"My house burned down in half an hour." A civilian from Luhansk region Volodymyr Nadobnykh recalls how he lost his home to fires and talks about how the pandemic affected his region

Volodymyr Nadobnykh talks about how the front-line Luhansk region lives and what challenges the coronavirus pandemic has brought to lives of local residents.

The article was published on nv.ua on 10 December 2020.

Volodymyr Nadobnykh is a resident of Luhansk region. Over the past few years he had to repeatedly change his place of residence due to external circumstances. His house in Novooleksandrivka, where he had moved from Pervomaisk with his family, burned down this fall due to large-scale forest fires.

Ahead of the Human Rights Day celebrated on 10 December, NV media and the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine are publishing a series of stories about how the pandemic has disproportionately affected people in vulnerable situations and why it is important to put human rights at front and center of the COVID-19 response.

For several months Volodymyr Nadobnykh has been living in Popasna in a house that he inherited from his late mother. He breeds goats to make a living: he prepares milk and cheese for sale. He dreams that the war will end as soon as possible and he will be able to return to a normal, peaceful life without combat positions near the house and mined fields in the vicinity.

In an interview with NV Volodymyr Nadobnykh talks about how the front-line Luhansk region lives and what challenges the coronavirus pandemic has brought to lives of local residents.

About life under fire

I bought a house in Novooleksandrivka in 2011. I lived there with my wife and two children. We were engaged in agriculture and business there. We tended goats in the local fields. But in 2016, when the Ukrainian Armed Forces took up positions in the village, everything was mined. Therefore, I had to walk around the village and tend them there. Many villagers left, the number of people decreased.

Volodymyr Nadobnykh breeds goats and earns money by selling dairy products based on goat milk

For some time Novooleksandrivka was in a ‘grey zone’. Over these years I received two injuries. One – in March 2016, from light weapons fire, the other - while grazing goats in the village, not far from the pond. There I came across an unknown explosive device.

Previously the village was constantly in the line of fire. People were regularly injured, houses were destroyed. It was possible to live there only with the help of humanitarian organizations such as the UN, the Red Cross and others.

Thanks to the recent introduction of enhanced ceasefire agreed by the Trilateral Contact Group in Minsk, which took effect on 27 July, the number of civilian casualties resulting from active hostilities significantly decreased. From 27 July to 10 December 2020, OHCHR recorded only two civilian injuries (both men) caused by small arms and light weapons fire (one in Government-controlled territory of Donetsk region, and one in the territory controlled by the self-proclaimed ‘Donetsk people’s republic’) compared with 7 killed and 58 injured by shelling and SALW fire from 1 January to 26 July 2020.

As to civilian victims of mines and explosive remnants of war, in 2020 they have been 20 per cent higher than in 2019. From 1 January to 10 December 2020, mine-related incidents and ERW handling caused 70 civilian casualties on both sides of the contact line: 15 killed (13 men, one woman and one boy) and 55 injured (41 men, nine woman and five boys), while in 2019, 17 civilians were killed and 32 were injured by mines and ERW.

On 22 July 2014, electricity went out in Novoaleksandrovka. The shelling damaged a substation at a mine in Pervomaisk, which led of a blackout of the entire line.

Of course it's difficult to live without electricity. People have to pump water, so they need a generator. You cannot connect a refrigerator, washing machine or other household appliances. The generators are all petrol powered. To buy gasoline, you need to go to the city. People carry all this by hand or on bicycles. It is about 6 km from the village to the gas station and about 7 km - to the pharmacy.

Since 2016, we have constantly approached various authorities with requests to restore electricity, but no one was able to help us. The very last answer I heard was: "Well, there are 80 of you living there, why do we need to restore anything?" When I was quoting the Constitution, I only heard laughter in response [According to the 2001 census, the population of Novooleksandrivka was 124 people. As of the end of January 2018, the population is 17].

During the entire conflict period, from 14 April 2014 to 10 December 2020, OHCHR has recorded a total of 3,075 conflict-related civilian deaths (1,827 men, 1,063 women, 99 boys, 49 girls, and 37 adults whose sex is unknown). Taking into account the 298 deaths on board of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 on 17 July 2014, the total death toll of the conflict on civilians has reached at least 3,373. The number of injured civilians is estimated to exceed 7,000.

In 2018, Novooleksandrivka was returned to the control of Government of Ukraine. Now there are military positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine in the village.

HRMMU calls local and national authorities and other duty bearers to take advantage of the improved security to increase the provision of essential services to the estimated 600,000 people who live in close proximity to the contact line (on both sides), including public transport, electricity, water, and quality health care. These services are even more vital in light of the deterioration of the situation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

About September fires

On 1 September this year, there were big fires in Novooleksandrivka. A trip flare went off at around 1pm about 1.5 km from the village setting reed on fire that began to spread rapidly and reached the village. A local resident's shed caught fire but he managed to extinguish it on his own. Then the fire spread to the positions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine - since civilians could not enter there, the military put it off themselves.

But when the fire spread to the village, it was already impossible to stop it. Dry grass, the wind was strong in that direction - this is how 14 houses burned down. We called the fire department, but they really didn’t do anything. They went to extinguish not the village, but the forest, as it was also on fire. There are combat positions in the forest and ammunition depots, so the forest was put off in the first place.

When the fire turned towards my house, I called the Emergency Ministry Office in Popasna. When the car drove up, the fire had already spread to the shed. The firefighters put a button and two streams of water came out of the car. That was it, the water ran out. At that moment the fire spread onto my house. We just all stood and watched. The house burned down in half an hour.

How did I feel at that moment? Powerless. The government did not help us in any way, they do not care about people. The authorities did nothing to put out these fires. It was possible to take cars from neighboring regions to help us. After all, the whole Lugansk region was on fire.

About the pandemic in the Luhansk region

When the COVID-19 pandemic began, the situation of the people living close to the contact line was further exacerbated. The restrictions imposed on the freedom of movement have resulted in the separation of thousands of people from their families, and loss of access to healthcare, education, pensions and sources of livelihoods. Many lacked personal protection such as masks, and even information about COVID-19.

I have two schoolchildren, 12 and 13 years old. They moved to distance learning during the quarantine. This education is not the same as ordinary education. The power may be out or the Internet may get cut off, or th e teachers cannot configure something for themselves. My eldest son studies at the university in Kharkiv, now he has also switched to distance learning - the quality of studies has also decreased.

Due to the pandemic, everyone was obliged to wear masks. But when you enter any institution - including government agencies - the employees sit without masks. That is, the rules are not followed. At the same time, posters on their doors on their walls request  wearing masks.

I have four people in my family [in Popasna]. If you take one [disposable] mask per day for each, that's about 120 masks a month. The state should organize some funds, where people could be provided with these masks.

For half a year, since March, they have been trying to organize a CT scan in Popasna regional hospital. They have not done it since there is no equipment. I also know that the doctors who work with people with coronavirus have been promised salary increases. But there is nothing.

In the town of Zolote, which is not far from here, I have a relative. She fell ill: at 10 pm she called an ambulance and at around 4 pm of the next day she was admitted to a ward in Lysychansk. That’s how long it is: the ambulance took her only halfway, left her in one hospital, put her on a wheelchair and no one cared about her for several hours. When they finally had free time, they apparently began to care to transferred her to another hospital.

I would like to go back to Novooleksandrivka and do what I did before the armed conflict. But for this combat positions need to be removed and shooting needs to stop there.

UN entities involved in this initiative
Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights