Crisis in Ukraine

From Embattled Donetsk, a Plea for Body Bags

As the fighting intensifies in eastern Ukraine, civilian casualties mount, and neither the local authorities nor international agencies are able to cope.

Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

They call themselves, simply, “Responsible Citizens.” Day and night this week a group of a few volunteers in Donetsk, Ukraine, have been digging injured people out from under the ruins in Kievsky and Ploshadka districts and transporting the victims of bombing and artillery attacks to shelters using their private cars or taxis. (Donetsk taxi drivers did not charge them anything for the lift.) But by midday on Wednesday one of the group’s leaders, Marina Cherenkova, was losing her temper: Almost four million people are trapped in a combat zone in eastern Ukraine, often without water or power, and without any medical aid, she said, and no politicians seem serious enough to pay attention.

Cherenkova spoke over the phone at the top of her voice: “Is there anybody out there in the world who could contribute body bags to Donetsk? We need 300 bags right now!” The volunteer said that at this point Donetsk victims do not care who would decide to help them, whether Moscow, Kiev, Brussels or Washington.

Not everybody in the world is entirely indifferent. At a United Nations emergency meeting in New York on Tuesday, John Ging of the Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs warned the Security Council that the worsening situation in eastern Ukraine caused “an increase in numbers killed” and put millions of people at risk of becoming victims of violence. On Wednesday, Ukrainian officials urged Russia to stop Grad rocket fire from across the border, while Russia accused Ukraine of carrying out artillery and air strikes.

Local medical personnel and volunteers struggling to help the increasing number of victims complained about two key issues: the shortage of medicine and their own security. In the past two months of combat in and around the cities, seriously injured people often have been left lying on the ground for hours waiting for medical help to arrive. Donetsk had very few volunteers; and after gunmen stormed the office of Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans Frontières MSF), not many foreign professionals are willing to work on the ground.

MSF disaster specialists had to move most of their staff out of Donetsk after gunmen who appeared to be from the pro-Russian separatist Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) attacked their office on July 20 and stole a vehicle loaded with humanitarian aid that had been prepared to help 50 injured people.

“So, now it’s only a few heroic local doctors, professional surgeons in their late 40s, left in Donetsk to help thousands of people trapped under bombs,” said Cherenkova, “most young professionals have fled the city.” There are also some Red Cross specialists helping the injured and refugees in the region, “but the Red Cross is too slow and can give us only limited items of medicine,” Cherenkova complained.

DNR leaders admitted that foreign aid workers in the Donetsk region had good reasons to be concerned about their safety. Sergei Kavtaradze of the DNR security council told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that “DNR prosecutors have started a criminal case and an investigation of the accident at the MSF office,” but he said “the Ukrainian army attack our city in different districts, so we simply have no time to investigate all the episodes right away.”

After a month of almost nightly shelling, about 600,000 people are believed to remain in Donetsk. More civilians fell victim to the violent attacks in the city on Tuesday and Wednesday. The latest press report by the City Hall of Donetsk said that an air strike hit the Kirovsky district on Tuesday night. The report said that the bomb left a hole in the ground on Sechenova Street of 4.5 meters (15 feet) in diameter and 1.5 meters (5 feet) deep, damaged one of the gas mains. “Unfortunately three civilians died in Donetsk,” the official report said on Wednesday.

Air attacks were new for Donetsk, Kavtaradze told us: “We call on Kiev for ceasefire, for the time to arrange with international aid and humanitarian corridors,” Kavtaradze said. But who would be controlling the ceasefire on the DNR’s side? “The Russian army would be needed on the ground to keep security for humanitarian corridors,” Kavtaradze said.

In fact, the Russian army is not too far away from Donetsk, just on the other side of the border about 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, away. On Monday the Russian military began “routine” exercises of fighter jets and helicopters in different regions of the country; NATO commanders confirmed over 12,000 Russian troops assembling near the Ukraine frontier. “We hope that the Russian leadership is not planning to attack Ukraine,” the vice governor of the garrison town of Nikolayev in Southern Ukraine recently told The Daily Beast: 12,000 troops was about all Ukraine had at that major military base.

Many in Donetsk and all over Ukraine fear that after sporadic skirmishes Russian President Vladimir Putin will make a decision to send the Russian army across the border in force this month.

By the end of July at least 780 people had been killed. With the situation growing uglier by the day, those numbers could multiply quickly said Marina Cherenkova, “But for now we have an immediate request, please help us with body bags and medicine, I beg you!”