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DONETSK, Ukraine — Red tape is preventing war-weary civilians from fleeing relentless shelling in this rebel stronghold.
The Ukrainian government recently introduced new rules forcing anyone who wants to travel to or from regions held by pro-Russian separatists to apply for permission. Those seeking to leave or enter conflict-affected areas must provide documents such as passports and evidence showing why they need to travel through the checkpoints. The process can take up to 10 days — leaving people trapped and in limbo in places like rebel-held Donetsk.
The U.N. has warned that the security clearance procedures are making it difficult to get essential aid like medicine into war-torn areas of eastern Ukraine.
And as banks are closed and credit cards and ATMs do not work in Donetsk, locals have no choice but to travel outside of the rebel-held area simply to get cash.
Eugene, a 25-year-old economist, was recently turned back because of the new paperwork requirements.
“Last time I was at the checkpoint, the Ukrainians asked me to leave the bus and said, ‘OK, you don’t have any permission, you [have to] go back,’” said Eugene, who didn't want his surname used for fear of reprisals. “We used to cross this border normally.”
Paperwork and money issues have prevented Eugene from taking his wife and young child away from Donetsk.
"Deep in my heart I don't want to leave this place… but looks like the situation will get worse," he said.
More than 5,000 people have been killed since the conflict began in mid-April between Kiev's forces and Moscow-backed separatists who want to create a new state called "New Russia" out of rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine.
It is not just locals who are affected by the regulations.
Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees warned that the new Ukrainian government regulations were "undermining humanitarian agencies' ability to help people in need, creating the conditions for a major humanitarian crisis.”
"UNHCR is concerned that the plight of people living in non-government-controlled areas is worsening by the day," spokesperson Karin de Gruijl told reporters.
Civilians were already put under pressure when Ukraine announced in November it would stop funding state institutions and would not give benefits and pensions to people living in the rebel-held areas. Locals say they have not received such payments for over five months.
The new rules essentially mean some people who don't live in rebel-held areas have found themselves forced to stay in Donetsk or other cities caught in the middle of the conflict.
University student Nastya, 23, lives in a government-controlled town but studies in Donetsk. She visited the city to take an exam. To return home, she has applied for permission but it may take up to 10 days to get an answer.
“Quite possibly… they'll not even give me a pass,” she said, declining to give her surname for fear of reprisals. Nastya added that it's unclear who decides whether she will get permission to leave.
“[It] depends on what kind of people [are] at the checkpoint. They can easily take me off the bus and say, ‘Go back to Donetsk.’”
The timing is particularly bad as the fighting has drastically escalated in recent weeks.
On Thursday, Ukraine's military told Reuters that pro-Russia separatists had shelled army positions in more than 100 separate attacks in the past day, describing the situation across the conflict zone as "tense."
On the other side, the rebels said Ukrainian forces had attacked their positions near Donetsk airport and Debaltseve 10 times since Wednesday, separatist-run DAN news agency reported.
Checkpoints on the outskirts of Donetsk have often been closed because the roads are too dangerous, meaning many people have slept overnight in cars or buses.
Vitaly, 21, says his pregnant girlfriend recently ended up getting forced to sleep at a station.
On Thursday, he was at Donetsk’s bus station after trying to visit his home village. Vitaly was turned back because of the new rules.
“It was all very sickening. I lived all my life in Ukraine and now I cannot get to my own home,” he said.
Reuters contributed to this report.