Humanitarians prepare for the worst amid Russia attack on Ukraine

People inspect the consequences of Russian shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, 24 February, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/AP Photo/Mikhail Palinchak)

As Russia’s military attack against Ukraine unfolds, organisations on and off the ground tell us how civilian populations are being affected and how they are getting ready to respond.

Less than 10 hours after Russia launched its military attack on Ukraine, humanitarian aid organisations were scrambling to prepare for the potential devastating consequences for civilian populations. Reports of civilian casualties and people fleeing the capital of Kyiv in a panic started to emerge late in the morning, but were still being confirmed.

Ukraine’s interior ministry reported that that country was under attack from cruise and ballistic missiles, with Russia appearing to attack infrastructure near cities including Kyiv, Kharviv and Mariupol. Tanks and military forces have entered Ukraine from Ukraine’s eastern, southern and northern borders.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned that the ongoing military actions would have “devastating” consequences on civilian populations. “There are no winners in war but countless lives will be torn apart,” he said in a statement, calling on neighbouring countries “to keep borders open to those seeking safety and protection”.

Warning that it was too soon to tell the full scope of humanitarian implications, Marie Lequin, head of Eurasia region at Geneva Call, told Geneva Solutions that the dire situation, particularly in eastern Ukraine, would likely worsen as the conflict  continued.

A scale-up in hostilities in the past weeks in the eastern part of the country had already put essential services at risk. Two major pumping stations in the Donetsk region were rendered inoperable earlier this week, cutting water access for one million people on both sides of the frontline, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The UN Children’s Fund said in a statement that it was working to truck water to conflict-affected areas. The agence warned that “unless the fighting subsides, tens of thousands of families could be forcibly displaced, dramatically escalating humanitarian needs”.

The Donbass region has become increasingly isolated and access to supplies has become more difficult. With it still being winter, problems with gas or coal supply could also have an important impact on local populations, said Lequin, who was near the frontline last week to speak with the different weapon bearers about their international obligations.

“We are maintaining our presence in the country to promote international human rights law to make sure that the parties to the conflict protect civilians and don't damage public infrastructure,” she said.

ICRC president Peter Maurer also called on countries to abide by international standards and said that the organisation would “continue our bilateral and confidential dialogue with the parties to the conflict to protect those affected by the fighting”.

Diplomatic missions in Geneva told Geneva Solutions that they were in contact with UN agencies to discuss how to assist people fleeing from Ukraine.

Deputy regional director of the Red Cross in Europe, Elkhan Rahimov, told Geneva Solutions that the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies from neighbouring countries were preparing to assist in case of population movements and noted that people had started to move in the last two days in Russia.

Old traumas awaken

Local organisations on the ground are also having to be all hands on deck. Lena Rozvadovska, head of Voices of Children, a local organisation that offers psychological help for children victims of war all across Ukraine, told Geneva Solutions, that the bombing of Kyiv is “like a nightmare”.

Rozvadovska and most of her colleagues that had been working in eastern part of the country had decided to regroup in Lviv Oblast in western Ukraine to keep providing their services remotely and start coordinating transportation and accommodation for families that fled, while a few stayed back to give support on the ground.

The bombing of Kyiv is “like a nightmare” – Lena Rozvadovska.

She said that her team was receiving a growing number of calls for help from families, especially as old traumas from the beginning of the conflict in 2014 started to awaken.

“Two children that grew up in Donbass when the war started and that are now students in Kyiv just called me, because they were having panic attacks. They didn’t know where they were. They woke up this morning in Kyiv which used to be a peaceful city and isn’t anymore,”  Rozvadovska said.

Not unexpected

Eastern Ukraine has been torn by ongoing conflict since 2014, resulting in over 14,300 deaths, including 3,407 civilians, and around 854,000 internally displaced people, according to UN figures. Communities and families have remained separated by the frontline in eastern Ukraine for the past eight years.

Read also: How Ukraine missed the opportunity to get its people back in the Donbass

Ukraine is fifth globally for civilian casualties from landmines and explosive remnants of war, accounting for almost 70 per cent of civilian casualties since July 2020, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Humanitarian organisations have been on the ground for the past eight years, attending the economic and social crisis, which was worsened by the Covid pandemic. “This is not something new, what is new is in terms of the scale, of how rapidly it's developing and expectations, whether it can lead to population movement, and a larger scale military conflict,” said Rahimov.

“We have the experience working in crisis for the last eight years, so we are not scared but the not knowing and the shocking reality of something that nobody expected really creates this tension,” said Rozvadovska, noting that working conditions where becoming harder as her staff faced now the same dangers that the people they were supposed to help.