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North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout
Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas
Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas
A displaced malnourished mother and her children sit on the ground waiting for food in Bama's camp for internally displaced people (IDP), Borno State, northeastern Nigeria, 30 June 2016. AFP/STRINGER
Commentary / Africa

North-eastern Nigeria and Conflict's Humanitarian Fallout

Children are dying in Bama, a town in Borno state, north-east Nigeria, suffering from lack of food, clean water and medical care. They are the most tragic manifestation of the humanitarian fallout of the Boko Haram insurgency and the state response to it, a crisis that now impacts the lives of millions. The insurgency itself, the aggressive military response to it, and the lack of effective assistance, both national and international, to those caught up in the conflict threaten to create an endless cycle of violence and depredation. Unless efforts to contain and roll back the current crisis are quickly scaled-up, peace is likely to remain a distant prospect in this region of Nigeria.

Once a city of 300,000, Bama is now an army-controlled camp of 30,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), some forcibly moved there by the military. There are around a dozen sites like Bama, hosting at least 250,000 people living under the security forces’ scrutiny. The number will likely grow as military campaigns continue.

Neither the army, nor the Nigerian emergency services are up to the task of caring for them. There have been – and still are – too many bottlenecks. Authorities must pay more attention and commit more resources, clarify and rationalise the country’s assistance structure, improve aid governance, promote transparency (more NGO and media reporting), facilitate humanitarian access and address the widespread suspicion that many IDPs support Boko Haram.

Humanitarian agencies have also struggled to respond adequately, both in recognising the scale of the problem and reacting sufficiently promptly. For their part, UN agencies and international humanitarian NGOs need to engage authorities more proactively and improve their collaboration in responding to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world today. Doing so will mobilise more international funding – currently grossly lacking – and make better use of international expertise.If the humanitarian crisis is not addressed soon, it will have serious security and political implications. In the short term, it may push people back into areas under Boko Haram’s control, or to other parts of Nigeria whose capacity to sustain them is questionable, or across international borders, from where some could be trafficked into an already vulnerable Sahel region, and on to Libya – an important gateway to Europe. In the long term, it could leave the Nigerian state and its international partners tainted, undermining further their legitimacy and capacity to control violence in the north east and the Lake Chad region.

Dying in a “Safe Area”: The Situation in Bama

Situated 72km south east of Maiduguri, Borno’s capital, Bama was once a major trade hub on a main road to Cameroon. Overrun by Boko Haram in September 2014, the army recaptured it in March 2015. Most of its inhabitants had already left by then and thousands had been killed by Boko Haram, but the army began bringing in civilians it found during operations in the surrounding rural areas. Citing security concerns, the army has itself been running the Bama camp, notionally the responsibility of the Borno State Emergency Management Agency (BOSEMA). It has banned IDPs from travelling in the camp’s vicinity or to other “safe areas”. The security forces and state-supported civilian self-defence groups, known as vigilantes, also have been “vetting” the newly arrived.While Bama camp is safe from the Boko Haram threat that hovers over the wider local government area, it is, for many, a place of death. In June, the rate of severe acute malnutrition was 19 per cent among children – the emergency threshold is 3 per cent. According to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 244,000 children are suffering from acute malnutrition in Borno state and on average 134 die every day from this. A few health ministry officials have been brought in under military escort for short stays and some humanitarian partners have been intermittently giving the army supplies to distribute to the IDPs, though with little supervision. This is not enough and with major deficiencies in water, sanitation and hygiene and the rainy season (June-September) under way, many are concerned that a cholera epidemic could break out. The rains, furthermore, will make many roads and tracks impassable.

The Humanitarian Costs of Insurgency and Counter-insurgency

Most officials blame Bama’s dire humanitarian crisis on Boko Haram: people began starving while they lived under the insurgents’ control, and the military rescued them. The insurgency has indeed done terrible damage to the lives and livelihoods of many in Borno state, as well as in neighbouring Yobe, Adamawa and Gombe states. Boko Haram ruthlessly targeted some communities, particularly those that set up vigilante forces or helped the military, killing many civilians and forcing many more into exile. Those who tried to stay and live under Boko Haram’s control faced significant difficulties. The insurgents heavily taxed communities, plundered and forcefully recruited among them and fighting disrupted harvests.But the humanitarian crisis has been exacerbated by the nature of the counter-insurgency campaign. An aggressive, regional military operation has deliberately stifled economic activities, denying Boko Haram supplies, trade and income from protection rackets. Military operations have also made producing and accessing food a lot more difficult for all living in and close to Boko Haram-controlled areas. Trade and mobility, essential for making a living in the Sahel, have become extremely difficult and dangerous.

Attitudes toward those Displaced

Many among the military and many civilians are quick to look with suspicion on people coming from Boko Haram-held areas. Though there is no evidence to suggest a deliberate attempt to punish a population suspected of complicity with the insurgents, there are alarming signs that their welfare is not being prioritised, whether out of a lack of capacity or concern or due to security concerns. Even women captured, abused or forced into “marriage” by Boko Haram bear the stigma of their association, and their children are suspected of having “bad blood”. This fear of “contagion” and, more concretely, of suicide attacks by women and children, is part of the problem. This is one reason the only IDPs the army lets into Maiduguri, which already hosts an estimated 1.5 million, are children requiring sustained medical support, though sometimes without their carers.Conducting security operations should be kept distinct from humanitarian actions. If not, those in genuine need of assistance risk being denied help; while entire communities stand in danger of neglect. In such an environment, people are likely to feel increasingly alienated from the state, driving them to seek support elsewhere. Humanitarian assistance must remain impartial and needs-based; while security measures must be proportionate to the risk – which will likely be reduced, not increased, by greater freedom of movement – and non-discriminatory.

Inadequate National and International Assistance

At the end of 2015, 3.9 million people in north-east Nigeria out of a total of 5.2 million across the Lake Chad Basin were in urgent need of food assistance. In April 2016, the Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima and UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator Toby Lanzer visited Bama. Shettima said afterward that his state was “hanging between malnutrition and famine …. People [were] dying like flies”.

Of the $248 million required for the emergency response in north-east Nigeria in 2016, less than 20 per cent was available by May. Donor pledges were higher for Chad and Niger, where the number of persons in need was smaller. The World Food Program (WFP) supported fewer than 2,000 people in the north east in March 2016; that figure had increased to 50,000 in May, but was still way behind target given that more than half of the 1.5 million IDPs just in Maiduguri are judged by the UN to be malnourished, and the situation in rural areas is often worse. In neighbouring Cameroon, also affected by Boko Haram, UN agencies helped four times as many people (90 per cent of the most food insecure). In July, the total number of IDPs in this part of Cameroon was around 190,000. Recent reports of the shocking conditions in Bama did draw some attention, but it took a controversial 22 June communiqué by Médecins Sans Frontières to bring the starving into the limelight.

The Nigerian government’s response has been hampered by constrained resources and multiple pressing security problems. It is facing a resurgent rebellion in the Niger Delta, separatist agitation in the south east, and increasing violence in the Middle Belt, including recent clashes between pastoralists and farmers over land and water, as well as a severe economic and budgetary crisis. Neither the National Emergency Management Agency nor its state-level counterparts have the funds or the capacity and experience to manage a prolonged, large-scale humanitarian operation. Already overwhelmed by IDPs in Maiduguri and other established sites, Nigerian agencies have struggled to serve new camps.

Attempts to improve the government’s response have lagged. The Victims Support Fund (VSF) is constrained by the lack of clarity in Nigeria’s overall framework for humanitarian response. In July 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari established a Presidential Committee on North-East Interventions (PCNI) to coordinate domestic and international humanitarian efforts, but as of July 2016, the committee had still not been inaugurated. Some government sources say the president is waiting for the National Assembly (federal parliament) to create the North East Development Commission (NEDC), which includes a humanitarian portfolio, but some interviewed by Crisis Group fear it may become merely another platform for the region’s elite to share patronage rather than for boosting humanitarian aid.

Many implementation partners of UN agencies lack the capacity to work in the region’s remoter parts where the terrain is extremely challenging and where they do not enjoy the relative protection of Maiduguri (which itself faces significant humanitarian needs). So far, humanitarian workers have been unable to establish credible contacts with Boko Haram to negotiate access and obtain guarantees that can reduce risks to acceptable levels. Particularly in areas of Borno state outside the Maiduguri metropolitan area, some organisations, including from the UN, have depended on the army for protection, assessments of local security conditions and sometimes humanitarian service delivery.

