Alexander Hug is the Principal Deputy Chief Monitor of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine, the international, unarmed, civilian monitoring mission that reports, observes, and establishes facts, gathers information and reports on the security situation, reports on the humanitarian situation and facilitates the delivery of humanitarian aid of other organizations, and facilitates dialogue and localized ceasefires.
The OSCE SMM is mandated to contribute to reducing tensions and to help foster peace, stability, and security.
Entering Pikuzy — or as it is known by many people, Kominternove — I and my colleagues from the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine, on 14 October had a sense of entering another world, a forbidden world, closed off to the outside.
The leaves were already falling and the beginning of winter was in the air, in stark contrast to the last time I had been to the village, when the hot August Sun had beaten down on us as we tried in vain to enter the village to monitor the security and humanitarian situation, in accordance with the OSCE SMM mandate. In August, lines of anti-tank mines lay across the road, blocking our route to the village centre.
For the remaining residents of the village, these mines are a familiar sight. Since late 2015 they have watched as the sides have slowly but surely tightened a noose around the village, inching forward with hardware, new positions and checkpoints, manned by heavily-armed men and protected by mines, seen and unseen.
It’s the unseen ones — combined with booby traps and unexploded ordnance — that pose the greatest threat. Unknown risks intimidate people, forcing them to stay out of fields — meaning they can’t cultivate their land or find firewood. Given that agriculture is the main bread winner for people here, and that the village is no longer supplied by gas from Mariupol, this obviously has real and immediate consequences. Especially now as the cold Ukrainian winter takes hold.
No less consequential is the ring of road blocks in the area, entailing lengthy delays and detours. Before the sides started moving forward in December 2015 and erecting checkpoints and digging trenches close to the village and close to one another, people in Pikuzy could reach Mariupol in less than 20 minutes by car. Now, instead of the direct road south-west to the city — which is blocked by anti-tank mines at a checkpoint controlled by the so-called “DPR” just at the edge of the village, and more anti-tank mines a few hundred metres away at a Ukrainian Armed Forces checkpoint — they must travel north-east, through Oktiabr, and swing back around via Pyshchevyk and Hnutove. It’s a journey requiring a series of document checks and long queues at fortified positions on the contact line, which in themselves are regular targets and hence extremely risky for anyone passing through. Our patrols recently observed an improvised explosive device close to the checkpoint in Pyshchevyk.
For the young wishing to access education in Mariupol, or for those with jobs in the city, it’s a journey that is not just risky but infeasible, too. Before the ring of checkpoints and mines was installed, students and workers commuted in and out of the city on a daily basis, living at home, surrounded by friends and extended family. Now, forced to move into the city, they have left behind mostly the old, almost emptying the village and tearing families and community apart in the process.
Our latest visit was mostly uneventful but in August the so-called “DPR” were determined to put on a show.
We had launched an unmanned aerial vehicle to better assess the situation. Point 3 of the package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk agreements explicitly allows the OSCE SMM to use such technology to enhance its monitoring capacity. With mines clearly in the area, and others no doubt lurking unseen, we have increasingly used them, as well as static cameras — and most recently, acoustic sensors — to minimize the risk posed to our ground patrols.
Within 20 seconds of its launch, however, an armed member of the so-called “DPR” — just a few hundred metres from us — was firing an assault rifle, letting loose on the UAV. A brave female SMM monitor, in the face of the most immediate danger, skillfully and quickly landed the vehicle before the gunman could get it in his sights.
My colleagues and I were all wearing flak jackets and helmets, and we could take cover in armoured vehicles. But for the people of Pikuzy there is no such protection against men firing automatic weapons in and around their village.
Since December 2015 residents in Pikuzy have faced much worse. Small-arms fire is just the tip of the iceberg.
Other SMM patrols to the village reveal widespread damage and destruction. There is hardly a building that has not sustained some damage with many suffering direct hits from artillery or mortar fire. A primary school, once a place of learning for the village’s very youngest is now in ruins, destroyed in shelling, with a burnt-out tank in its adjoining playground.
