Protection of the rights
and freedoms of Ukrainians
Social Problems of Bakhmut City
Halyna YANCHENKO, the project manager of NGO "Foundation.101" presented the latest research "Social Situation in Frontline Cities Based on the Case of Bakhmut. Problems of Internally Displaced Persons, Short-term Visitors and Local Residents" in the air of "Hromadske Radio".
Please, tell us how long the survey lasted and which social groups in which cities were interviewed? Did you work within Bakhmut only?
The conducted survey is a social outline of the situation in frontline cities. When we talk about Donbas issues from the controlled territory, we speak mainly about shellings or sometimes about people who stayed on the occupied territory. However, there are hardly ever mentioned frontline cities' problems, namely the cities most closely situated to the line of contact, in a public discourse.
That is why NGO "Foundation.101" decided to conduct a study to find out the main trends and problems faced by the internally displaced persons (IDPs) and local residents because of the city's frontline location. Let's start with the methodology. Basically, the study is based on the in-depth interviews with an average duration of 1 hour. We've collected loads of information by holding 46 interviews in the 4 target groups. The first group included internally displaced people (IDPs) permanently residing in Bakhmut. The second group consisted of "so called" short-term visitors (STVs), people who permanently reside in the occupied territory of the Donetsk region but travel towards the controlled territory to meet their needs from time to time. The third category was represented by civic activists and volunteers assisting IDPs. The last, fourth, group comprised of senior representatives of local authorities and other agencies responsible for assisting IDPs and addressing social issues related to the frontline location of the city.
Could you explain why you chose Bakhmut? Did you find there any specific demonstrative features? Why didn’t you select Kramatorsk or Sloviansk?
The aim was to find out more about the frontline cities lifestyle. We took Bakhmut because it is located in 30-50 km from the entry-exit control point while the distance from Kramatorsk is more than 100 km. Actually, Sloviansk and Kramatorsk are absolutely peaceful cities for people who often visit the Donetsk region and are not freaked out by military propaganda. The short-term visitors rarely reach these places. At the same time, Bakhmut is a city daily visited by thousands of people from the occupied territory as it is closer to the contact line.
Did the STVs seem to have a positive attitude toward the interviewers?
Well, it was not a bed of roses. But qualitative research methodology foresees some financial encouragement to compensate time spent by the respondent if the in-depth interview or focus-group study takes more than an hour. So we encouraged our respondents by a small fee and it made it easier for us to find and talk them in.
Which problems did you detect with your study?
Firstly, it was curious to understand the problems the city has been facing as well as changes that occurred after the beginning of armed conflict 2 years ago. Secondly, the problems of internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have settled and are permanently residing in Bakhmut. Thirdly, we were interested in the problems of short-term visitors. Let’s detail each of the problems, following this sequence.
The significant city's population growth because of the IDPs and STVs is a remarkable consequence of the Bakhmut's close location to the line of contact.
Before the military actions started, approximately 200 thousand people had been living in Bakhmut, according to open sources. Currently, 78 thousand of IDPs are registered by the social assistance agencies in Bakhmut alone. Actually, the number of the population increased almost twice. The growth of the population caused not only negative but the positive changes for the city, our respondents reported.
Here are the following positive changes reported. Firstly, a certain part of the economically active population moved to the city. According to statistics, nearly a thousand of entities moved to the city, including some big organizations i.e. Horlivka Institute for Foreign Languages and Donetsk Specialized School of Olympic Reserve. It was also reported that it helped some local residents find new competitive employment that had been unavailable earlier.
How has it affected the infrastructure development of the city? Has the life of the city become more active?
Indeed, it is a second positive change. Significant attention from international non-governmental organizations, donors, and organizations providing technical support attributed to the frontline location of the city, experts noted. A number of infrastructure objects: several dormitories, schools, and a hospital were reconstructed due to their assistance. It is the second positive effect for the city.
Which challenges has the city faced?
Average market prices for consumer goods have increased which is the first negative change, all the experts noted. All the goods are more expensive in Bakhmut than in the neighboring cities. This is mainly connected with the increased demand for goods formed by thousands of STVs who visit Bakhmut daily. Consequently, the demand causes the raise of the prices.
But anyway the prices are lower than on the occupied territories. In fact, it is one of the reasons why people are ready to travel to the government controlled territory for shopping.
By the way, short-term visitors noted that not only prices are lower but the quality of goods is higher. Generally, the goods of such a quality level are not available in the occupied territory. In total, there is a consuming crisis there.
The second negative change is an increased load on the infrastructure. It is clear that the city is intended to fit a certain number of population, for instance, medical and educational structures are able to serve a certain number of citizens. All these agencies are funded from the local budget. Consequently, the growth of population causes an additional load on the local infrastructure and budget.
The third problem noticed by some experts was growing criminality in the city. First of all, it is connected with the decrease of welfare assistance. Secondly, with the increased availability of weapons, and the third reason is the opportunity to escape from Ukrainian law enforcement in the uncontrolled territory easily.
A significant burden on social assistance agencies is the last challenge the city has faced. Everyone who was inquiring about the situation, heard about 24-hour queues in the Pension Fund etc. Once more, all these agencies which provide information, social services, and other paperwork are intended to serve a certain number of people, and funded by the local budget in accordance with the needs. And they just can’t handle the additional load caused by short-term visitors. Plenty of problems appear there, including staff turnover, and in general, tiredness and burnout among the personnel.
Do they try to solve these problems, given the fact that the major refugee flow came to the city a couple of years ago, so the problem is not a new one?