Nigeria, with Africa’s largest population and economy, is sensitive to foreign criticism and, understandably, keen to ensure that foreign support in addressing the crisis does not compromise its sovereignty. Many officials remember the civil war (1967-1970) when Nigeria was condemned for the terrible famine in the self-proclaimed Republic of Biafra and some secessionist supporters provided military aid under the guise of international humanitarian assistance. As a result, authorities are sensitive to outside aid or reporting. Yet the lack of reporting has made it difficult to mobilise international support for resources.

The Risks Ahead

Failure to adequately support IDPs, in part because of suspicion that they support Boko Haram, may push them back into, or discourage them from leaving, insurgent-controlled areas. Furthermore, it is entirely possible that Boko Haram’s attacks and suicide bombings in and around IDP camps are attempts by the insurgents to staunch the flow of people from areas under their control. It may be working to an extent. Some IDPs reportedly are choosing to return to their home areas, despite the risk of Boko Haram attacks, rather than staying in dire camps.In the long term, failure to help those in need could further undermine the state’s legitimacy and capacity to control violence. While the Nigerian military and its regional and international partners may be able to contain Boko Haram, unless the state addresses poor governance and other structural factors that drove people to support the movement, there is a high risk either that Boko Haram will be revived or similar groups will emerge.

What Should Be Done

To prevent the current humanitarian emergency from claiming more lives, prolonging the conflict and fuelling longer term insecurity in the region, the government must match its military campaign against Boko Haram with strong commitment to addressing the immediate humanitarian needs and longer-term development and reconstruction assistance to rebuild the north east. That includes granting access to, and facilitating, independent local and international reporting and assessments. This is necessary not only for proper resource mobilisation, but even more importantly as a way to provide independent analysis of outstanding emergency relief requirements.

Borno state Governor Kashim Shettima and President Muhammadu Buhari, as well as some army commanders, have been remarkably willing to talk to journalists. However, the president should pay special attention to the governance of aid. Reports of the embezzlement and diversion of food and other aid need to be properly investigated and officials found to have stolen or mismanaged aid must be sanctioned. For example, the report of the Borno state House Verification Committee into allegations of aid diversion, which should be completed soon, should be made public and quickly and openly acted upon.

The government and international partners should have fewer qualms about bringing assistance closer to the war zones. It is possible that some of it could leak to Boko Haram members, but this marginal price should be balanced with the immense relief it would provide, the lives it would save and the goodwill it would generate for the government. Furthermore, improved assistance would probably be more efficient in attracting civilians to government areas than military mop-up operations. Where Boko Haram can no longer use the “rhetoric of plenty”, as it once did, offering feasts of meat and cold drinks to potential recruits, authorities now have that card to play.

Equally, the reluctance to allow IDPs encamped in secondary towns like Bama to move around should be revised. The arguably marginal benefit in security which the ban on movement provides will be far outweighed by the humanitarian gains and goodwill generated by easing up this restriction. As an immediate measure, all those most in need should be allowed to temporarily move to Maiduguri or other cities where appropriate treatment is available.

‪While vigilante groups have done much to defend their communities, Borno state authorities should stop using these irregular forces to vet IDPs. Further, the Federal Government should begin to put in place a demobilisation process lest longer-term problems result, including increased risks of communal violence based on revenge between vigilante group members and displaced persons.‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

International partners must drastically increase their humanitarian response, including by releasing all funds pledged to the UN and other humanitarian agencies for the emergency. They must lend greater support to the government, preferably in a high-level forum that includes the military, UN agencies, international NGOs, as well as local civil society and NGOs. This forum should provide a platform for all actors to share knowledge, including their assessments of the gravity of the humanitarian situation and areas of greatest needs as well as clarify guiding principles and improve working relations.

The Buhari administration for its part needs to be far more proactive. A clarification of its assistance framework is pressing, and senior officials need to make clear that they regard the unfolding humanitarian crisis as a first-order priority. The government should accelerate the implementation of its response, for instance in disbursing the 12 billion naira (about $41 million) which it announced, in May 2016, would be used to rebuild the north east and also in implementing the programs of the Victims Support Fund. It is also essential that accountability mechanisms are strengthened.

