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19 August, 2015  ▪  Stanislav Kozliuk

Working on the Ground

Initially, local civilians and the military had been quite critical of the OSCE monitors. This has changed recently

As the war broke out, Severodonetsk became to host the authorities that fled the occupied part of Luhansk Oblast, as well as the team of international observers assigned to monitor the conflict in Donbas and register violations of the Minsk agreement. The author of this article had a chance to see the work of OSCE representatives in Luhansk Oblast half a year ago and now. It has changed considerably. Ukrainian military and officials admit that too.  

On a typical February night six months ago, at the end of poorly lit street almost on the outskirts of Severodonetsk stands the brightly lit Myr hotel. Up to two dozen snow-dusted OSCE vehicles stand behind open gates.

“This is where the OSCE representatives live. Actually, I haven’t seen them drive around our area. Maybe they are working in other zones,” says a taxi driver that has brought me to the relatively peaceful Severodonetsk from the frontline in Novoaydar county a hundred kilometers away. We hear artillery shots somewhere on the outskirts of the city and wince involuntarily from the strong reverberations. The worries are over as soon as you enter the hotel. The sound does not go through the thick walls, so it is relatively comfortable to stay in it.

The hotel lobby is empty. Only the administrator is struggling to stay awake at the reception desk. We ask for free rooms and move in.  In the evening guests come in, mainly foreigners with name tags. They sit down on large couches, chat about life, some get an update on the news on their laptops. The towns of Shchastya and Stanytsia Luhanska are being shelled at the moment.  A pocket may soon appear near Debaltseve, a town in the adjacent Donetsk Oblast. The waitress brings beer. The guests from the EU stay there for an hour or two, pay the bill and disappear into the corridors.

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“OSCE mission? They stay at the hotel more often than they work,” Hennadiy Moskal, then Head of Luhansk Oblast State Administration, now transferred to the same position in Zakarpattia Oblast, used to lament. “Instead of going to the frontline, establishing violations and shelling, they spend days drinking and riding around the town in a taxi.”  

The next morning new people show up at the hotel restaurant. They, too, wear familiar name badges and carry laptops. The monitors sit down for breakfast, watch news, some type something in a Word document. They do not talk to strangers and smile to the waiters. The white OSCE car is still parked in the hotel yard. Once breakfast is over, foreign guests head to their rooms.

Even during the day the restaurant is not empty. In its cozy room several monitors sip their coffee and beer with cordon bleu-like cutlets and healthy vegetable salads. More people visit the restaurant in the evening. They come in with their laptops and sit at the table to discuss the day. Some type texts or reports, while others order room service.

Closer to midnight one can hear the engines of cars roaring. A taxi pulls into a parking lot and several foreigners, men and women aged around 30, get out of the taxi. A young lad starts singing some pop song under the moonlight. Self-propelled artillery systems are shooting on the background. While foreign observers head to the administrator to get the keys, the roar of the artillery grows.  

“OSCE? Observers?” an Aydar fighter Maestro laughs into the telephone. He is responsible for communication with the media in Shchastya. “No, they have not made it here. The shelling is so intense right now that a decision was taken to shut down town entrances and exits. This is the second day. But if you want, we can organize access and you can pass through the checkpoints. We can meet you, you can check out the damage. But this is at your own risk. The responsibility is on your shoulders.”

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Half a year ago the OSCE observers were not seen in the town of Shchastya, though it was presumed that they should have been there. Contrary to the agreements in Minsk, the separatists continued the war with Ukrainian armed forces. As a result, not only soldiers but civilians were dying. Over five days of our stay at the Myr hotel, we didn’t see the mission go into the field even once.  

In the summer of 2015 Myr has no vacant rooms. The administrator apologizes, says that all rooms are booked for the time being and recommends checking out other hotels. Just as half a year ago the white OSCE cars are parked outside. Two foreigners with sweets in plastic bags are walking towards the hotel. The two men enter the glass doors and disappear up the stairs. At around 9 p.m. observers traditionally gather on the couches in the restaurant and speak about life while slowly sipping on their red wine. A man orders cognac by the bar and speaks with the barman in accented Russian with the barman.

“The OSCE guys have started working. I saw their vehicles driving through our oblast,” a local taxi driver claims. “They’re not often in  Severodonetsk as they mainly drive through the area. Of course, they use our local taxis. But they also go to the frontline.”

 “Whatever you say, the OSCE works more effectively this summer,” says Ruslan Tkachuk, ATO spokesperson in Luhansk Oblast. “I believe this is due to rotation. They now have people with experience in conflict zones. I know a few of them. They have military schooling obtained in Great Britain. They are decisive and strong leaders that can consult their subordinates about how to behave on checkpoints and how to communicate with soldiers. The mission monitors are gradually establishing contacts with the military. The attitudes of soldiers towards the OSCE are gradually changing too. In the winter they could hardly stand OSCE monitors. Either they did not wave them through checkpoints or they simply stopped them. Now, dialog takes place and the military are giving the monitors their contacts.” 

“Who heads the mission group is of great importance. People who have seen reactive artillery and mortar shelling before react to small arms more calmly and are not afraid to work in such circumstances,” Ruslan says. “Then again, a lady comes from Paris, looks at us with her beautiful eyes, and we realize how distant she is from war. In general, the OSCE only sticks to its protocol. The monitors assume that all sides stick to it too. As a result, they sometimes get under shelling.”

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We arrive at Triokhizbenka. The familiar white jeeps are parked on the central square. Local residents are explaining something to two female monitors standing next to the jeeps.

“We have funny episodes. A feminist once came from Denmark to Ukraine to monitor the war. She does not understand the essence of the conflict and tries to convince people that the military actions are caused by gender inequality,” Ruslan smiles. Monitors set to return to the hotel. Close to the night shelling is more likely.  

“There was another story. OSCE Secretary visited us from Kyiv. The plans were to pay a visit to Triokhizbenka, but due to the military actions and the danger they decided to visit the more peaceful town of Shchastya, where they ended up under a line of fire. In Shchastya the OSCE representatives were to meet with their colleagues that were working on the territory controlled by the Luhansk National Republic. As a result, two groups of monitors registered the violations of the Minsk agreements by the separatists. Even Russia was forced to admit this fact,” Ruslan reported. Like OSCE monitors, we head to Severodonetsk.

“There are very few Russians among them. Most are British, Danes and French. There are also Ukrainians. Some of the foreigners speak quite good Russian,” a soldier named Roman adds.

“The monitors are currently facing certain problems. They want to monitor the so-called grey zones. At least they expressed such a desire. However, getting there is rather difficult and this is a dilemma for the military forces because if they let in observers and shelling starts, somebody will get hurt, and that’s the responsibility of the military. So, alternatives must be found. For example, there is the village Lobacheve. It is constantly under fire. I can go there to see how dangerous it is and what the local residents need. Then I return and tell the monitors everything I’ve seen,” Ruslan adds. 

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Monitors relaxing in the local restaurants are far more rare than half a year ago. Foreigners spend most of their free time at the hotel.

 “If you want to see OSCE monitors, check out the restaurant at Myr. That’s where they usually take a rest in the evenings. Not all of them are suddenly working as one. Get patient and you’ll run into some drunk observers riding around the town in a taxi. But that is getting more rare,” Roman concludes.


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