On February 24th, Russia sent troops across the Ukrainian border under the pretext that it was “de-Nazifying” and “demilitarizing” Ukraine, citing human rights violations and oppressive acts committed against ethnically Russian citizens. Since then, millions of Ukrainians have sought refuge in neighbouring European countries in what has become one of Europe’s largest refugee crises in decades. According to the Counter Trafficking Network, upwards of 11 million Ukrainians were displaced from their homes by the beginning of May, with 5 million seeking refugee status abroad and 6 million displaced within Ukraine. However, as many seek protection from war, more are simply unable to leave. Save the Children estimates that almost half of Ukrainian refugees are children and a significant portion of the rest are women, as military conscription prohibits most adult men from leaving. A worrying number of elderly refugees are similarly unable to leave. Consequently, these people have been subjected to the devastating effects of warfare and human rights violations, particularly in the eastern Donbas region.
Ukraine has the world’s highest proportion of elderly affected by war. Unfortunately, people in this age category are particularly vulnerable in times of conflict and often suffer the very worst effects. On March 17th, Westminster welcomed Lesia Vasylenko, Alona Shkrum, Maria Mezentseva, and Olena Khomenko, four Ukrainian MP’s who reported extreme cases of sexual abuse against Ukraine’s most vulnerable citizens, including elderly ones. Many of these women were later executed or took their own lives.
Human Rights Watch has documented numerous accounts of laws-of-war violations, including not just cases of rape but also execution, looting, and violent threats against civilians. Vladimir Lignov, a 71-year-old former train conductor, briefly stood outside to smoke when a Russian shell hit his hometown, resulting in the loss of a limb which he says he can still feel. Erika Haltschiy, an 80-year-old woman, was unable to flee west to seek refuge in neighbouring countries due to her dementia. These and other elderly Ukrainians have been left in appalling positions amidst the ongoing war.
It is imperative that Russia condemn these acts of abuse and breaches of international law. Modern warfare results in disproportionately more civilian casualties than military casualties, and society’s most vulnerable are often those who suffer most as a result. Russia must commit to the introduction and maintenance of humanitarian corridors to allow these vulnerable citizens to be reached and extracted safely. All parties involved in the conflict must co-operate on and facilitate the safe removal of the elderly and vulnerable from their homes, so as to avoid any further civilian deaths and circumvent any potential further cases of abuse.
We must not forget that there are many facing the truly dire consequences of international war. Every attempt must be made to keep Ukraine’s elderly from further suffering.
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