The authorities should not forget that they announced the North East Marshall Plan (Nemap) in October 2015 with the aim of providing “intermediate and long-term interventions in emergency assistance, economic reconstruction and development” – a vital component of efforts to bring peace to the region. The first action of this ambitious plan should target camps for the displaced. In order to rebuild state legitimacy, the authorities should scale down reliance on security forces to manage the camps and give greater room to civil authorities.

Finally, periodic visits by senior leaders, including President Buhari himself, to the camps and major communities hosting IDPs are essential to begin breaking down the suspicion faced by the newly displaced, and to affirm to them, as well as to state and government officials, that as Nigerian citizens and victims of the insurgency, they should not be left without food or medical assistance. Governor Shettima’s visits are welcome moves. He should make more and his fellow governors should follow his example. Without a visible and genuine commitment to providing the humanitarian support needed in these areas, insecurity will persist – and could become worse – and peace will remain far out of reach.

Contributors

Consulting Senior Analyst, West Africa
vincentfoucher
Director, Sahel Project
jhjezequel
Senior Adviser, Nigeria
NnamdiObasi
Boys stay on top of the war memorial complex Savur-Mohyla, damaged in the recent conflict, outside the rebel-held city of Donetsk, Ukraine 8 September 2020. REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Visualising the Dynamics of Combat and Negotiations in Donbas

Efforts to bring peace to Ukraine’s Donbas region have been deadlocked for years. The steps the belligerents take to de-escalate violence can save lives, but people still die on the front lines and beyond. Crisis Group’s new visual explainer puts these dynamics in stark relief.

The war in eastern Ukraine began in March 2014. It pits separatists backed by Russia against the Ukrainian government in two industrial regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, which are part of an area known as Donbas. The war was ugliest in its first year, when battles raged for territory and strategic position. Two peace agreements – known as the Minsk agreements of 2014 and 2015 – put an end to the major fighting. They also laid out a roadmap for the reabsorption of the separatist-controlled regions into Ukraine, which calls, among other things, for Kyiv to grant these areas limited self-governing status. Implementation has stalled, however, and in the meantime some 75,000 troops – mostly Ukrainian citizens on both sides – still face off along a 450km front that cleaves Donbas in two. Some 800,000 civilians also live in the line of fire, while several million others reside in areas ridden with mines and unexploded shells. The death toll for the conflict creeps upward nearly every week and is now over 14,000.

Crisis Group’s new interactive feature, “Conflict in Ukraine’s Donbas: A Visual Explainer”, maps both military and civilian casualties and illustrates the links between ceasefires and lulls in combat. It shows that ceasefires work – until they crack under the weight of deadlocked negotiations. It further shows that civilian casualties from live fire clearly correlate with intense combat in urban and suburban areas, falling to almost nil when ceasefires are in place. Civilian casualties from mines, however, do not correlate with whether or not a ceasefire is in place and have lately risen, likely due to increased foot traffic through heavily mined areas.

Taken together, the data presented by this new explainer indicate that in the absence of a durable political solution, if the parties want to honour their stated intent to limit civilian casualties, they should commit to disengagement from high-traffic areas and to comprehensive demining. Both of these steps are hard sells to field commanders, for whom holding territory generally takes precedence. But disengagement is the only way to bring casualty rates reliably down, short of the impractical exercise of relocating civilians away from danger.

Combat Kills Civilians

The geography of the Donbas war all but guarantees civilian casualties. The front, known as the line of separation or line of contact, runs right through what was once the most densely populated part of Ukraine. Its central segments curve around coal mines, coke foundries and steel plants, while the southern and northern ends cut through farmland and picturesque meadows previously used for recreation. Dotting the combat zone on either side of the front are apartment blocks and weekend homes with garden plots. Today, industries are functioning at a fraction of their former capacity. Fields lie fallow, littered with mines and shells, while fighters on both sides have taken over vacation and retirement homes. Most families with the means to do so have left.

