Czech NGO denied access to eastern Ukraine


Czech humanitarian organisation People in Need has been stripped of its accreditation to work in the so-called Donetsk People's Republic, an area of eastern Ukraine presently under the control of Kremlin-backed pro-Russian separatists. People in Need – or Člověk v tísni – has been working in the war-torn area since 2014, distributing tonnes of food as well as assisting with health, hygiene and other matters related to day-to-day survival. No reason has been given for the accreditation withdrawal, says the NGO. Šimon Pánek is the director of People in Need. I began by asking him if he had any indication of why the accreditation had been cancelled:

Šimon Pánek, photo: Šárka ŠevčíkováŠimon Pánek, photo: Šárka Ševčíková “We didn’t get any official explanation. The cancelling letter is very short – just five or six sentences saying shut down your operations and leave. There are also some words saying that we don’t have good relations with the population or whatever. But until we get a more official communique it is difficult to react to that. But that is not so important to us. What is important is to have a chance to negotiate somehow, because we care about the people there. When you work with people in a conflict area it is not so surprising that you can sometimes face problems.”

How exactly does your organisation go about negotiating its presence in eastern Ukraine? Do you negotiate with the separatists and the Ukrainian government?

“We’ve been working in eastern Ukraine since the late summer of 2014. So that is more than two years. Our mission in Ukraine involves maintaining relations with all possible authorities, both in Kiev, the regions, and with both side in eastern Ukraine. And we continually negotiate with regards to humanitarian access – that is a normal part of this job in conflict zones.”

I understand this isn’t the first time you have experienced difficulties dealing with the local separatists.

“Yes, access to the non-government controlled areas is particularly difficult because they introduced a new system of accreditation about a year ago. At the time that caused all NGOs to have to stop work and then only a few NGOs were granted accreditation to continue their work after summer 2015. And we were one of them.”

Photo: Roman Lunin / People in NeedPhoto: Roman Lunin / People in Need You are working in the Donensk and Luhansk areas of eastern Ukraine, which are both under the control of pro-Russian separatists. So what exactly is your work in these areas, and are you able to continue in Luhansk?

“The humanitarian imperative says clearly that aid should follow needs and help vulnerable people. And that is not about who is controlling territory militarily or politically. So we are working with both sides all the time. It’s mainly basic humanitarian assistance, so food and hygienic items. Also limited self-driven restoration of houses or flats on both sides again – meaning windows, doors, bricks and cement. To fix your house if it is shelled. You need to somehow be able to survive the winter.”