By Robin Gomes
Caritas Europe has appealed for a “safe and unimpeded access to all people in need” in Eastern Ukraine, urging parties in the conflict to respect the rights and dignity of innocent civilians in the region.
The call came on Saturday as a delegation of Caritas Europa concluded a visit to the region that has been witnessing armed conflict for more than seven years now.
Risk of full conflict
The group that brings together 49 social and development organizations of the Catholic Church in Europe, expressed concern that since the beginning of the year, hostilities have been growing with the danger of the revival of what it called the “neglected conflict”.
There is a “risk that the conflict which now affects more than 500,000 people in the immediate area of combat will expand across a much wider area and impact exponentially many more individuals”, Caritas Europa warned. Many of these people, who are elderly or belong to other vulnerable groups, are already subject to regular shelling and shooting and run the risk of landmines.
The current crisis in Ukraine first flared in early 2014, following the overthrew of the pro-Russian president. In retaliation, Russia annexed Crimea, following which Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine declared the establishment of the Donetsk People’s Republic and Luhansk People’s Republic.
Fighting between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists in Donbas has continued sporadically since 2014, in spite of numerous cease-fire agreements. With a recent buildup of Russian troops on Ukraine’s border, there is fear that the separatist conflict may flare into a full-blown war between Ukraine and Russia.
Conflict zone hardships
“The recent ceasefire violations and the spread of Covid-19 have deepened the vulnerability of people in need even further, putting their lives, health and welfare at great risk,” said Monsignor Michael Landau, President of Caritas Europa, after three days in the country, which included a visit to the government-controlled areas where the impact on civilians has been the most severe. There is a dire need for humanitarian assistance, including food and medicines, in the area straddling the 400-km long Contact Line.
The delegation which included Msgr. Landau and Andrij Waskowycz, President of Caritas Ukraine, spent 2 days visiting Kramatorsk and areas in the conflict zone along the Contact Line.
Local Caritas teams have been providing the local population and internally displaced people (IDP) with food assistance, health services and psychosocial support programmes. Prices of essential goods and unemployment are soaring Caritas organizations have been supporting the local Caritas throughout the conflict.
Msgr. Landau noted many young people have left the area, leaving behind the elderly, who are now being helped by Caritas. He said their visit was meant to show their solidarity to the people that they are not alone and forgotten.
Appeal for vulnerable people
Waskowycz expressed fear that a possible escalation in armed confrontation could spill beyond the 5-km wide area of conflict. It would impact many people in the heavily-populated area, where there are many elderly people who are cut off from their families.
Msgr. Landau echoed calls made by Pope Francis to protect innocent civilians and the most vulnerable caught in the conflict.
“Providing safe and unimpeded access to all people in need is a basic tenet of international humanitarian law. We call on all parties to have respect for those rights, and to respect the human dignity of people who have done nothing wrong except that their homes are now in what has become a combat zone.”
The Caritas Europa chief commended the local Caritas for its tireless service to the people under extremely stressful conditions. He also appealed to European nations to increase their funding for humanitarian aid, saying it “will help to save lives and secure livelihoods in Ukraine”.