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Humanitarian Aid

Living in the buffer zone. Witness stories from Eastern Ukraine

When the war in Eastern Ukraine started and mass displacement began in April 2014, Caritas Ukraine started to provide humanitarian assistance. Cordaid supports them in their efforts to reach out to those who need it most. To this day 13,834 war-affected people in the eastern part of the Ukraine were assisted with Cordaid support. They all live in  the dangerous ‘buffer zone’. Meet six of them.

What is the ‘buffer zone’?

But before you read their stories, here’s some background information. The people we support live in the dangerous buffer zone, a military controlled area of 400 by 30 kilometers, separated by the ‘red line’: one side is controlled by the Ukrainian government, the other –  the Non Government Controlled Area – isn’t. An estimated 483.000 people are living on the ‘Ukrainian side’ of the buffer zone.

Those who stayed are the ones who couldn’t leave.

Giving aid and hope

Caritas can only access the government controlled area, as pro-Russian groups who control the other part do not allow humanitarian aid to enter. Caritas helps those that cross checkpoints and keeps trying to get access to support people on the other side. Valentyn Bebik from Caritas Ukraine: “Caritas is committed to provide assistance to those who require it most of all, and at the same time to give them hope and let them know that they are not forgotten, not abandoned.”

Those who stayed behind

Since the war started Caritas Ukraine’s aid workers have helped nearly 380.000 Ukrainians. They provide food, hygiene kits and fuel to keep warm, to people living in the buffer zone, near the front line.  Many people left the buffer zone, now living as IDPs in the Ukraine. Those who stayed are the ones who couldn’t leave: mostly elderly people living on meager pensions, the disabled and chronically ill. And those who are too poor to leave.

Prices have skyrocketed since the conflict started, making it very hard for people to make ends meet.  In many places electricity is lacking. Water supply and heating systems are not functional, which is particularly challenging in the winter. Economy has collapsed, jobs are hard to find.

Although the buffer zone is officially a demilitarized zone, shelling is still going on in area. Many people, especially children, are traumatized from living with the constant fear to get hit, killed or hurt.


eastern ukraine buffer zone

(© Caritas Ukraine)

Lyudmila and Dasha in Berdyanske, Mariupol region

Lyudmila and her daughter Dasha, disabled, are living in Berdyanske. In 2015 their house was destroyed by a direct hit during the shelling.

“We never left this place. We don’t want to leave. We have nowhere to go. It takes a lot of time to fill in all the papers, find the money and find a school for Dasha.

Stucco was flying all over, windows were rattling, walls were shaking.


Authorities check up on you every now and again. You need to prove who you are and that you are really living in a place. Here in Berdyanske all our neighbors know us and can prove that we are living here.

Last shelling was just a week ago. I can’t describe the feeling. Stucco was flying all over, windows were rattling, walls were shaking even though we recently rebuilt them “.

To go to school Lyudmila and Dasha are leaving home at 7.30. Sometimes they are lucky to catch a ride, if not they need to walk with the wheelchair for half an hour and then catch the bus to Vynohradne, which takes another 45 minutes.

eastern ukraine buffer zone

(© Caritas Ukraine)

Vira in Maryinka, Donetsk region

Vira’s family received food packages and fuel briquettes.

“We just want the shelling to stop. No more shooting today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. That’s all we want.

Thank God the pension was increased. But it’s still not enough to buy fuel.


Heating is our main problem. We received a gas boiler but there’s no gas and it’s not looking like it will appear any time soon. They built 2 kilometers of pipeline but they cannot move on as everything is mined. Coal is very expensive.

Thank God the pension was increased. But it’s still not enough to buy fuel. So, we’re very grateful that there are people who are helping us with that.”

eastern ukraine buffer zone

(© Caritas Ukraine)

Ninel in Berdyanske, Mariupol region

Nina lives on her own. Her son and his family rent an apartment in Mariupol.

“Why are we going through such hard times? We used to live quietly. We disturbed no one. We had goats and rabbits, my son used to fish in the sea. Now there are mines everywhere. You can’t go out fishing. With luck, you can catch some carp or pigfish from the shore.

We used to have a car, but that was destroyed.

Some days they bring bottles of drinking water, some days they don’t.


Coal is very expensive, 4200 hryvnias per ton, plus delivery expenses. Luckily Caritas gave us fuel briquettes. Even in the summer it was cold. Yesterday I had to heat up the house. The briquettes produce some smoke, but they burn well.

There was a shell that hit our garden. That’s where the big holes in the walls come from. Our house is hard to heat, it’s full of holes and leaks. When the wind blows, it sings like a music box.”

We are terribly short of money. I have problems with my heart and my legs. But I can’t pay for the medication. Again, Caritas is helping out. They provided me 6 months’ medication.

My grandson is 6 months old, but he can’t stay in my house. It’s too dangerous. The roof is broken, walls are cracked. Water is leaking everywhere but we can’t even drink it. Some days they bring bottles of drinking water, some days they don’t.”

eastern ukraine buffer zone

(© Caritas Ukraine)

Maria in Mayorsk, Donetsk region

Maria Denysivna is 78. She lives with her husband in a five-storey building in the outskirts of Mayorsk. The building has no electricity, no drinking water. The roof of Maria’s room is broken, walls are damp.

“When the shelling starts, we are not hiding anymore. I want to die. I even asked soldiers to kill me. We are not able anymore to cope with this.

I live in one room with my husband. In winter, it’s stone cold. The cold comes in form so many holes. During the night, we sleep in our day clothes.

Luckily, in this room there’s no water coming from the ceiling and windows aren’t broken, like in the rest of the building.

When the shelling starts, we are not hiding anymore.


There’s no electricity. In the evening, we walk around with candles. And there’s no drinking water either. To clean we take water from the garden. Drinking water comes from bottles, brought to us by volunteers. And once a week my son comes by bicycle and brings as much food as he can. But that’s embarrassing. He has children to feed as well.”

eastern ukraine buffer zone

(© Caritas Ukraine)

Anatoliy in Zaitsevo, Donetsk region

Anatoliy is 69. He lives alone in the village of Zaitsevo. Explosions turned his garden into a series of pits. His porch is full of abandoned, rusty fragments of weapons.

“I have no place to hide. If death will find me, it will hit me. I could hide in the cellar, but that will be worse. If the building collapses you are buried alive.

This house used to be our datcha – our summer house. I used to live in an apartment in Horlivka, but my son lives there now with his family.

If the building collapses you are buried alive.


Except for my cats, I am alone. My wife died in 2010.”

eastern ukraine buffer zone

(© Caritas Ukraine)

Daryna in Popasna, Luhansk region

Daryna Fedorivna is disabled. She lives alone. During the winter caritas helped her with fuel briquettes.

I can’t allow myself to have something tasty to eat.


“Vera is the only person who is taking care of me – bringing me water, buying food in the market. She’s the only person I have. The rest I am doing by myself, growing food in the garden, washing. My son died a long time ago.

I can’t allow myself to have something tasty to eat. My pension – 1500 hryvnias (50 euro) –  is not enough. I need to pay Vera, pay the coal.

It is great that they gave me fuel briquettes. They burn well and give a lot of heat. I will even have a little stock for next winter.”