20:05 24.04.2020

As an independent humanitarian organization the ICRC welcomes any initiative that can lead to limit and mitigate the humanitarian consequences of Donbas conflict - Head of the ICRC Delegation in Ukraine

14 min read
As an independent humanitarian organization the ICRC welcomes any initiative that can lead to limit and mitigate the humanitarian consequences of Donbas conflict - Head of the ICRC Delegation in Ukraine

Interfax-Ukraine's exclusive interview with Head of the International Committee of the Red Cross Delegation in Ukraine Florence Gillette


Recently, as a result of agreements between the President of Ukraine and the President of the ICRC, the humanitarian aid was sent to Ukraine. How the process of its distribution is going on and which cities have already received it? Are there any distribution issues?

In the framework of COVID-19 ICRC is supporting health structures, places of detention and others with some medical equipment and pharmaceuticals on both sides of the line of contact. Following a conversation between the President of Ukraine and ICRC President, Ukraine has facilitated a plane to bring some of these goods and also medical items necessary to take care of other daily needs for medical care in eastern Ukraine. The cargo is particularly important for the Donbas region, where people and communities are struggling with the threat of the COVID-19 while already suffering from the consequences of the lengthy conflict.

Items from the cargo are in the process of delivering. The humanitarian aid delivered by plane doesn’t differ much from the one the ICRC brings to Ukraine since the beginning of the conflict, it is just that the specific items for the prevention and treatment of the COVID-19 have been added to it.

Distribution of humanitarian aid is preceded by an assessment of population needs and of the requests from health structures, water companies and other local actors. In the current conditions, we have adapted our distribution modalities, we adapted the organization of distributions, limiting the number of people, respecting physical distancing rules and enhanced hygiene practices in line with WHO recommendations; for specific populations that are more at risk, door-to-door distribution without physical contact was organized.

How do you assess the current humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic? Do the local populations already suffering from the conflict really need such support? How do you evaluate risks of humanitarian catastrophe in the occupied territories? 

Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the humanitarian situation in the conflict-affected areas, as it created additional difficulties for people living there. The transportation between cities and smaller towns or rural areas in Donbas is almost completely stopped, as well as the movement across the line of contact. Many elderly people are temporarily left without help from their loved ones living on the other side of the line of contact.

Electricity, gas and water supply are all suffering from the intensification of the conflict that occurred at the same time than the pandemic.  Since the beginning of the year, at least 20 civilians were wounded or dead, on both sides of the contact line, which is more than double comparing to the same period over several years.

Except for ICRC assistance with covid-19 what kind of assistance the local population in Donbas needs?

COVID-19 pandemic is a threat faced by all of us, including in Donbas. In eastern Ukraine, the populations continue to suffer from the consequences of the conflict and many of their needs are primarily related to these consequences. A large part of the population that remained there is composed of elderly and pensioners. They must cope with isolation and carry the brunt of hostilities on their livelihood and their essential services.

Therefore, their needs for material assistance, access to basic services and protection are very high. This includes needs for psychological support.

What measures are being taken in Donbas to prevent covid-19 outbreak?

We have taken the necessary preventive measures to limit the exposure of the persons benefitting from our programs, our interlocutors and our employees. These measures include maintaining a safe distance during the distribution of assistance, wearing masks and protective gloves and whenever possible substitute physical interaction by digital or phone interaction (for psychological support for instance).

In addition, we are supporting hospitals responding directly to the pandemic. For example, we equipped the hospital in Rubizhne with an electric generator to ensure that patients can be under ventilators even during power outages. We installed several boilers and water tanks in the infectious ward of the hospital in Mariupol, where Covid-19 patients are being treated.

Meanwhile, we maintain our regular support to primary health centers so that patients with chronic diseases continue to receive their treatment, which is even more so essential during this pandemic.

Throughout the government-controlled areas of Ukraine, we worked closely with the Minisitry of Justice since the beginning of the pandemic, to support their effort to prevent and respond to COVID19. Amongst other direct6 actions, we provided basic hygiene parcels and soaps.

We also support activities at national level of our partners from the Ukraine Red Cross Society who have a central role in the communication and on information campaign on COVID19.

According to the information you are receiving from local organizations and hospitals, as well as your employees’ observations, how difficult the current Covid-19 outbreak situation in Donbas is? How many people are sick and died because of covid-19?