But some have stayed. Roughly 200,000 residents remain within 5km of the line of separation on the government-controlled side, while their neighbours just over the trenches number roughly 600,000. Any exchange of fire endangers the lives and disrupts the livelihoods of large numbers of people, a significant portion of them elderly.

Crisis Group’s visual explainer tracks civilian and combatant casualties, differentiating them by cause. It shows, for instance, that the vast majority – roughly 80 per cent – of live-fire (shelling and gunfire) civilian casualties occur in areas controlled by Russian-backed separatists. The ebb and flow of civilian casualties in these areas largely tracks with those of military casualties. The higher civilian casualty rate in non-government-controlled areas is due to the fact that these places are more urban and populous. Users of Crisis Group’s map can see that these casualties are concentrated around the front’s central section near the separatist-controlled cities of Donetsk and Horlivka, but also bleed across the line into the former Donetsk suburb of Mariinka, which Ukrainian government forces hold. Horlivka and the Donetsk suburbs are fairly densely populated. The high civilian casualties there may also be related to the position of combatants: troops on both sides are posted in residential streets or very close to them.

Civilian casualties are heavily concentrated in the most populous, urban areas of the front line, near Donetsk and Horlivka.

In Hirske and Kadiivka districts, where combatant deaths since the start of 2020 have been highest, civilian casualties from live fire also closely track combatant casualties, in that they go up and down in tandem. But civilian casualty numbers are also lower than in Donetsk or Horlivka, likely because most troops are dug in farther away from large towns. Together, the numbers suggest that neither side is trying to hit civilians but also that combatants are not doing all they can to avoid collateral damage.

Ceasefires Save Lives

To assess the impact of ceasefires on casualties, Crisis Group charted the latter over time, noting each ceasefire agreement on a line graph. This simple analysis indicates that whatever else they do, and however short-lived they may be, ceasefires do save lives: each ceasefire is closely correlated with a reduction in casualties, and the stricter its provisions, the fewer the casualties.

Levels of violence in the combat zone drop after ceasefires are in place.

The most recent ceasefire, which had particularly strict provisions, had the greatest effect. Commencing in July 2020, it banned combatants from initiating firefights for any reason and imposed strict limitations on return fire, as well. In the seven months that followed the agreement, combatant fatalities dropped to less than half the number in the seven months prior (82 killed by live fire between January and July 2020, and 36 between August 2020 and February 2021), while civilian deaths and injuries from live fire fell from 50 to 5 in the same period, with almost no civilians hurt from August 2020 to 30 January 2021 (two civilians suffered hearing loss due to an explosion on 12 November). As further evidence of the agreement’s effectiveness, in comments to Ukrainian media and to Crisis Group, front-line dwellers spoke of improved security after it was signed.

Although the visual explainer covers only the period from January 2020 to the present day, data from 2019 tells a similar story. Then, too, a ceasefire went into effect in July. Of the 56 casualties from live fire that UN monitors recorded between 16 May and 15 August 2019, all but one occurred before the ceasefire.

New Casualty Trends

The data breakdown also shows that while both civilian and combatant casualties from heavy weaponry in the past seven months remain lower than before the July 2020 ceasefire, small arms fire during this period accounts for a larger portion of casualties. The use of heavy weaponry like artillery and mortars is prohibited by the Minsk agreements and has in fact declined.

But both sides are still using these weapons on occasion, so the reduction of casualties also suggests that they have been able to better calibrate their fire using drones and other modern equipment in order to lessen collateral damage. Civilian casualties from heavy weapons declined fivefold year-on-year in the first six months of 2021, while casualties from small arms held steady. Combatant casualties from heavy weapons also fell, albeit less dramatically, even as deaths among Ukrainian government troops from small arms – and sniper fire, in particular – have risen from eighteen in 2020 to 24 in 2021 to date. This uptick is consistent with Crisis Group interviews and Ukrainian media reports pointing to increased activity by Russian-backed (and allegedly Russian) snipers.

A breakdown of civilian casualties by cause and type. Casualties from live fire have decreased, while those from mines and explosive objects have increased.

