As the armed conflict began in southeastern Ukraine, Donbass was on the verge of a humanitarian catastrophe. People lost their loved ones, lost their jobs and houses. Many had to abandon their homes, fleeing from constant shelling. More than six thousand people are victims of military conflict. Hundreds of DPR citizens were captured in Ukraine. Daria Morozova, the Human Rights Ombudsman in the Donetsk People’s Republic, told how Donbass deals with the consequences of the war in an interview to RT.
— We know that you are now preparing another exchange of prisoners. The last major exchange between Ukraine and the Republics of Donbass took place on December 27, 2017. Ukraine then released 233 detained citizens of the DPR in exchange for 73 Ukrainian prisoners. Why does it take so long to move on to the next round?
— In my opinion, the main reason is that the former Ukrainian leadership simply had no intention of conducting this process. They wanted neither to take their citizens back, nor to release ours. In fact, the exchange can be prepared very quickly – several days are needed to handle all legal issues and transfer people to the line of contact. After the presidential elections in Ukraine, new delegates were appointed to represent Ukraine, and the work moved forward. At least we began to exchange correspondence. The Ukrainian side confirmed holding our citizens in their territory, but everything rests on the mechanism of “procedural clearance” of the detainees, which the Ukrainian side has been elaborating for two years now.
— What does it mean?
Some of the detainees are under investigation or under trial. The Ukrainian side insisted that the process be in line with the Ukrainian legislation. But the mechanism that they have proposed does not suit us.
— What is this mechanism?
They suggest changing the measure of restraint for people who are now under trial or investigation and release them under a personal commitment. What is personal commitment? A person can safely move around the world, but he or she must attend court hearings. If they fail to do so, the preventive measure may again be changed to detention. He or she will be put on the wanted list. From my own experience, I can tell that 95% of those people who will be released under a personal commitment when received a summons for the court hearing, will simply refuse to go back to Ukraine. Again, we do not know what the court verdict will be – whether a judgment of acquittal or judgement of guilt. One has no guarantees that the judge will not change the preventive measure for detention. Accordingly, people will not attend the hearing. We strongly disagreed with this initiative and proposed our own mechanism, which is in line with the Ukrainian legislation.
— What does it imply?
It implies the provision of guarantees that in the event of a judgement of guilt, people will be pardoned by the president of Ukraine. At the moment, the Ukrainian side generally agreed with this. But there are currently no guarantees that our citizens will be released after the sentence. Accordingly, we are waiting for these guarantees, after which we will be fully prepared for the exchange.
— How many detainees are we talking about?
At the moment, there are 88 people confirmed by Ukraine. And we confirmed 50 people to the Ukrainian side. But these are not final figures. Work is underway. We sent additional requests on several dozen citizens to the Ukrainian side.
— What other difficulties are there?
So far, we haven’t reached a mutual understanding of how to correctly identify those who are included in the lists for exchange, but who express a desire to stay in Ukraine or even refuse to participate in the exchange process. We had agreed to transfer all of them to the line of contact and carry out the verification on the spot. But, unfortunately, representatives of the Ukrainian side at the last meeting reported that they unilaterally developed a questionnaire, which was not coordinated with us.
— Since the beginning of the conflict, you have managed to return home more than 1200 prisoners. Is it possible to eventually fulfil the sixth paragraph of the Minsk agreements and exchange POWs all for all?
I think that is not possible so far because Ukraine constantly detains new people for participation in the armed conflict. Until that stops, we will conduct the exchanges again and again. The bad trend is that the Ukrainian side has begun to politicize the process again, despite this is a purely humanitarian issue. We have already given people hope that their loved ones will soon be at home. And we simply do not have the right to fail it.
— We know that you have applied to international organizations with a request to monitor the conditions of detention of POWs in Ukraine.
Ukraine denies the existence of secret prisons where prisoners are held. However, this has been reflected in the UN public reports, which confirm that such prisons exist in Kharkov, Starobelsk and Mariupol. The report also describes the specific types of torture used. Of course, I am very grateful to international organizations. We constantly inform them of cases of ill-treatment against prisoners. And thanks to their concern, the beating and torturing stop.
— None of the high-ranking Ukrainian military and officials who are guilty of crimes against civilians in Donbass have been punished. What is the reason in your opinion?
Since 2014, we have constantly drawn the attention of international organizations to these incidents. The UN Human Rights Commissioner regularly publishes reports reporting violations of human rights. The International Committee of the Red Cross and the OSCE monitoring mission, which are present in the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic, also carry out the monitoring.
The Ukrainian government is not willing to hold those responsible to account. But I want to remind you that attacks on residential areas and civilian infrastructure, which cause deaths and injuries among the civilian population, are war crimes, and they have no statute of limitations. Sooner or later, everyone will get a punishment they deserve.
— Would you say that Donbass has somehow recovered from the conflict? And can the current situation be called a peaceful life?
Unfortunately, this is difficult to call a peaceful life. We and our children hear the explosions, the echoes of war. It’s just that everyone has got used to it. In 2014, we began to build our state from scratch. It was hard when you go into a store and understand that all the shelves are empty. When people who are used to a normal life with all its comforts, suddenly find themselves in a state of war and devastation. I believe that after five years the Republic has become completely autonomous and independent. Now we understand how to develop economics and how to manage our country. This is not the territory of Ukraine. We are in our own land, we want to be left alone.
— Of particular concern are cases when children are injured or killed. In the territory of Donbass there are many mines and unexploded ordnance. Is preventative work being carried out?
Sure! The Ministry of Emergencies of the DPR actively works on it. They organize awareness lectures in schools, where they tell how to act in certain situations.
— How many citizens of the DPR became victims of the military conflict?
Since 2014, there are about 6820 people. These are people who turned to the government for assistance. A lot of IDPs are registered in the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic. And it’s not even that someone’s house is partially or completely destroyed. Their home may be located in the “grey zone” (no man’s land), where people simply can not return due to regular shelling. Houses of some of them are located on the other side of the line of contact, and people do not want to go there for political reasons. Some of them rent apartments or live with relatives. There are social centres in the Republic, where about 1650 people live. People have a place to live, the ability to receive humanitarian assistance and medical care, they can work and take their children to school. We ensure that their rights are protected in the same way. Some have already received compensation for destroyed housing.
— What is the employment situation? Are there any jobs available?
There are jobs, about 40 thousand vacancies. The Republic now needs highly qualified specialists from various industries. If one has a desire to work, they will definitely find a job. Of course, there are people who say they don’t want to work and do anything, and that the state is obliged to provide for them. But, to my mind, there is such kind of people in any country.
— What are you most concerned with at the moment as the Human Rights Ombudsman?
Violation of armistice, attacks on civilian objects. Such incidents represent a direct violation of international humanitarian law and the Geneva Conventions. Until they stop the shelling, there can be no talk of respecting human rights in the territory of the DPR, as the right to life is above all.