The ICRC does not report information on the number of cases and deaths due to infections with Covid-19, therefore we rely entirely on official statistics provided by the relevant health authorities and structures.

The UN Secretary-General has recently called for a global ceasefire to combat Covid-19. Ukraine emphasizes that it complies with the terms of the Minsk agreements. In your opinion, what can make Russia cease fire in Donbas? Does this moment give an opportunity to stop the aggression of the Russian Federation? After all, surely you also have information about how much Russia, the Russian population suffers from Covid-19?

As an independent humanitarian organization mandated to work in the situations of armed conflicts and violence, the ICRC welcomes any initiative that can lead to limit and mitigate the humanitarian consequences of conflict.

How do you assess Ukrainian authorities’ decisions to combat the Covid-19 pandemic? Are measures taken to overcome it decisively?

Ukraine took the threat of COVID19 very seriously early on, and worked on mobilising local, national and international efforts to deal with the threat. The authorities are trying to have a holistic approach of the matter, looking at social and economic impacts in addition to the health matters. As everyone throughout the world, we are all learning how to manage an unprecedented crisis. The early response in Ukraine, the mobilisation of all, including in the civil society and private sector, are definitely elements that should contribute to mitigate the threat in the best manner possible. Also looking at humanitarian matters, the ICRC would like to thank the authorities for having anticipated, early on, the need to adapt the COVID19 prevention measures in a way that continues to support humanitarian efforts. In addition, the ICRC President had the opportunity to “meet” President Zelenskyy at the onset of the crisis, albeit virtually due to the pandemic. As a result, Ukraine facilitated the air transport of 14 MT medical cargo for ICRC health response.  ICRC teams and myself are in very regular contact with representatives of the government of Ukraine, the Verkhovna Rada and local authorities, as well as the international community to ensure that our efforts are complementary to that of others and respond to the most acute needs.

What are the other areas of ICRC activities in Ukraine? Do you plan to draw as much attention to them as you are spending on the fight with Covid-19 outbreak?

A very good question that is not answered in one sentence... We are a rather large organization with 600 employees only in Ukraine and with the budget of over 70 million CHF. It allows us to carry out important humanitarian action.

Our activities are many, aimed to protect the people affected by the conflict but also to provide them aid and tackle the lasting consequences of what they are going through.

That means that we have developed programs to address the urgent need of the affected population but also to support their resilience building. We provide food parcels and hygiene kits when this is the only option but also try to support people to develop their own livelihood, employment or coping mechanism, like for example cash assistance, livestock, green houses, small grants, etc.

We also support water companies in repairing and maintaining the water supply systems on both sides of the line of contact. We have a program to repair private houses and public buildings damaged by the hostilities, or such as health facilities and schools.

We also deliver supplies, medication and equipment to health care centers along the line of contact, and support front line hospitals that are treating wounded people etc. We also develop a network of organizations and professionals who provide psychosocial support to affected people and communities as well as advocate for those who cannot talk for themselves on both sides of the contact line.

In parallel we also work on protection of the people affected from direct hostilities, and to be able to do that we hold seminars on international humanitarian law for Ukrainian Armed Forces and battalions as well as Security Forces and Border Guards. We also have a confidential and bilateral dialogue with all sides on the protection of civilians and respect for international humanitarian law.

And we work with SESU and other relevant actors on dissemination of mine danger and prevention of mine accidents and support mine victims. 

Furthermore, we advise legal authorities in passing the laws that will ensure protection of civilians. We connect lost family members via our tracing activities and support families of the people who went missing in the conflict find the whereabouts of their beloved ones. For that we support families of the missing and their associations, but we also do the ground work: we help repair, equip and train the forensic institutions and authorities, work with government bodies and parliament structures on introduction and implementation of laws that would lead to finding the whereabouts of the missing.

Finally, the ICRC works closely with the penitentiary system to help them comply with international standards in regard to condition of detention and treatment of detainees. This also includes material assistance such as rehabilitation of medical wards, kitchens of heating systems.

We maintain a close contact with people affected by conflict on both sides of the line of contact, via our daily presence in remote locations, our humanitarian hotlines and our social media channels and the people tell us on daily bases what they need and expect from as.

Do you plan to do more work online to avoid direct communication with people because of the pandemic?

We have already taken measures that can minimize the likelihood of spreading the Covid-19. Our employees always wear masks and protective gloves when distributing assistance, and we have adapted our activities to avoid direct contacts with a large group of people. We have replaced many face-to-face meetings by contacts through phone, social media and videoconference.

