oDR: Feature

Ukrainians on the front line face a winter without warmth or light

Zaporizhzhia, a once 700,000-strong city 40km from Russia’s front lines, remain defiant – but life is hard

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Kateryna Semchuk
1 December 2022, 12.37pm
While many city residents have left Zaporizhzhia, for displaced persons, it's often their first destination
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Image: Kateryna Semchuk

A group of middle-aged and elderly people stand in a chaotic line outside a bank in the centre of Zaporizhzhia on a Saturday morning. As they wait at the door, some start wondering out loud if the bank staff have evacuated – and if life will get even harder for residents as a result. It’s hard to get even basic financial tasks done between the blackouts and air raid warnings that measure time nowadays in Ukraine. A passerby informs the queue that the bank no longer opens on Saturdays, but people don’t disperse, as if frozen in their discomfort and hardship of life near the front.

Russia has seized roughly 60% of territory in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia region in the south-east of the country – and it borders the Donetsk and Kherson regions, where active fighting is taking place. The front line is 40km away from the city, which serves as the sole arrival point for Ukrainians leaving occupied territories in the east and south of the country. Indeed, since February, hundreds of thousands of people have crossed through the city to territory under Ukrainian control.

As the tenth month of war approaches, it’s as if people have adapted to the reality of living in a frontline city

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Ukrainian cities, particularly those close to the eastern frontline, are at risk of spending the coming winter without electricity, water or heating. Russia is targeting critical infrastructure with mass rocket attacks, while settlements closer to the front line are under constant destruction. In Zaporizhzhia, the local authorities have so far managed to keep the electricity and heat supply largely online, despite the city’s proximity to the front line, but cities such as Kyiv have been hit hard, and left without electricity and even water.

On the weekend morning, the centre of Zaporizhzhia feels lively. People wander the streets going about their business, shops are open and cafes offer fresh baked goods and coffee. No one seeks shelter when the air raid sirens go off.

As the tenth month of war approaches, it’s as if people have adapted to the reality of living in a frontline city. Yet the everyday business of survival can easily be mistaken for calm.

Winters in Zaporizhzhia are hard, as the Dnipro river brings a strong, freezing wind. Oleksandr Starukh, the head of Zaporizhzhia regional administration, has urged residents of the region to stock up on firewood and pellets, as “this year’s winter will be very difficult”.

On the edge

“If there will be no electricity or gas this winter, I don’t know what I will do. I will put up a tent on the couch with a candle and I will live in it,” jokes Halyna Synitsyna, 57, as she sells flowers on the street in the city’s Komunarskyi district.

More seriously, she adds: “I have prepared firewood and a fire to cook outside.”

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Flower seller Halyna Synitsyna

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Image: Kateryna Semchuk

Synitsyna tells me she has been selling flowers since the 1990s, when she lost her job at the city’s parks department, and says that business these days isn’t good.

She grows her plants at her dacha (seasonal second home) in the suburban village of Osetrivka, south of the city. Despite hearing the sound of the shelling not far away and the fact that Zaporizhzhia suburbs get hit frequently, Synitsyna visits her dacha every three days to do gardening and pick flowers for sale. She says that, if not for the flowers, her family would have “died out long ago”. That day, Synitsyna says, she sold three bouquets – and was able to buy herself shoe polish and biscuits. Apart from her minimal monthly pension of 2,000 hryvnias (£45), the money she makes from selling blooms makes up all of her income nowadays.

“One can endure cold and hunger, but when things fly over your head, that is unbearable”

Synitsyna, like everyone struggling economically in Ukraine’s war-ravaged economy, has no means to better prepare for the sub-zero temperatures and lack of basic amenities to keep warm, dry and nourished. Around the city, people ask whether it makes sense to use sources of heat that depend on electricity, like portable heaters, if Russia continues to hit infrastructure sites.

Things fly over your head

One option for some Zaporizhzhia residents is to move to their dachas, where they have boilers or older stoves. But most of the dachas are located to the south of Zaporizhzhia, closer to the front line with Russian forces. Many are determined to stay for the winter in the city.

“One can endure cold and hunger, but when things fly over your head, that is unbearable,” an elderly woman tells me, as she collects a box of humanitarian aid at a cultural centre. She plans to evacuate only if the war comes too close to the city.

Artur Molodyk, who I meet while he waits by the river for a regular fishing outing with his friends, tells me he plans to move to his parents’ house “if it gets bad”.

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Artur Molodyk, who looks after his children while his wife works at the hospital

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Image: Kateryna Semchuk

Artur, 30, lives near the Dnipro hydroelectric station in the north of the city. As this is one of the largest power stations on the river, it’s a primary target for Russia – it was hit on 31 October.

Molodyk has two children, aged ten and four. Right now, he stays with them at home while his wife works shifts at the hospital. He used to work at a furniture factory, but was asked to take unpaid holiday after the invasion. Since the start of full-scale invasion, many medium and large-size companies have sent their employees on unpaid holiday indefinitely, rather than firing them.

“I guess I will have to look for a job,” he shrugs.

Molodyk doesn’t seem worried or preoccupied with the possibility of a cold winter. Zaporizhzhians have a feeling that they will get through the winter just as they have got through the war so far. For the times when the city faces problems with heat and power, there are 14 refuge posts organised by the local authorities, where people can get electricity and warmth.

“What’s good is that people have become nicer since the start of the war”

Indeed, 4,000 such temporary shelters were announced by president Volodymyr Zelenskyi’s office to much fanfare at the end of November. Though Zaporizhzhia is constantly affected by shelling and rockets, residents are, by and large, not currently facing the blackouts and lack of heating that others are in the rest of the country. One shelter I visit has no one in it apart from staff.

“Instead of doing what we are assigned to do, we have to prepare tea and charge phones,” a group of firefighters and rescue personnel from Ukraine’s State Emergency Service complains as they man the tent. They claim their superiors pressured them to organise the shelter, though they agree the tents “are necessary, no doubt”. (openDemocracy approached the State Emergency Service for comment, but did not receive a response.)

“Some other departments should be running these tents, or volunteer groups,” the group says, complaining that only two out of three fire engines in the city are able to respond to Russian rocket strikes at the moment due to personnel shortages.

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Soviet-era apartment blocks damaged by Russian rockets in downtown Zaporizhzhia

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Image: Kateryna Semchuk

While local residents seem sure of the next few months, newcomers to Zaporizhzhia – people who have been displaced from the region’s occupied and frontline towns – are in a precarious position.

At a petrol station near the Dnipro hydroelectric station, I meet Anastasiya, 25, and Olena, 46, who both now work at the garage. They left their home town of Huliaipole, just a few kilometres from the front line, as Russia’s constant shelling all but razed it to the ground. Here, like many other displaced people in the city, they live in hope of returning home.

As we stand at the garage, the women, who work as attendants, try not to complain about the prospect of no heat during the cold winter. Many Ukrainians have it worse under Russian occupation, they say, but still, they’ve prepared extra blankets and thermoses with hot water.

“What’s good is that people have become nicer since the start of the war,” says Anastasiya. For her, ten months of war have at least made people in the city, including her customers, more empathetic.

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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