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In the village of Ivanivka, the conflict has left lasting psychological scars and is weighing heavily on the inhabitants’ livelihoods.
Action contre la Faim is one of the few organizations delivering humanitarian aid to this isolated rural area. Every month, our teams provide unconditional financial aid and mental health and psychosocial support sessions to around 250 people.
To get to the village of Ivanivka, in the Kharkiv oblast, you have to take the road through Izioum, a martyred town occupied for almost seven months¹ by Russian forces and made infamous by the discovery of several mass graves.
Remnants of the counter-offensive in the region, several burnt-out tanks have been abandoned on the side of country roads. Missiles continue to litter the ground, and numerous white strips indicate the presence of explosive remnants of war, which have brought agricultural production to a halt and pose an immediate threat to the population, notably to children. According to the Ukrainian authorities, one third of Ukrainian territory, some 170,000 square kilometers, is covered with explosive remnants of war. Removing these residues will take decades and a colossal financial investment.
For months, the village of Ivanivka was only a few dozen kilometers from the front line. Many homes were destroyed and several people killed by indiscriminate strikes. Most of the inhabitants were forced to move to the interior of the country, particularly to the west, but many returned during a period of relative lull, during summer 2023.
Action contre la Faim is one of the few organizations to intervene in Ivanivka, through three-month unconditional financial assistance programs and collective psychological and psychosocial support sessions. Every month, around 250 people benefit from this essential support.
The war is still taking a heavy toll on the people of Ivanivka. The continuation of hostilities destroyed infrastructures and private homes, and community members, the majority of whom are unemployed, find themselves in extremely precarious situations.
Damage to storage facilities and the presence of explosive remnants of war are hampering the resumption of farming activities. Like Valentyna Balan, a beneficiary of the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) and Food Security and Livelihoods (SAME) programs, and her husband, many families and small-scale producers find themselves at an impasse. “Before the war, my husband worked the land and I helped him. But now we have no work because all the land is mined“, she laments. Valentyna and her husband now depend on aid to access essential goods and services.
« A few days ago, a farmer picked up a cluster mine while he was cultivating the land », confirms Volodymyr Nesterov, a displaced person from Kramatorsk and beneficiary of food security and livelihood programs (SAME). “He called the emergency services, who then blew up the mine. He was extremely lucky because the mine didn’t explode. If it had, he would no longer be alive.”
By putting an end to the livelihoods of many small-scale farmers, mines and other explosive remnants of war deplete the resilience of communities and contribute to increasing food insecurity in Europe’s breadbasket.
Unconditional financial aid covers some of the basic needs of households, including food, medicine and housing. In this region, where winters are particularly harsh, some of Ivanivka’s residents are using part of their unconditional financial aid to repair the damaged windows and roofs of their homes. “Our house is badly damaged because of a bomb that fell in our yard. Everything was destroyed. We simply covered the windows with plywood. It was very cold. I don’t know how we survived the winter” explains Valentyna Balan.
“It’s thanks to your organization that we have some financial support. My husband used to work at the school, but it’s closed now. I don’t work either. My parents are old and they need medicine,” adds Nadiya Sortkova, Valentyna’s neighbor and beneficiary of the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) and Food Security and Livelihoods (SAME) programs.
As a result of the conflict, many people are exposed to various forms of mental disorder, as are 10 million Ukrainians, a quarter of the population according to the World Health Organization (WHO). For some, the severity of the trauma requires regular and lasting therapy sessions.
Just a few yards from her home, Valentyna Balan witnessed a traumatic event that left her deeply wounded. “Not far from our yard, a 12-year-old boy was blown to pieces by a bomb, and it was very difficult to live through. The fact that psychologists come to see us here is very useful, because going through all that is very difficult,” she sighs.
“The fact that the children and grandchildren are still here makes you worry about them all the time. You also worry about yourself and your parents, who are already so old and need help. It helps to share our pain during these sessions,” continues Nadiya Sortkova.
Mental health and psychosocial support sessions gather up to 15 people. They are run jointly by a psychologist and a psychosocial worker in a room lent by the muncicipality. This emotional stabilization activity aims to improve patients’ condition immediately, bringing them comfort and relief. « We teach them simple techniques so that they can relax, get rid of negative emotions and help themselves, » explains Yulia Dikalova, Head of the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) programs in Kharkiv oblast.
Nadia Dubinskaya, the village librarian, decided to attend these sessions because of the war, but also to overcome the mourning of her father. « These sessions helped me and I feel better now. Olga (editor’s note: the psychologist) helped me with her resources. It helped me to relax and get away from the psychological trauma, she confides. I recommend it to everyone, because our village has been through war. Some people are scared by the slightest everyday noise. The sound of a gate opening or a car driving by. There’s a latent fear. »
As soon as the conflict escalated, all of Action contre la Faim’s intervention programs were based on the principle of localization², supporting actions carried out by Ukrainian local organizations.
In the Kharkiv oblast, Action contre la Faim implements food security and livelihood activities through hot meal distributions and unconditional financial aid with local organizations. ACF is also active in the health sector, supporting primary healthcare centers and implementing psychological and psychosocial support programs. The final area of intervention involves facilitating access to water, hygiene and sanitation by supporting the work of Vodokanals, Ukraine’s water management agency, and distributing hygiene kits to people affected by the conflict.
« There is a growing need for humanitarian assistance in the Kharkiv region, » insists Marie Lamothe, Action contre la Faim’s field coordinator in Kharkiv. « The region has the highest concentration of internally displaced people in the country, with over 600,000 displaced persons. This high concentration of displaced people requires an integrated approach across all intervention sectors, to ensure that we maximize the impact of the programs ».
20 months after the escalation of the conflict, the delivery of humanitarian aid to areas close to the Russian Federation and the front line remains a great challenge for humanitarian organizations. According to OCHA, only 4% of humanitarian aid is delivered to areas close to the front line. “In Kharkiv, for example, we can be reached by an artillery strike in less than 45 seconds, which means we have to operate in a highly unpredictable environment,” explains Marie Lamothe.
The stabilization of the front line despite the Ukrainian counter-offensive, together with new waves of conscription in Ukraine, Russia and the annexed Ukrainian territories, raises the spectre of a long war.
Moreover, as in the winter of 2022, the onset of winter raises fears of intensified strikes on energy infrastructures, which might lead to a dramatic increase in humanitarian needs and new mass population displacements.
Action contre la Faim worked in Ukraine from 2014 to 2018. Operations started again in February 2022. Today, ACF’s coordination is based in Kyiv and activities focus on two distinct areas:
Action contre la Faim intends to extend its intervention to the south of the country, to the Odessa and Mykolaiv regions, giving priority to the distribution of food and basic necessities.
From February to December 2022, Action contre la Faim helped 480,716 people in the following areas:
 Izioum was occupied by Russian forces from March to the end of September 2022. The village of Ivanivka is located some fifty kilometers from Izioum.
 Localization consists of increasing international investment and respect for the role of local actors, with the aim of increasing the scope, effectiveness and accountability of humanitarian action.