GENEVA (Reuters) - Ukraine’s flawed ceasefire has left pensioners, infants and women mired in a humanitarian crisis that could get rapidly better or rapidly worse, the U.N.’s top representative in the country said in an interview on Friday.
A Feb. 12 Minsk ceasefire agreement was “not really working”, with hundreds of shelling incidents every day, said Neal Walker, U.N. resident coordinator in Ukraine.
“Very clearly, you have a huge humanitarian risk if the conflict escalates,” Walker told Reuters. “We are ready if it happens. But at the same time, I would rather express some pragmatic optimism that the Minsk process will yield results. But if it doesn‘t, we have taken contingency measures.”
The violence has killed around 7,000 people, including 2,500 civilians, in the past year, and wounded 16,000. It has left 5 million people in need of humanitarian aid, driven 1.3 million from their homes, and created 800,000 refugees.
Ukraine’s defense minister said on Thursday Russia had moved forces into eastern Ukraine and there was a risk of fighting resuming in coming months.
The U.N. has received only 28 percent of the $316 million it needs for humanitarian aid this year. Full funding would help it reach further into non-government-controlled areas, where almost 2 million needy people are out of reach.
“This is a country, unlike many crisis countries, where there really is potential for people to pick up and continue with their lives,” Walker said. “The humanitarian situation could be addressed very quickly if we had a sustainable peace. But right now we need that humanitarian assistance.”
One in nine Ukrainians had been directly affected by the crisis - more than were affected by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in 1986, and most wanted nothing to do with the argument between separatists and the government in Kiev, Walker said.
“This country is in the middle of Europe. This is a country that has faced over the past year, quite frankly, tank battles that are reminiscent of World War Two.”
Walker said 60 percent of those who had fled their homes were pensioners, and many pensioners in non-government controlled areas were in dire straits.
“They don’t have access to cash, there’s no banking system, they’re not getting their salaries.”
There was anecdotal evidence of a rise in sexual exploitation and violence against women, and a worrying change in the pattern of HIV transmission, in a region with one of the highest rates of HIV/AIDS in the world.
“HIV transmission had traditionally been from one drug user to another,” Walker said. “Now there’s evidence that more than half the new cases, if not two-thirds, are heterosexual transmission, which means that the nature of the HIV crisis is going to change and could potentially explode.”
Reporting by Tom Miles; editing by Stephanie Nebehay, Larry King