In the Ukrainian city of Irpin – which successfully resisted the Russian invasion in February and March of 2022 – children play alongside huge piles of pallets and tree trunks. Whenever they have a free moment, their parents chop up the wood, so that it can eventually be used as fuel in the wintertime.
Residents plan on using the same shelters that have protected them from Russian bombardments as places to stay warm in the coldest months. Mayor Oleksandr Markushin tells EL PAÍS that, despite the state aid they receive, they do not have enough funds to face the toughest months of the year.
“The most urgent thing now is to fix roofs and windows,” he says, “not to mention the generators.”
Across the city, shrapnel and bullet holes mark the buildings’ facades. The impact of Russian attacks on the city’s energy infrastructure is still apparent – several workers, with the help of a crane, are scrambling to patch up holes left by projectiles, so as to blunt the impact of cold temperatures on the inhabitants.
Russian forces have been battering Ukraine continuously for the past eight months. Tactical strikes have been deployed by the Kremlin to leave civilians without electricity, water and gas. The government in Kyiv estimates that nearly 40% of all energy infrastructure has been damaged – power cuts and rationing are a daily occurrence. In the most recent power cut, nearly 4.5 million residences across Ukraine were left in the dark.
Valentina Bratkevich – a resident and administrator in the community – recently bought a boiler, which she’s since installed in her basement. The 45-year-old army reservist and mother of four used this space to shelter her family during the worst Russian assaults. Now, she’s renovating it, so that it can withstand the harsh temperatures of winter. Salvaged furniture has been crammed into the basement’s common area – she and her family plan on spending a lot of time here in the coming months.
In Irpin, 320 buildings and over 1,000 houses need doors and windows to be replaced, according to information provided by the city council. In some cases, repairs must also be carried out on roofs, boiler rooms, water-pumping facilities and unstable foundations. The authorities are urgently demanding generators to help them deal with blackouts and supply cuts in hospitals, schools and temporary accommodations for populations who are displaced or have been left homeless.
“We’ve already inaugurated a modular city… we’re going to open another one, so that people can spend the winter,” the mayor explains. At one point, several months ago, only 5% of Irpin’s 100,000 residents were living in the city – most had been evacuated. Today, however, 82% of the population has returned, making the need for appropriate housing even greater.
Across the city, the work of clearing debris continues. Several members of a recycling company load a truck and a van with all the damaged metal they can gather: there are broken heaters, bed bases, windows, roof sheets, pipes, appliances and ironing boards.
Jana Ischenko, 50, is the community accountant. She closely follows the process, while taking notes in front of the scale. She’s in charge of managing the sale of all of this scrap metal: residents get about 3 cents per pound.
An unnamed 30-year-old who witnesses the scene comments proudly upon seeing the neighborhood’s level of organization. People care more about moving forward, rather than complaining about the conditions or protesting against the central government.
“This level of organization and solidarity comes from before the war,” Valentina Bratkevich clarifies, referencing the difficult days of the Soviet era, when shortages and power cuts were common. But, despite everything, the residents of Irpin are frustrated that more government aid has not arrived from Kyiv.
The mayor is confident that, within two weeks, the city will receive aid from UNITED24, a fundraising initiative started by President Zelenskiy, which has attracted famous donors, such as Barbra Streisand, Sean Penn and Ben Stiller.
In the meantime, locals have been dipping into their own pockets to support each other. In one damaged building, for example, 70% of the 93 owners have each contributed the equivalent of 600 dollars to a common fund that will pay to repair the structure. Those who are not in a position to pay have not been forced to contribute, although they will benefit from the winter-proofing.
In any case, Mayor Markushin is aware that the reconstruction of his city will not be complete before the sub-zero months. Faced with this bleak outlook, he never tires of calling for help, whether it comes from inside or outside of Ukraine.