For example, we replaced the group sessions on mine danger, on the allocation of grants for opening small enterprises, by informing people online and interact with them by phone or social media.

We worked with schools to integrate mine risk awareness sessions in their new remote education platforms. We are conducting online trainings for the associations of families of missing persons for example. We are now exploring more activities that can be done online.

Our humanitarian hotline operators work in an enhanced mode, any anyone can call and ask questions about any of our projects.

What do you do to prevent casualties from landmines? What are your training activities?

Our activities are concentrated on information and prevention on the threats posed by unexploded ordnance of war, such as land-mines, and support to the victims. Even though in many places, nature took over and hid the traces of the mines, these continue to injure, maim and kill civilians. The best way to prevent accident remains a strong awareness by all those moving in areas that are affected, and a thorough identification and marking of such areas.

Therefore, we have to be alert and continuously organize awareness session for the affected population, provide SESU with the equipment, put up or provide mine signs, think of all society groups that are potentially in the bigger risk than the others. We even go for performance art and education to reach out to one of the most potentially endangered population, which are children.

We accompany and support those who those who survived mine accident through various programs

What does the ICRC do to get access to detainees in occupied territories? As we see, even an agreement that was signed by Normandy Quartet leaders, hasn’t been implemented? What could really help to push this situation?

Visiting those detained in context of conflict is an important part of the ICRC’s mandate, and we are engaged in on-going dialogue with all relevant stakeholders to have access to all those detained in relation with the conflict in eastern Ukraine.  

I would also like to use this opportunity and explain that the ICRC work in detention is purely humanitarian in nature. Our objective is that detainees are treated humanely and that the condition of their detention are according the international humanitarian standards. Our visits have modalities that entail for registration of all detainees, private talk with detainee without witness s that they can freely share their concerns, and the ability to deliver family news or parcel.

I have to say that we have been able to deliver parcels and messages for some detainees, but unfortunately not to them directly. We will pursue our efforts in the name of the families who approached us and for the sake of those detained.

What else does the ICRC do to help people living in the occupied territories? How do you help with delivering letters and providing calls between relatives, facilitating the treatment of the wounded?

From the very beginning of the conflict, the ICRC opened offices in Donetsk and Luhansk, Severodonetsk, Slavyansk and Mariupol to assist people living on both sides of the contact line.  Our assistance and support, such as deliveries of family news or facilitation of the treatment of the wounded are provided to the people via those offices following our internal procedures based on the principles of humanity, neutrality and impartiality of our action.

How do you coordinate your work with other international organizations in Ukraine including assistance related to covid-19 outbreak?

We coordinate and inform each other of the respective plans and actions during bilateral meetings. We hold regular briefings to all the embassies, as well as keep a permanent contact with the Ukraine Government, local authorities, the civil society and the structures on the NGCA.

Have you visited the east of Ukraine (or are you planning to visit it)?

Over the last year, I travelled east on a regular basis, went to many locations on both sides of the line of contact (from the sea of Azov up to Stanista Luhanska) to meet those who lives under the daily sound of guns, I also met local and regional authorities, talked with doctors and engineers working for the populations and that the ICRC supports in their endeavor.

I definitely plan more visits when the situation with the Covid-19 pandemic will allow so. Such trips are essential for me to better lead the ICRC teams in Ukraine but primarily to carry the voice and concerns of the affected population to national and international levels.

What goals do you set for yourself? What you already have achieved? What difficulties does the ICRC face in Ukraine?

We set goals on annual bases and we do that via detailed and lengthy process of planning for results we strive to get in the year ahead.

These goals are very specific, but all serve to one overreaching aim – to protect and help civilians and victims of the conflict.

We have achieved a lot in Ukraine in the past six years by implementing the activities and programs I described above. We were able to reach millions of people caught by the conflict. Our work is likely only a drop in an ocean of needs but we can still measure the small, yet life-changing, difference we made for thousands of individuals and families, and hundreds of communities. Many became independent economically again, others have access to the treatment they need every month, children have safer schools even though they live within hundreds of meters of the line of contact.

Do you have any wishes for the Ukrainian authorities to overcome the COVID-19 pandemic and resolve the conflict in the Donbas?

I wish that all of us in Ukraine, and throughout the world overcome this crisis and learn from it to better prevent future crisis and ensure a better response to such.