Additionally, as civilian casualties from live fire have fallen in the past year, deaths and injuries from mines and unexploded ordnance have crept up: these accounted for one fourth of casualties in 2020-2021, but doubled year-on-year in the first half of 2021. Throughout the eighteen-month period, the bulk of such casualties have occurred along the banks of the Siversky Donets river, which divides the government-controlled part of the Luhansk region from the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic. The forests through which the river runs are heavily mined but see almost no live fire. More people than usual may be tramping through the forests because economic decline associated with COVID-19 is forcing them to collect firewood for fuel. Many are also fishing in the river for sustenance. Reports also suggest that residents are smuggling food and other goods across the river, which puts them at risk, though it is not clear whether they have stepped up this activity recently or not. Meanwhile, in other areas, the drop-off in live fire may simply mean that residents feel comfortable wandering farther from home, increasing their chances of tripping mines.

Map showing the geographic distribution of mine-related incidents over time. The worst-affected areas flank the Siversky Donets river in Luhansk region.

Why Do Ceasefires Fail?

The July 2020 ceasefire was perhaps the sole diplomatic success in a period otherwise marked by deepening acrimony between the two sides. Throughout 2020 and 2021, the parties undertook a series of tit-for-tat measures that have made the Minsk agreements’ eventual implementation look less and less likely. In June 2020, the parliament in Kyiv passed a decree stating that Ukraine would recognise elections held in areas controlled by Russia-backed separatists only after the government had regained control of the eastern border, contradicting a controversial provision of the agreements. The separatist regions’ de facto authorities retaliated by holding up progress in fulfilling commitments to prisoner exchanges, sectoral military disengagements and enhanced civilian freedom of movement. In September 2020, the sides fell into a bitter dispute over an attempt at joint inspection of troop positions near the city of Horlivka, as well as later efforts to establish a joint mechanism for monitoring ceasefire violations. Three months later, in December, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at his annual press conference that Kyiv had almost given up on the Minsk accords – and promised to increase Moscow’s support for the de facto republics, which also undercut the deal.

From that point onward, violence increased steadily. From August through November 2020, the average day saw fewer than ten explosions along the front, but December saw several days with more than 100, with the total sometimes nearing 200. At least eight combatants were killed that month, followed by another seven in January and 21 in February. April 2021 was the deadliest month for combatants since January 2020, with 22 fatalities on both sides combined.

Combat casualties declined in the first months of the July 2020 ceasefire.

That month, Russia massed troops near Ukraine’s border in numbers not seen since 2015, when its forces had helped wage a series of devastating battles on Ukrainian soil. It did so on the pretext of a spike in ceasefire violations at the front, although the separatists it backed were just as responsible as Ukrainian forces for the infractions.

Increasing violence does suggest ... that when peace talks lose momentum, both parties see diminishing incentives to exercise restraint

Moscow’s troop build-up was likely about geopolitical signalling rather than a prelude to a possible incursion. But if, on this occasion, violence in Donbas provided the Kremlin with a convenient, if dubious, alibi for its aggressive behaviour, it does not follow that every uptick in fighting stems from a particular side’s pursuit of political goals. Increasing violence does suggest, however, that when peace talks lose momentum, both parties see diminishing incentives to exercise restraint. As a Ukrainian commander told Crisis Group in 2020, the army needs to either fight or disengage: along the Donbas front lines, troops can hold their fire for only so long in the absence of steps toward peace. Yet, as the April scare demonstrates, any escalation at the front risks handing Moscow an excuse to further threaten Kyiv.

Obstacles to Protecting Civilians

Both sides claim to be defending the lives of their Ukrainian compatriots, suggesting that they should be motivated to agree to better protect civilians. In practice, however, things are not so simple, and military calculations generally prevail over humanitarian concerns.

Separatist leaders have shown themselves more than willing to use civilian casualties for propaganda purposes. Noting that the de facto republics’ constituents make up the majority of live-fire casualties, they cite the numbers of dead and wounded as proof of Kyiv’s villainy. They have also been known to spread highly dubious reports of civilian deaths, possibly to garner greater support from their patrons in Moscow. For example, in April 2021, as Russia was deploying troops to areas bordering Ukraine, they announced that a Ukrainian drone strike had killed a five-year-old boy in a Donetsk suburb. In fact, the boy had died some 15km from the front, out of the Ukrainian drones’ range, possibly by setting off an unexploded shell he found in his yard. (Indeed, Crisis Group data shows that 75 per cent of incidents in which children were killed or injured by unexploded ordnance in 2020-2021 occurred in separatist-held areas, pointing to a genuine problem that de facto authorities should confront.) Meanwhile, de facto officials tend to be unwilling to admit that shooting from positions in areas like the Donetsk suburbs can provoke return fire and lead to civilian deaths. They have baulked at suggestions that they move their troops to keep locals out of the line of fire.

