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Winter on the Frontline


16.10.2015 - Temperatures are dropping and winter is announcing its arrival in Europe. For the five million people requiring humanitarian assistance in war-torn Ukraine, this means an additional challenge for survival.

Early 2014 mass demonstrations erupted in Kiev and other Ukrainian cities, which eventually lead to the first conflict on European soil after WWII. After the annex of Crimea by the Russian Federation in March 2014, fighting continued between armed groups and government forces, resulting in over 6,000 casualties and leaving thousands of people wounded.


In places along the frontline that witnessed intense fighting, people fled their homes in the search for safety. At this moment there are 1,4 million Ukrainians internally displaced. The ceasefire brokered in late August 2015 has resulted in a significant reduction of fighting, although the conflict is currently frozen with no political solution insight. Temperatures are dropping quickly as the people in war-affected areas are preparing for another harsh winter. To ensure that basic food needs are covered for the most vulnerable, WFP is providing food assistance on both sides of the frontline.


From Euro 2012 to closed-off conflict zone

On 27 June 2012 the city of Donetsk hosted the semi-final of the EuroCup, bringing together thousands of visitors from all over Europe. The once state-of-the-art Donbas arena, now severely damaged by war, has already been used as a hub to deliver humanitarian aid. Currently access is restricted in Non-Government Controlled Areas (NGCAs), including for humanitarian agencies. Since July 2015 humanitarian actors were asked to leave the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk by the de-facto authorities, requesting them to undergo an accreditation process before they would be allowed in. Mid October saw the delivery of the first two convoys of food for 16,000 people into NGCAs, which were distributed by WFP’s partner PIN (People in Need). WFP’s Head of Office Giancarlo Stopponi stated about this breakthrough: “This food will help people who have been displaced by the conflict, who have lost their jobs and left their homes, and who have been deprived of humanitarian assistance for the past three months.” Further negotiations are allowing WFP to slowly restart operations in NGCAs, but the context can change rapidly. If access allows, WFP aims to reach a total of 575,000 beneficiaries by the end of 2015.


Despite access restraints, WFP has already reached over 200,000 people in both GCAs and NGCs through providing food vouchers, vouchers or cash, depending on the context. For instance in the NGAs, where financial infrastructures have been damaged, beneficiaries receive food parcels on a monthly basis. These parcels weigh a total of 21,6 kilos and contain items such as buckwheat, macaroni, kidney beans, canned meat and fish, sunflower oil, sugar, salt and tea. Those beneficiaries receiving an electronic food voucher receive a card which is charged with 450 Hryvnia (approximately US$20) per person per month. In local supermarkets, this voucher allows beneficiaries to by selected food and hygienic items. Alcohol, cigarettes and soda drinks cannot be purchased with this voucher, to ensure the money is well-spent.

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Helping the most vulnerable through winter

There are those who say that most revolutions in Eastern Europe happen around the fall of winter, from Russia’s uprising in 1905 to Ukraine’s Maidan in 2013. It is definitely true that living conditions become increasingly difficult during winter times, especially for vulnerable households. Due to the conflict people have been forced to find shelter elsewhere, as houses have been damaged or destroyed. Inflation is driving up the prices, making it more challenging for people to buy basic food supplies. While massive gas pipelines run through the country to supply European homes with energy, local Ukrainians struggle to heat their homes during winter, as jobs are scarce. Vera Kopeikina, 50 year-old resident of Svetlodarsk waiting outside a WFP voucher distribution, stated: “My husband has been unable to find employment during the last two years and prices have increased. In January we were living in our basements due to shelling in our town. This winter I really do not know how we will manage.”

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WFP assistance is specifically targeting those that are the most vulnerable, lacking adequate coping mechanisms to survive. Often this concerns IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons), but WFP also targets Ukrainians hosting IDPs, chronically ill, handicapped persons, single parents and people who are unemployed. The elderly (women over 55, men over 60) are also supported, as many pensions were cut due to the conflict. Those that do receive a pension often do not receive enough to cover their basic needs, as a pair of winter shoes often equals the total amount of their pension.

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Some cases are exceptionally gripping. Natalia (32), single-mother of four children, has worked hard in restoring her severely damaged home for the coming winter period. She was forced to live with her children in her cow’s shed, after her home was shelled and subsequently caught fire in 2014. “This was the most horrible moment of my life, it was simply unbearable,” she said. Having no funds, she was forced to sell her cow. She hit rock-bottom when her handicapped baby Dima passed away (being only 22 months old), adding to the tragedy. Currently the family lives together in the only room that provides them with shelter.

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Trying to make some money complementing the modest child support, Natalia and her son Ihor (14) would gather scrap metal they sold. Through WFP she and her children now receive a WFP food voucher: “I have been waiting for the voucher like a God to come. I can now provide decent food for my children, before we did not eat well. If it wasn't for the voucher, I would not know what to do.” Through WFP’s assistance she is also able to pay for occasional heating, protecting her children against the winter cold. Natalia is determined to restore her house to make it livable again, including the fountain she made herself in the former living room: “I am ready to fight, there is no other way.”

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Partnerships that save lives

WFP Ukraine started its Emergency Operation in 2014, having had no presence in the country before. Through close cooperation with its local NGO partners (ADRA, PIN and Mercy Corps) food assistance is delivered to beneficiaries in both GCAs and in NGCAs. WFP is a fully voluntary funded organisation and is grateful for the support that is given through its donors. As the needs are still there, WFP is extending the operation in Ukraine into 2016, which will allow WFP to continue to provide assistance to the most vulnerable living on both sides of the frontline.


Photo Credits

  • UN Photos / WFP


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