Escalation in war-torn city in eastern Ukraine’s grey zone
A series of violent and chaotic events have refocused the attention of Ukraine to Maryinka, a Ukrainian-controlled town on the southwestern outskirts of Donetsk. Not only has this town seen a number of deadly shellings and clashes between Ukrainian government and Russian-led separatist forces, but one of the busiest civilian checkpoints connecting government and occupied territory stands near the town.
Maryinka’s Precarious Position
Assessing the strategic importance of Maryinka, along with the danger posed to the civilians who still live there, is easy by just looking at a situational map of the area. Nearly the whole town is under the control of the Ukrainian government, but the Russian-led separatists have encroached into certain areas of the town, most notably the Maryinka Boarding School just north of Osykova River; however, there is little evidence supporting the claim that separatists have firm control over this area. On the map below, the shaded red area indicates territory under control of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR).
This boarding school was the site of intense fighting in 2015, as previously researched by the @DFRLab, though it is currently in the grey zone, rather than under firm Russian and separatist control. In 2017, Ukrainian soldiers were present at the boarding school, but by 2018, it was mostly abandoned.
Photographs taken in March 2018 of the school showed a war torn scene of destroyed windows, roofs, and unused school materials.
— Джон Сноу (@partizan201415) April 5, 2018
If its position right near the front line was not enough, Maryinka is also of significant strategic importance to the Ukrainian government because of the Maryinka Checkpoint, which sees thousands of civilians pass through every day. Two weeks ago, for example, civilian witnesses reported waiting 27 hours to cross the checkpoint, with around 150 cars in the queue.
With literally thousands of civilians passing through a single, narrow checkpoint every day, even “light” shelling in the area can lead to tragedy, as we saw most notably in Volnovakha in 2015.
Last week, a woman was arrested at the Maryinka checkpoint going from occupied to government-controlled territory, allegedly en route to Kyiv. The unnamed 34-year-old woman is a native of Horlivka, currently occupied by the DNR, and allegedly fought in the DNR before working as a medic in their ranks through 2016, when she started to work in a hospital.
Ukrainian police shared four photographs tied to the unnamed woman: her DNR military identification card, along with three photographs of her in an armed formation, whether it be during a battle or manning a checkpoint.
At the time of this report, the woman was not publicly identified either by Ukrainian police or online sleuths. For example, she was not identified from the controversial online database “Myrotvorets” (Peacemaker), which publishes the personal information of those perceived to be hostile to the Ukrainian state, most notably Russian and separatist soldiers and officials.
The database was, however, recently used to make an arrest: two Ukrainians were arrested at a checkpoint in the Donetsk Oblast in July after their information came up in a search, as detailed by a Ukrainian military statement:
“[The suspects] were detained near the town of Novhorodske after checking the ‘Myrotvorets’ database, according to which both [of the suspects] were suspected in coordinating with the illegal armed formation of the so-called ‘DNR.’”
Unexploded Ordinances and Shelling
Two Maryinka residents were recently wounded as a result of an unexploded ordinance. The OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) to Ukraine visited the two victims — both of whom are men who live in Maryinka — who described that they were hit with shrapnel after an unexploded ordinance erupted near an abandoned house.
The issue of mines and unexploded ordinances littering the landscape of the Donbas will likely linger for decades. A recent reportage from the front-line highlighted this issue when the film crew from the “Segodnya” program of the Ukraina channel visited heavily mined areas in Maryinka. The crew also came under fire while reporting from Ukrainian trenches last week.
A leaflet distributed by UNICEF was placed near residences with a number of mines and unexploded ordinances, warning people to “look under your feet.” The three graphics read:
“Yes, it will blow up. / Yes, it will cripple or kill you. / Yes, your friends too.”
One of the most common locations for civilians to trigger unexploded ordinances and mines is at the checkpoints between government-controlled and occupied territory, such as the Maryinka checkpoint. Due to the incredibly long waits — sometimes an entire day, or with an overnight wait — civilians in the queue will look for privacy in nearby vegetation or other secluded spots to relieve themselves. A number of tragic accidents have led to injuries or deaths when civilians stray too far from the checkpoint and trigger a mine. Because of this, UNICEF has worked on the “Sanitation without mines and explosive remnants of war” project to provide portable toilets at the Maryinka checkpoint to prevent these accidents.
Construction is already started at the Maryinka checkpoint from the Ukrainian government to create areas with “canopies, sanitary toilets, water, and electricity” for civilians forced to wait long hours, sometimes in the brutal summer heat or the harsh winter, in Maryinka.
There are dozens of villages caught in the grey zone or surrounded by trenches from Ukrainian or Russian-led separatist forces, but Maryinka may be the most important of them due to the nearby checkpoint. With only a handful of operating civilian crossing points, even a small shift in territorial control near Maryinka or an escalation in nightly artillery duels would significantly burden and endanger civilians.
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