Astonishing is that the city responds to the problems relatively quickly trying to create conditions for IDPs and for short-term visitors as well. For instance, one of the common problems the short-term visitors faced is a time-consuming trip. In average, people spend up to 5-6 hours passing through the road corridor towards Bakhmut. So they arrive at the city in the afternoon and can't have all the planned activities done, especially, doing paperwork or receiving social payments. They are forced to stay overnight, which is expensive and requires some additional efforts such as seeking for housing etc. To address this problem local authorities set two collective centers kind of dorms where they can stay overnight for an affordable price. There were also efforts to create opportunities and provide housing for IDPs. Currently, a big part of IDPs are still living in dorms, they used to live even in hospitals earlier. Generally, there is a response from the local authorities and volunteers.
Talking about the social assistance agencies, the main problem is that the salary is low but the working load is very high, the social tension is even higher. Administrators of the social assistance agencies work all day serving a huge number of people in queues and often are forced to stay after work to finish their stuff. So the social assistance employees are permanently under the pressure. Last year Pavlo Zhebrivskiy, the head of Donetsk military-civil administration proposed an initiative about reallocation of the budget intended for all Donetsk region to the part controlled by the Ukrainian government. It would allow increasing salaries for state officers and administrators of social assistance agencies, given their extra working load caused by a need to serve a significant number of people who came from the uncontrolled territory. But unfortunately, the initiative of Zhebrivskiy was not supported by the national level authorities. In our opinion, it was an incorrect decision. In our recommendations at the end of the report, we propose to the national level authorities to allocate additional funding from the national budget to solve social and infrastructure problems as well as to hire additional staff and increase administrator salaries in the social assistance agencies that serve IDPs and STVs given the increasing workload they experience.
Let's talk about social tension. Could you tell how the relationship between the locals and IDPs developed? These people are inhabitants of one region with relatively the same mentality but problems still exist.
While in Kiev, Lviv and any other city the IDPs' flow is small and almost does not influence city's lifestyle, in Bakhmut it makes a huge impact. Everything has changed. The majority of respondents reported that local residents do not have a single opinion about IDPs and STVs. Their attitude is primarily formed by the activities and behavior of the IDPs and STVs. There is a neutral or even negative attitude toward the IDPs who neither work nor contribute to the social life of the city. Meanwhile, the locals respect and highly value the IDPs who moved their businesses to Bakhmut and created new workplaces.
The attitude toward the STVs varies as well. Some locals feel sorry for them, but some people are irritated because of the inconveniences caused by the number of STVs who visit the city daily.
And what about the attitude of short-term visitors toward the locals, and particularly toward the people from the territory controlled by the Ukrainian government?
We did not receive any negative feedback.
Imagine the situation: there are a few ATMs in a small Stanytsia Luhanska. When time comes to salary payments, people from the occupied territory come and withdraw all the cash from ATMs, and local residents of the settlement are forced to travel to another big city to get cash.
Such a problem was reported by our experts, I mean the short-term visitors can cause some inconveniences. On the other side, a human being tends to adapt, especially given the fact that already almost two and a half years have passed since the military actions started. Thus, the locals got accustomed pretty much. Surely, there is some inconvenience but the local inhabitants noted that in order to avoid standing in lines at supermarkets, they go shopping after 16 p.m. or on weekend etc. Several people reported that it is a problem to withdraw cash from ATMs. As they say "When you go to work there's no cash in the ATMs yet. When you come home from work the ATMs are already empty." But honestly, these problems are not caused by the STVs but by an inefficient work of the Banks. The majority of IDPs withdraw cash in the Oshchadbank. Sure, the Oschadbank is aware of the problems in the frontline cities. Why don’t the local departments’ management preorder more cash?
Again, the problem is not a new one. It has not appeared today.
Absolutely. Apparently, thanks to our experts who are able to think critically and understand that the problem is caused not by the IDPs who withdraw all the cash from ATMs but because of the banks which do not provide proper work.
Within the survey, did you ask about the future of the occupied territory? Should it be separated, given the fact that a lot of relatives are on the opposite side of the contact line.
We didn't ask this question because we tried to understand the ground of the mentioned problems. Indeed, a lot of families were separated. When we attach the occupied parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions, we will definitely face some problems, in particular, the problem of informational adaptation. During the interview with short-term visitors, we asked if they are aware of latest reforms occurred in Ukraine; about their sources of getting information; which information they trust. Their answers were the following: there is Russian television mainly, Ukrainian television is available only for those who have satellite dishes and the Internet is the easiest way to get information because sites aren’t blocked. But when it comes to the questions about latest reforms in Ukraine, no one among the respondents noticed any particular reforms, even the police reform which is known almost to everyone in Ukraine. In fact, currently, they have been under full informational isolation during these 2.5 years. Right now we need to improve the provision of information for them in order to raise awareness about the current situation in Ukraine, to dispel silly stereotypes like "governing of Kyiv’s hunta" and "eating babies" etc. Because the later the harder it will be to bring them back to Ukrainian information realm.
Is it hard to cross the contact line? Is this problem still a burning issue? Are there all necessary facilities to simplify the procedure of crossing?
First of all, it depends on a particular checkpoint. Secondly, the intersection can’t be easy or not. It is all about the duration of the procedure. In summer of 2014, it was reported to take approximately 1-2 hour in average to travel from a city to the occupied territory towards a city on the controlled territory. Nowadays, an average duration is 5 hours at the entry-exit control points "Mayorske" and nearly 3 hours at another control points. The process became more time-consuming because of the inspection from both the Ukrainian territory and from the side of the occupied territory. It is the main issue. As for receiving an access pass, there is no more problem with doing paperwork after launching the online submission. Sometimes we face the situation when people try to gain profit on queueing, for example, drivers of public transport and taxi drivers give bribes to speed up the procedure of crossing for themselves.