Recent analysis of imagery obtained by SMM unmanned aerial vehicles showed the extent of the damage.
Comparing images taken on 5 August with those taken on 10 August, SMM analysts have illustrated the impact on just one street in Pikuzy. As well as extensive damage to private residences, the imagery also revealed a trench and checkpoint at the end of Akhmatovoi Street.
Placing hardware and positions in residential areas is of course common practice on both sides of the contact line. We have for instance seen this practice in nearby Vodiane too, with the inevitable shelling of civilian homes there as well. Residents in Vodiane — like their neighbours in Pikuzy — have mostly left, refusing to be human shields in a fight over a few hundred metres of dusty ground.
Despite the exodus, there have nonetheless been civilian casualties. Since the beginning of 2016, the OSCE SMM has confirmed 23 civilian casualties in Pikuzy — five fatalities and 18 injuries.
Perhaps the most awful incident involved two young boys in June 2016.
Aged just six and seven, they were electrocuted by power lines downed by shelling.
I had actually met both boys on a previous visit to the village. Their smiling faces remain in my mind, a reminder that it is the most innocent who pay the ultimate price for others’ intransigence.
In Kyiv — a thousand kilometres but a million miles from Pikuzy — it’s sometimes difficult to believe there is such a place, a place where people are caught between the lines, where a cordon of guns and mines is circling them, strangling the lives and livelihoods of people who have done nothing to deserve this.
But it’s very real. We’ve seen it before, in neighbouring Shyrokyne, where a once vibrant seaside town has been reduced to a ghost town, devoid of all life except soldiers, and the occasional stray dog ignorant of the risk of mines and unexploded ordnance that lay everywhere.
Those stray dogs no doubt sometimes venture onto Peace Street, equally oblivious to the irony of a peace obtained at the cost of the village itself.
And it’s now happening in other places along the contact line, too — in Vodiane, Pisky, Kruta Balka and Novooleksandrivka. People there, just like those in Pikuzy, know all too well what it means when armed men refuse to withdraw weapons and disengage forces. They too are locked between encroaching lines of armed men and hardware, unable to access even the very basic necessities of life.
On paper, the sides have withdrawn heavy weapons from the security zone. And they have de-mined. At Minsk, they also agreed not to move their positions forward. And local people in all of the affected areas have called for the withdrawal of weapons and personnel from their neighbourhoods.
Not only have the sides not — as we see every day, and in particular in places like Pikuzy — they still place new mines, they still re-position heavy weapons into the security zone and they still move forward.
For the moment, the OSCE SMM observes low-intensity fighting in eastern Ukraine punctured by sudden violent flare-ups. The flare-ups are always preceded by forward moves. Just this year, Avdiivka, Svitlodarsk and Zholobok come to mind in this respect.
People living there, and indeed anywhere along the approximately 400 kilometre-long contact line, are vulnerable. Unpredictability defines their everyday lives, never knowing when their homes and communities will become a battleground in someone else’s conflict.
As winter approaches, in addition to insecurity they face the prospect of freezing homes. With their economic livelihoods destroyed and a consequent inability to pay the bills, residents have been cut off from gas supplies from Mariupol. Thus far those making decisions have been deaf to calls to restore the gas supply. While there are lots willing to defend their country, it seems fewer are willing to defend the most vulnerable living in it.
As we pulled out of Pikuzy three weeks ago, I for one was conscious that we were leaving behind defenceless innocent people, who through no fault of their own, are the victims of intransigence. Our patrols visit the village on a regular basis, or at least they do so if armed men don’t block their access.
But ultimately the few remaining people of Pikuzy — and many other places along the contact line — are alone, abandoned and neglected, and left at the mercy of armed men and soldiers refusing to abide by agreements made. The residents have pleaded that the sides disengage and withdraw heavy weapons. The sides agreed they would, and even claim they have. And yet this tragedy, or farce, continues.
Back in Kyiv, it does indeed seem like another world.
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