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War in Ukraine: The battle to survive sub-zero temperatures

Russian attacks on the country’s power grid have left six million people without electricity. With a ‘life-threatening’ winter fast approaching, many are concerned about how they will get through the bleak cold months

A group of people collect humanitarian aid in the town of Kupiansk (Kharkiv) on November 18.
A group of people collect humanitarian aid in the town of Kupiansk (Kharkiv) on November 18.Luis de Vega

Nikol Goldman, 18, does not want to be photographed because she has not showered for two days: “My hair is dirty, I would not look good.” In Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, the temperature is already below zero degrees Celsius. Her apartment has not had water or electricity in three days, since Russia attacked Ukraine’s energy grid on November 23. This was far from the first attack. Since October, the Kremlin’s troops have been targeting the country’s power grid. Half of the country’s electrical system has now been destroyed. On Friday, six million people were without electricity, according to Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy. Without electricity, the water pumping stations cannot operate; neither can the systems that burn gas or heat water for city stoves. Goldman is concerned about how she looks, but she is aware that she and the rest of Ukraine is facing a much more serious problem: surviving the winter.

Goldman doesn’t want to think about the coming months because she fears they will be very difficult. Despite this, she has no intention of leaving her country. “I love my country too much to leave it right now, at the moment of truth,” she says. For the 18-year-old, the moment of truth is winter, which Ukraine must face after Russia’s months-long offensive.

“Last January, the temperature was around -20°C [-41ºF]. Imagine that without electricity or heating,” says Goldman, who put off studying at university to help support her family. She works in Zhytomyr, a provincial capital with a strong industry sector two hours from Kyiv. It too is suffering from the Russian offensive. The city’s electrical substations have been attacked three times since October 10. “Our companies are facing many difficulties, and without jobs, there is no future,” says Sergi Sukhomlin, the mayor of the city.

Graffiti in support of love, peace and victory in the town of Kupiansk (Kharkiv).
Graffiti in support of love, peace and victory in the town of Kupiansk (Kharkiv).Luis de Vega

Last week, recalls Sukhomlin, activity in the industrial parks came to an almost complete halt due to the lack of electricity and water. “The factories have found an alternative, which is to double the night shifts, because that is when there is less pressure on the network,” he says. This is confirmed by Yuri, an employee of a metallurgical plant in Zhytomyr. “We are working more at night, but we are losing many days of production because either there is no electricity or the air raid alarms are active for hours and the plant ends up closing that day,” says the 58-year-old, who lives in the nearby village of Kalynivka.

Despite the circumstances, Yuri is doing better than most as he does not have the same limitations as people in the city. “Living in a village is definitely better, first for security: the Russians will not spend their missiles in a place where there is nothing strategic,” he says. “It’s better because I have wood stoves, and I have the forest in front of my house [for wood], I also have a well, so we don’t lack water, and I have animals and an orchard to make preserves.”

The residents of Kalinivka can install generators in their houses, as well as solar panels, which is more difficult to do in an urban apartment building. Sukhomlin says that the priority for Zhytomyr – and for the rest of the Ukrainian cities – is to secure generators and diesel. He is hoping to receive 5 megawatt generators, which are the best that can be quickly manufactured. “These generators can provide light for one hour to 2,500 apartments. But it is not possible to have them running for a long time, every hour they consume 1,500 liters of diesel, but it is better than nothing,” he says.

Winter shelters

Under a near-dilapidated building, a resident of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, walks without haste with an empty five-liter jug of water in his hand. The bottle, dented, beaten and illuminated by the backlight, dangles in his left hand to the rhythm of his steps. The man, in his 60s, is not heading to any fountain. A few meters further on, he goes inside a military green tent. He sits on a bench and, between little grumbles, begins to sip tea served to him in a plastic cup. The next thing he does is enter the Wi-Fi code that’s on a piece of paper on the table. This allows him to connect his cellphone to the internet, which is enabled by Elon Musk’s Starlink network. Thanks to the satellite internet, there is not a total communication blackout in Ukraine.

A television screen displays footage of the war, the issue that has consumed all else since the Russian invasion. During their sandwich break, two workers look for seats in front of the TV set. Two new generators glow on the ground. There are chairs, tables, armchairs and even a lounger. Behind the man in his 60s, there is a simple sideboard with plugs, extension cords and a microwave among other items. Two wood stoves heat the room and make it almost a tropical paradise compared to the sub-zero temperatures outside.

Tatiana, 72, in front of the shelter set up in Saltivka.
Tatiana, 72, in front of the shelter set up in Saltivka.Luis de Vega

The tent is located in the Saltivka neighborhood, one of the places hardest hit by the Russian army in the city of Kharkiv. It is part of a shelter network aimed at defending the population from the rigors of winter. More than 4,300 points are part of the network. They will be open 24 hours a day whenever there are prolonged power cuts and, in addition to heat and lighting, they will provide support, company and information necessary for citizens’ everyday survival.

The initiative, however, has not been without some controversy. Zelenskiy has acknowledged that there are “many complaints” about the support network in Kyiv. The comment was a clear slap on the wrist for the mayor of the capital, Vitali Klitschko. The cold and energy problems in Kyiv are not only an issue for residents in the city, they are also bad for Ukraine’s overall image, which could undermine the morale of the population across the country. The president accused Klitschko of not doing enough to ensure the shelters are working, but the Emergency Services and central rail service were spared his criticism. “The people of Kyiv deserve better care,” he snapped.

