of contact is not enough to allow massive numbers of displaced civilians and others affected by the armed conflict to move across without needless restrictions.

Some people said that instead of waiting long hours to cross the lone crossing point at Stanitsa Luhanska on foot, they had tried other crossing points in the Donetsk region, which significantly increased their travel time and costs. People, including aid workers, who regularly cross in the Donetsk region also said that the four crossing points open to vehicles are insufficient to allow crossing without significant delays and hardship.

The State Border Guard Service officials told Human Right Watch that in March 2016 they opened a second checkpoint in the Luhansk region, near the town of Zolote, but it remains closed to civilians because Russia-backed separatists in the Luhansk region are unwilling to operate it from the other side.

Long Waits

Human Rights Watch interviewed several people and aid workers who regularly cross at Stanitsa Luhanska in the Luhansk region. All said that they frequently spent between two and five hours on each side. An aid worker in the government-controlled Severodonetsk said that his mother and 80-year old grandmother waited six hours in October when they tried to cross there.

Of eight people interviewed near government-controlled Mariinka in November, five said that they had to spend a night near a crossing point on either side due to long lines and because the crossing point’s operating hours are insufficient. One man travelling from Kramatorsk to Donetsk through the crossing point near Mariinka said that at least on one occasion it took him two full days to cross. “Ask anyone here, they will also say that it happened to them,” he said. Of the 25 people Human Rights Watch interview in the DNR, 19 said they got stuck overnight at the crossing point at least once.

A worker with an international aid group said that the Mayorsk crossing point was the most problematic from both sides. The crossing point usually has long waiting lines, the aid worker said, and people often sleep at the crossing point while waiting for it to open. When a Human Rights Watch researcher visited the Mayorsk crossing point on the Ukrainian side around 6 p.m. on December 20, she found six elderly women in one of two tents set up by Ukraine’s Ministry of Emergencies. The women said they did not make it through the crossing point before it closed that day and would have to spend the night in the tent so they could try crossing the next day. Most of the women were over sixty years old, two had disabilities. One of them, a 76-year-old woman who came from Horlivka in the DNR but did not manage to cross back in time, cried when talking to a Human Rights Watch researcher, saying “How did I deserve this? All I did my entire life was work and hope for a peaceful retirement. Now they [Ukrainian officials at the Mayorsk crossing point] call me a terrorist. How did I deserve this?”

Several local residents and international aid staff working in the government-controlled area of the Donetsk region said that at least three elderly civilians had died while waiting in line to cross in recent months. According to a recent media report, on January 22, a man travelling from Donetsk to Dnipro died in the grey zone next to a separatist crossing point near Mariinka, where no ambulance would go. About 300 vehicles waited to pass through the government-controlled crossing point from both sides that day, according to information on the website of the State Border Guard Service. Human Rights Watch did not independently verify these reports.

Since the start of the armed conflict in 2014, there have been hundreds of casualties as a result of mines, cluster munition remnants, and other explosive remnants of war (ERW). According to the UN, landmines and other ERWs contaminate at least 74,000 acres of eastern Ukraine’s territory. Last year, the HALO Trust, a UK mine clearance organization, identified 97 mine-hazardous areas in the region, and these are only initial estimates.

Some of the people crossing from the separatist-held territory of the Donetsk region said that they start their journey via “ferrymen” at between 2:30 and 4 a.m., despite a 5 a.m. curfew in the region, to get a spot in line closer to the Ukrainian checkpoint, which only opens at 8 a.m. (9 a.m. DNR winter time).

In November 2016, a Human Rights Watch researcher crossed the line of contact from separatist-controlled Donetsk to government-controlled Mariinka, in a large van operated by a “ferryman” as a shuttle taxi.

The driver scheduled pick-up time at 3 a.m., explaining that he starts collecting passengers, who had all booked a place in his van by phone, just after 2 a.m. from various parts of Donetsk and its close suburbs to be able to make it through the DNR crossing point and get a spot in the line for Ukraine’s crossing point near Mariinka. He explained that if he arrived there by 3:30 a.m., while he would not be at the very beginning of the line because of the people who had not gotten through the day before and had stayed overnight, he would be close enough to get through sometime between 9 and 10 a.m. “if all goes well.”

Several of the passengers confirmed to Human Rights Watch that this was how other shuttle taxi drivers operated every day as well – collecting passengers in the middle of the night, parking in the line by 3:30 a.m., and spending the rest of the night in the neutral zone. Driving during curfew is forbidden by DNR authorities, but, according to the driver and several passengers interviewed, “paying off the right people” ensures unhindered passage for shuttle taxis.

By 6 a.m., an hour after the end of the curfew, the neutral zone was already crowded with vehicles and pedestrians, including the elderly and small children. The van made it to the government check-point in five-and-a-half hours, by about 9 a.m. Ukrainian time (10 a.m. DNR time). The route, therefore, took over six hours. Before there were restrictions, the drive from Donetsk to Mariinka took approximately 30 minutes.

