Ukraine

ICRC Ukraine annual winterization project: Bringing warmth to settlements on either side of the Donbas conflict

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© Photo S.Posohova/ICRC

Being warm and living in peace is a shared understanding of what life is all about. Predictability and the routine of life, which enable connections with loved ones are also important prerequisites for building a secure environment and motivating individuals. In Ukraine’s region of the Donbas, all those are disrupted. Living in the Donbas conflict for more than seven years, people fear for their lives and livelihoods, being away from their close relatives and their loved ones. As winter is approaching, there is also the fear of freezing in a cold house when there is simply nothing to heat it with. The International Committee of the Red Cross strives to help them.

To live in Mariinka was Viktoria's dream since her student days. Two years before the Donbas armed conflict began, she had spent all her savings to buy a small house in the hope of achieving her own family happiness in it. Unfortunately, the conflict took away her dreams. Today Viktoria is raising two beautiful children by herself, living in a town located near the conflict's line in the east Ukraine. What used to be the house of her dreams turned into the shelter from the shelling.

"Shelling begins in the afternoon and it becomes dangerous outdoors," Viktoria says, "So I and the children drop everything and run into the house."

Viktoria, a Mariinka resident

The new windows in Viktoria's house were repaired thanks to the help from the International Committee of the Red Cross. The ICRC also helped her to repair the roof. According to Viktoria, she would never have been able to do it herself. After all, she has to raise two children by herself and it is simply impossible to pay for the repair with her meagre income.

Children's voices can also be heard in the house of Liubov, Viktoria's neighbour, although after seven years of conflict, she is more used to hearing the sounds of artillery. And her four-year-old grandson still shudders every time he hears gunfire."

Liubov, a Mariinka resident

For years, Liubov has been receiving monetary aid that allows her to buy solid fuel and spend the saved money on other needs. However, it was still cold in the house because it had been heavily damaged by shelling and a lot of heat was wasted. Before the current cold season, the ICRC repaired the roof and installed new plastic steel windows. As part of the preparation for the 2021/2022 winter season, the ICRC has repaired the houses of 1,500 people living on either side of the line of contact, while more than 2,500 people have received monetary aid to prepare their homes for the coming cold weather by themselves. So, this year, Liubov and her grandson will welcome in the winter season in a really warm home.

Svitlana lives in Triokhizbenka village, Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine, and her hopes for the coming winter are the same. She believes she can still complete the repairs before the real cold sets in.

"Our house was heavily damaged by shelling, but this year the ICRC replaced the old windows with new metal and plastic ones," Svitlana says. "We were also granted a thermal insulation kit for our house and UAH 8,000 to buy firewood. Thanks to all that, the house will retain heat better, we will spend less money on heating and maybe even put aside some money to make repairs next year."

Cold wind in the grass

As the winter approaches, the cold northern wind comes in carrying the fragrance of thyme and feather grass and bringing the first frost.

In Vira's greenhouse, despite the frost and cold winds, cucumbers and tomatoes are still ripening, even at nightly sub-zero temperatures. Greenhouses are part of the aid provided by the ICRC to help people to grow enough vegetables to last them through the winter and save money that will then be spent on firewood for heating. Vira has received an allowance for firewood and house repair and is now concerned about how to dole out money from her meagre pension to feed her two young baby goats.

In the run-up to the winter of 2021, the ICRC has helped almost 10,000 families living on either side of the line of contact providing either fuel or financial aid to buy firewood.

Traditionally, autumn in the Donbas is the time when people sum up the results and make plans for the next warm season. It used to be the time of arranging weddings and building new lives, when children left their ancestral homes and went to big cities to study or to work. Now, almost all of those who remain living in many villages are the elderly. One of such villages is Taramchuk located in Donetsk region, just a couple of kilometres away from the line of contact. Its residents avoid planning too far ahead. And the reason is not just the conflict: they wait for the looming winter in fear.

Valentyna is meticulous in her preparation for the winter. "All the year, while the weather is dry, I pick up every twig to collect them by the winter and save at least something," explains Valentyna, adding bitterly that people in Taramchuk are used to being economical. In villages located near the conflict zone, even money does not have the same value. In Valentyna's village, there are no ATMs, nor post office, and most people do not have any means of transport to get to the nearest population centre where all these things are available. That is why people look forward to the aid provided by the ICRC. It helps them welcome in the cold season without fear. Households receive four tonnes of briquettes each. Zoia from the village of Vodiane says they not only keep the house warm but also smell of wood.

Even in bigger towns in the Donbas the winter fuss is no longer associated with the Christmas tree and gifts.

"Over the past few years, I have lived in a cold house, it was just five degrees above zero in it. I would heat the oven, but the chimney was clogged, everything was broken and there were draughts all over the place," recalls Grandma Valia living in Petrivskyi district in Donetsk, in the non-government-controlled area of the Donbas. "I would heat up bottles of water, put them all around me and thus keep warm. And if cats came and lie next to me, I get warmer."

Valentyna is 80 years old and her house was so heavily damaged by shelling that not a single window was left unbroken, let alone the doors and the roof. And to make it worse, the damaged chimney caused a fire in the house, completely destroying wooden flooring and part of the roof. Grandma Valia had no idea how to cope with such a trouble, with winter just around the corner.

The ICRC team came to rescue, and the house was completely reroofed, new windows were installed, and the entrance door replaced. Now, for the first time in many years, Grandma Valia will welcome in winter in a warm house.

"What a gift! I can't believe that they (ICRC) will fix everything, and my house will be warm!" says Grandma Valia living in Petrivskyi district, Donetsk.

The ICRC strives to make the lives of the people living in the conflict zone as much similar as possible to what they were before the hostilities. Therefore, help is provided not only to individual families, but also to schools, kindergartens and hospitals. As part of the preparation for the winter, 11 medical establishments and 13 schools had their windows replaced and premises repaired by the ICRC.

Every day, Vika is wary of going to school. After all, she and her dad live in the part of Zaitseve settlement that is the closest to the line of contact. Many houses continue to be damaged by gunfire.

"Sometimes, when I help Vika to get ready for school, heavy gunfire begins and prevents her even from going out to get to her school bus stop. On rare occasions, it is peaceful for several days in a row, but usually shrapnel is flying all the time. A window in one room was recently smashed by shrapnel. I had wanted to make it into a children's room, but Vika refused to move to it. I now think she was right not to. And I worry about her all the time, I shout, 'Vika, go back into the garden! Don't go far away!' It keeps booming here and there, and almost every morning. Of course, the child is scared."

Viktor, a resident of Zaitseve village.

People say they will cope with any financial burdens, they have got used to a lot, and have survived a lot too. The main thing, they say, is that their villages and towns get peaceful and their homes warm.