In the Kharkiv region alone, there are almost 300 shelters, of which a dozen, like the military tent, are mobile, according to data provided by the governor, Oleh Synyehubov. They are located in rural and urban areas; in fire stations, schools, official buildings… “If the situation worsens with the attacks and we have more blackouts, more places like this will have to be opened. I am sure that more will be needed,” said Evgeni Ivanov, the Kharkiv regional deputy governor, during a visit to the Saltivka shelter.

Houses destroyed by the war in the Saltivka neighborhood (Kharkiv).
Houses destroyed by the war in the Saltivka neighborhood (Kharkiv).Luis de Vega

The Saltivka neighborhood is a wasteland. Most of the buildings are badly damaged, and the streets, parks and gardens are a human desert where loneliness reigns supreme. In these deserted streets, there is only rubble of war and the occasional dog. In front of the winter shelter, a group of workers is busy cleaning up one of the buildings. But for Tatiana, 72, it is an empty act, a way for the authorities to appear like they are doing something, without actually repairing the damage in the neighborhood. “Where is the person in charge of this? How can they treat people like this?” the woman asks indignantly, when she sees authorities moving inside the military tent.

Tatiana escaped from Saltivka on February 24, the day the Russian invasion began, and only returned “to this nightmare” recently, when she ran out of savings. “I’m going to show you what conditions I’m living in,” says Tatiana, who has no interest in what’s inside the shelter. Instead she shows the damage to her granddaughter’s apartment, which was hit by Russian attacks and is now uninhabitable. Before the neighborhood was hit, her granddaughter, a flight attendant, had renovated the place.

Exodus to rural areas

The mayor of Zhytomyr, Sukhomlin, does not beat around the bush when talking to EL PAÍS: “The situation will probably lead to a new wave of refugees moving towards rural areas, where resources are more guaranteed, and towards the European Union.” “I have a responsibility to be here,” says Sukhomlin. “But if I had the opportunity to go live in a small town, where at least I have firewood and a well, I would.”

Around 240,000 people live in Zhytomyr and of this number, some 20,000 are Ukrainians who arrived after fleeing from areas hit by the fighting. This is the most vulnerable group because they fled their homes with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Across Ukraine, seven million people are displaced because of the war. In recent weeks, the number of distribution points for warm clothing, as well as food, has risen dramatically. In Zhytomyr, for example, the NGO Caritas has set up a spot to provide hot meals for 500 people.

A child at a distribution spot for humanitarian aid in the town of Kupiansk (Kharkiv).
A child at a distribution spot for humanitarian aid in the town of Kupiansk (Kharkiv).Luis de Vega

Anatoli Samusha is a regular at the Caritas dining room. He and his family have rented a house on the outskirts of Zhytomyr, primarily because it has its own well. But on Friday, it had been without electricity for more than 24 hours. Samusha is hardened to this type of inclement weather. He arrived in Zhytomyr when his hometown Marinka, in Donetsk region, became ground zero of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. “Since 2014 [when the war between Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas broke out] I have been used to living without essential supplies,” says Samusha. “For those here, it is something new, they are less prepared, for example, there is a shortage of generators that we did not have.” Samusha’s house has a gas tank for heating and cooking, but his family does not have money for diesel.

The difficulties affecting every home in Ukraine are also affecting key institutions, such as hospitals. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are hundreds of health centers in Ukraine that cannot work in safe conditions. One such center is Zhytomyr Regional Hospital, which was partially destroyed by Russian strikes in March. Around 300 windows were smashed. At the entrance, new windows lie waiting to be installed. The head of the hospital, Vladislav Dubchak, says they are also waiting for two more generators, as the ones they currently have are only used in the operation rooms and intensive care unit. According to Dubchak, the worst day for the hospital was October 10, when Russia began its offensive against Ukraine’s power grid. That day, the hospital had no electricity for seven hours, and patients who were not considered serious were prepared to be sent home due to the plummeting temperatures.

In a recent statement, the WHO warned that “winter will be life-threatening for millions of people in Ukraine.” Anatoli Torianik, deputy head of the Kharkiv Emergency Services, knows this well. “This tent represents the Saltivka fortress in Kharkiv, a heroic city,” he says, speaking from the shelter point in Saltivka.

A man drinks tea and connects to the internet at a shelter in Saltivka, which is one of the more than 4,200 points that have been set up across the country.
A man drinks tea and connects to the internet at a shelter in Saltivka, which is one of the more than 4,200 points that have been set up across the country.Luis de Vega

Outside the shelter, the cold and the snow are a sharp reminder of the looming fight for survival. Tatiana, 65, Ludmila, 79, and Liuvob, 63, are rummaging through a mountain of clothing and footwear left by a humanitarian organization, although they regret that they have arrived a little late and there is not much that they consider useful. Next to them is Sergi, 44, a neighbor who works as a volunteer. He is waiting for a vehicle to arrive to organize the distribution of food rations. He explains that they are going to set up a shelter in a basement to provide food and support over winter; it is already equipped with sleeping bags donated by Slovakia. “I have no way of getting warm. It is even colder in my apartment than outside,” says Sergi Volodimir, 58, who sells metal he finds for small amounts of money, and is wandering around the area. He lives with his three brothers in a house with no windows and broken doors. They try to keep warm as they can with a wood stove.

As the morning proceeds, calm and peace reign in the deserted streets of Saltivka, where there is no longer the sound of constant blasts from Russian missiles. The war now is to survive the fast-approaching winter. Tatiana, now calmer, recognizes that the Soviet-style blocks in which they live would be in much worse condition if the firefighters had not risked their lives among the bombs. And she goes back on her earlier criticism: “I think Ukraine is full of heroes.”

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