Everyone interviewed underscored that crossing the line of contact created disproportionate hardships for elderly people, young children, pregnant women, and people with disabilities, who may require additional assistance or who experience difficulties during long waits in cold and crowded conditions with no bathroom facilities in the neutral zone.

While Ukrainian authorities allow priority crossing to women in advanced stages of pregnancy, nursing women with infants, and people with disabilities, many people who might claim priority do not know they can because the information is not posted. Border guards and civilians also said that when people with priority try to cross, it often provokes others in line to become aggressive or even violent and to refuse to let them through.

Lack of basic facilities

Due to the excessively long lines at crossing points, there is an urgent need to install and maintain basic facilities to alleviate civilians’ hardships, especially during the winter and summer months. On the separatist-held side of the crossing points, basic facilities such as potable water and shelters were often absent altogether. In the neutral zone, where people spend the most time waiting to cross, there are no basic facilities.

While facilities are better developed on the government-controlled side, with significant support from several international humanitarian aid groups, there still are not enough well-maintained toilets at all crossing points, shelters that provide protection from rain and sun in the summer, and snow and cold weather in the winter, and potable water stations. On the Ukrainian side, the responsibility to maintain these facilities lies with the local administrations of the government-controlled Luhansk and Donetsk regions. The lack or unsanitary state of these basic facilities causes serious difficulties for civilians with health conditions and limited mobility and those with young children.

In the Luhansk region, aid workers and residents said that while the Ukrainian side had a shelter and a tent, where civilians can warm up and get a hot drink, the crossing point on the other side did not have such facilities.

Civilians interviewed at the Mariinka crossing point complained about the state of toilets, which were provided by international aid groups but are not maintained or cleaned by the local authorities. All civilians interviewed flagged that the problems were particularly aggravating in the neutral zone. Due to the lack of adequate toilet facilities there, some civilians resort to relieving themselves in open fields, which is not only humiliating, but can be life-threatening due to the landmines.

While waiting in the neutral zone for the Ukrainian crossing point to open, Human Rights Watch observed how, in the absence of toilets, numerous men turned to face the roadside and urinated with their back to the crowd. Women, including some elderly ones, who had trouble walking, had to descend from the road into the field, walk a distance and squat in the field, still in full view of the crowd as there are no bushes or trees to hide behind. Some women described this experience as “degrading.” They also said they were afraid of stepping on a landmine, but the long waiting time and lack of sanitary facilities left them little choice.

E-passes

In January 2015, the Ukrainian government began enforcing travel regulations that require civilians to obtain a special pass to move between separatist-controlled and government-controlled territories. Civilians can apply online, and the electronic permit is valid for one year. Civilians can also apply for the e-pass in person in several government-controlled towns – Kramatorsk, Velyka Novosilka, Mariupol, Bahmut, and Starobilsk – and by phone.

If there is even a minor discrepancy between the information on one’s e-pass and the passport information – such as one letter in the person’s name, one digit in the person’s passport number, or the pass has expired, Ukrainian border guards do not let those people through in either direction.

Those who are stopped have to make corrections either online or in person and can travel again only when the corrected e-pass is issued. If they have any suspicions about a person’s information, appearance, or luggage, the guards send the person to officials of Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) who are stationed at the crossing points.

The online application takes only a few minutes to fill out, but processing takes up to 10 working days. The process is quite straightforward if one has a computer, knows how to use it, and has electricity and internet connection. Otherwise, the process can be burdensome. There is also no procedure in place to allow people to apply for an emergency e-pass if it is needed for medical emergency or other extraordinary situations.

Recommendations to all sides of the conflict – Ukrainian government, de facto authorities of the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics:

  • Increase the number of entry/exit crossing points along the line of contact, particularly in the Luhansk region where only one functioning crossing point exists at the moment that civilians can only cross on foot;
  • Increase staffing and boost technological and other infrastructure at entry/exit crossing points to facilitate transit, especially during winter months;
  • Ensure that all crossing points are equipped with adequate toilet facilities, shelters from inclement weather, warming stations, and potable water stations;
  • Investigate and address allegations of corruption and extortion among border guards and other officials present at crossing points; formalize and widely publicize crossing procedures as a means to combat corruption; and
  • Ensure priority crossing to vulnerable groups of people on both sides, such as elderly people, people with disabilities, young children, pregnant women, and others. Make information about priority crossing publicly available and visible at crossing points.

To Ukraine’s Security Service:

  • Improve the e-pass system to avoid delays; ensure people without access to electricity, computers or the internet, elderly people, and people with disabilities are able to obtain e-passes without undue difficulties, including by increasing the locations where e-passes can be obtained in person; ensure those crossing the line of contact for humanitarian or medical reasons are not prevented from crossing only because they do not have a valid e-pass.