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Caught in crossfire, Ukrainians prod their government for compensation

It was a loud day in Krasnohorivka on May 28. The Donetsk Oblast city of 15,000 people, 715 kilometers southeast of Kyiv, was shelled in a barrage that battered the hospital, a school and a local apartment building.

Olga Valeryevna, the owner of an apartment that took a direct hit during the shelling, had been living with a friend in a different building since the apartment lost running water.

After seeing photos of the bombardment on the internet, she headed over to the building. Where the third and fourth floor apartments once stood, there was now a gaping hole facing the Russian-occupied city of Donetsk to the east.

"If anybody had been inside, they would have been destroyed," Olga Valeryevna said. She did not give her last name, fearing retaliation from local authorities.

The apartment owner and Krasnohorivka native is now joining dozens of other Ukrainians in suing the government for compensation over homes, land and property damaged during the Russian-backed war in the Donbas.

With help from Right to Protection, a United Nations High Commission for Refugees-funded and Ukrainian-run group that provides legal support and advocacy on behalf of displaced people and others, Olga Valeryevna is part of a group moving to set a precedent under Ukrainian law that could see the government compensate people whose property has been damaged due to the war.

"In some cases, people in these situations can find other sources of housing," said Vladimir Oleksenko, Right to Protection's Mariupol regional director. "In other cases, these people become homeless."

Right to Protection has so far filed around Hr 11 million ($423,800) in claims over property damaged by the war.

The US Agency for International Development has supported similar litigation, funding the Ukraine Helsinki Human Rights Union in another effort to win compensation through the country's courts, while law firm ILF has done pro bono work in the European Court of Human Rights on the issue.

Not at war?

Ukrainian citizens, like those in Krasnohorivka, are legally entitled to compensation for property damaged during war. But the government often does not recognize that right, and fails to pay compensation.

"Even if a person wins in a domestic court, the country doesn't have the money to pay him," said Andriy Kristenko, an attorney at ILF law firm who works on compensation cases.

Ukraine could be forced to fulfill its obligation through a victory at the European Court of Human Rights - as the country is a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights, it is obligated to guarantee the protection of its citizens' property during war.

But Ukraine has not officially declared war against Russia or its proxy armies.

Rather, the country enacted terrorism laws in August 2014 that provided the legal basis for the officially declared anti-terrorism operation. Those laws also contain a provision stating that the Ukrainian government must compensate people for property damaged by the actions of terrorists.

And according to Darina Tolkach, advocacy coordinator at Right to Protection, the anti-terrorism laws only provide "motivation" to convince the court to rule in favor of compensation, but lack a concrete legal procedure for payouts.

"The basic problem for executing these decisions is that the government does not have a line in the budget allocating money for compensation," she said.

Tolkach described a clunky process for getting compensation. Since there is no money in the budget to provide for it, Donbas residents with damaged property effectively sell the rights to their bombed out homes to the government.

"The person with the destroyed land or destroyed house can no longer use the property, and the state provides compensation," Tolkach said.

Right to Protection has won two cases in lower courts that the government may appeal, out of a total of 11 filed in court.

"The idea is to take the cases to the final point and identify the gaps in the execution of the decisions," Tolkach said. "If it's not possible to execute, then we will appeal to the European Court of Human Rights."


Iryna Grigorievna, another Krasnohorivka resident working with Right to Protection, has had her home shelled twice since the war began - once in 2014, and once in 2016.

"During the second hit, everything I had burned away," she said.

As her son lives in Krasnohorivka and her grandchild attends school in the town, she explained, there's little desire to leave.

"We aren't planning to go anywhere," she said.

She is now filing paperwork to collect compensation for the damage. Since the appraisal has not yet been completed, it's not clear how much she stands to gain in compensation. But with four years until she can collect her pension, any help is sorely needed.

Tolkach said that it can take up to eight months to prepare this kind of claim for court. And with a statute of limitations of three years on these kinds of damage claims, that puts the onus on local residents to beat the clock.

"What is needed is a strategy and a very coherent and clear and concrete procedure," Tolkach said.

Should the European Court rule in favor of the Donbas residents, Ukraine will have to find a way to pay compensation to people who live in the Donbas's bombarded cities. The country could sue Russia for backing the separatists and receive its own compensation that way.

But that process could take years. For people like Olga Valeryevna, the apartment owner, the reality of shelling means that help cannot come fast enough.

"Apart from this, I have nothing," she said, pointing to the destroyed apartment.

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that the government has not yet appealed Right to Protection's two court victories in compensation cases.

______________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________(c) 2017 HRWF

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