Eastern Ukraine: Conflicting Interpretations of the Conflict

27/06/2016 15:41 | Updated 27 June 2016

During a visit to a summer camp for children affected by the conflict in Donbass, eastern Ukraine, I met a boy close to the frontline who had made a drawing of a tree, on top of which he drew a house with a family. When asked why the house was in the tree top and wouldn't it fall down in the wind, the boy confidently assured me 'no', the house is strong and secure. I later found out that this boy's dog had been killed by a landmine.

The boy's drawing testifies to much more than the child's psychological state, with his faith in the very ground under his feet having been badly shaken. It also shows how the child's experience led him to realise that the land he and his family lived in was full of danger, and that it was better to get away to a safe place, and if there was no such place nearby, then he should make one up.

I would go further to suggest that the child's drawing can help us understand the state of society in eastern Ukraine, at least the part of the government-controlled territory that I visited. There is an overwhelming feeling of anxiety about what each day will bring. People talk about how unpredictable the situation is and do not trust anyone anymore.

As for the rest of Ukraine, the child's drawing also symbolises the prevailing public discourse on the conflict, which demonstrates clear characteristics of the psychological phenomenon of avoidance, which for its part creates difficulties in understanding and accepting the real state of affairs.

Running away from a problem is an entirely natural self-preservation mechanism in times of crisis and a very effective and flexible mechanism for consolidating society during, for example, a natural disaster or in the midst of armed conflict. Yet, when the crisis tails off, and the situation requires rational thinking and pragmatic actions, this established habit of avoidance can begin to play a destructive role in building the future and in the transition to longer-term peacebuilding.

The conflict has quietened for now. The Minsk agreements are working, for better or for worse. While the conflict still simmers, everyone I spoke to pointed out how people were no longer dying in as great numbers as before. I even heard parallels being drawn between numbers of people who die in road accidents in peaceful parts of Ukraine and numbers of casualties from enemy fire in the ATO (anti-terrorist operation) zone, as the Ukrainian government calls it - also known to the public as the 'grey zone'. It may be called that because of the smoke from combat operations, or perhaps because no one can see what is going on there anymore.

The local people who I happened to talk to, spoke of their mistrust towards all parties to the conflict, and even on my first day it was clear that the feeling was mutual when I observed our driver talking to one Ukrainian soldier, manning a checkpoint. Armed with a Kalashnikov, the soldier stopped our car and asked the driver to show his passport. Leafing through the passport, the soldier studied the page with the owner's registration of residence (propiska) then asked the driver where he lived. When the driver confirmed his residence, the soldier slipped into friendly banter: "Hey mate, how do you manage without any water supply?". The driver carefully explained to him in quite some detail his arrangement of two storage tanks and how it works, for which valuable advice the soldier thanked him, saying he faced exactly the same problem at home.

I got a positive impression that the soldier was doing a good job trying to establish good relations with the local population. Yet as we drove off, the driver remarked caustically that he had been asked the same 'water question' at check points many times. "The only thing they taught these soldiers coming here from the rest of Ukraine was the drinking water shortages in Kramatorsk, dating back to Soviet times", he added with a note of irritation. "They never believe a word I say, nor the propiska in my passport and they use the 'water question' to establish if I really am local".

The degree of mistrust between the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian parts of the population is very high indeed. An aid worker told me about the parents of a baby with acute appendicitis who had refused to take the child to Ukrainian controlled territories although that was the fastest way to get help.

According to local residents, there are some villages along the line of separation which have ended up under no-one's jurisdiction after the ceasefire agreements were signed. Mostly only the elderly remain, getting no assistance or pensions, from neither Russia nor Ukraine. To the great chagrin of the locals, visiting journalists from Kyiv come to film those desperate, unkempt and on occasions drunken old men - who have not seen any water, gas or heating for months on end - broadcasting their image all over Ukraine with the indirect message of "just look at them, these people from the east, and for whom we are fighting and dying!"

Nevertheless, here in eastern Ukraine there is a well-developed and active civil society, but until now, Ukrainian civil society representation abroad has been from outside the 'grey zone'. Yet many in the east are involved in humanitarian aid, others provide legal services or work to solve problems of communities affected by the armed conflict. I was lucky enough to witness a very tasteful and stylish youth club in Slaviansk where volunteers were hanging pictures on the walls for the opening of an art exhibition and a local jazz group was practising ahead of the evening concert.

All these people deserve better. And they strive for it even with limited resources. They need help, and in the first instance, from the government. Yet they do not dare to openly criticise the authorities in case they are labelled 'pro-Russian', which, they say, they are not, but towards which they are being driven. Spreading fear hampers healthy social processes aiming at establishing the only effective mechanism of post-war recovery where everyone plays a part, regardless of political or other difference.

When we talk about transforming the conflict in eastern Ukraine, we need to acknowledge that in other parts of Ukraine there are deeply held stereotypical views of the origins of the conflict, its escalation, how the war was conducted to the present-day situation and possible future.

Ukraine is a huge country with many regions, each having its own dominant local identity, which takes precedence over a common Ukrainian identity. This impacts attitudes to the conflict in the east and there are many different opinions on how it should be resolved. I even heard it said: "Let Russia just take the east and all its problems with it", and "this situation between war and peace could continue for many years to come, serving only the interests of those who like fishing in murky waters".

Returning to the traumatised boy's drawing, with all its symbolism, it will hardly be possible to build a solid Ukrainian home on top of a tree. Yet for the people to want to come down from the treetop, the ground has to be made safe, in all senses of the word, especially by those who plan to live there. Unfortunately, conflict transformation processes work more slowly than incitement to war. But they do work. The sooner we acknowledge the many layers of the conflict, the more dynamic and successful will be its transformation.

With support from the European Union, International Alert is planning to run a series of workshops in conflict-sensitivity and conflict analysis for interested members of Ukrainian civil society who want to get involved in transforming the conflict and rebuilding their communities. Together with participants, we will develop and implement a range of initiatives based on this analysis that is rooted in the local reality and will help communities find their own ways of strengthening prospects for peace.