On the other side, public figures in government-controlled Ukraine sometimes overlook or minimise the problem of civilian casualties from live fire. Losses among civilians frequently do not make it into Ukrainian news reports, partly due to journalists’ lack of access to reliable sources in areas across the line; media tends to focus on the heroism of government troops. Some Ukrainians sticking up for the military imply that civilians, particularly in the separatist-controlled areas, are themselves to blame for their fate, having stubbornly remained in their homes while soldiers, as the troops’ defenders see it, are risking life and limb for a greater cause. “Do you think we didn’t have grandmothers when we went off to die? Maybe these are people, but they are not citizens”, a renowned veteran told Crisis Group in 2019, while expressing frustration at President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s promises to wind down combat in Donbas.

Efforts to limit civilian casualties through stricter ceasefire provisions have also triggered backlash against Ukrainian officials. In mid-2019, Kyiv proposed a ban on return fire. President Zelenskyy’s press secretary defended the proposal, arguing that when government troops shoot back at opponents positioned in populated areas, “our people die, our Ukrainians”. Opposition politicians accused Kyiv of ignoring the imperatives of fighting an invading force; high-ranking military personnel accused the press secretary of defamation, activists said she was echoing Russian propaganda and Ukraine’s prosecutor general summoned her for questioning on the grounds that she was assisting the enemy. The proposal was dropped for the time being, and the sides struck a more lenient agreement. But that 2019 agreement proved weaker, shorter-lived and less clearly beneficial for civilians than the one that followed in 2020, which did integrate a ban on return fire. If avoiding the issue of return fire may have short-term tactical and political benefits, the consequences of doing so deepen resentment among civilians on both sides and only make Kyiv’s climb toward reintegrating its lost territories steeper.

What to Do

The steps that would save lives are evident but difficult. Crisis Group has in the past recommended pursuing mutual disengagement in areas of high civilian traffic. Demining would also help. But international observers with knowledge of the negotiations say combatants are unlikely to disengage from high-traffic areas – which happen to be where the worst fighting of 2014-2015 occurred, as both sides consider them strategically and symbolically significant – without a comprehensive peace settlement. Nor do specialists think that either side – particularly not the de facto republics – will pursue demining as long as fighting continues.

As neither disengagement nor demining is likely, and neither military will move the trenches away from inhabited areas, a few Kyiv lawmakers have proposed relocating inhabitants of those areas as a way to save civilian lives. The idea has many downsides, among them its impracticability in the highly populated non-government-controlled areas. In government-controlled Ukraine, it may be more feasible, and perhaps more acceptable to the population. According to aid workers and staff at the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe ceasefire monitoring mission, more front-line dwellers are seeking to move away than in previous years. Those who stayed to be closer to loved ones on the other side of the line of separation can no longer see them anyway, due to COVID-19 restrictions, even as lockdowns have deepened the economic woes of cities and towns along the front.

The two sides will need to decide that costs of a simmering conflict outweigh the risks of compromise

In any case, none of these measures – disengagement, demining, or relocation – will bring the region the peace that it truly needs. For peace to come, the two sides will need to decide that costs of a simmering conflict outweigh the risks of compromise and an imperfect solution. Crisis Group has developed the visual explainer to illustrate the costs both sides are incurring, as well as the unpredictability and volatility of military activity at the Donbas front lines. The explainer also demonstrates that diplomacy – including that aimed at ceasefires – reduces the level of combat and saves lives. Breaking ceasefires, conversely, gives no one an advantage. In 2020-2021, a period during which a ceasefire was instituted and then fell apart, the two sides appear to have suffered a comparable number of deaths – 146 among the separatists and 112 in the Ukrainian army. Collapsed ceasefires favour neither side; they just lead to a bloodier stalemate.