Ukrainians dig in for brutal season ahead

KIVSHARIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — Nine-year-old Artem Panchenko is helping his grandmother stoke a smoky fire in a makeshift outdoor kitchen next to their almost-abandoned block of flats. The light is falling fast and they need to eat something before the setting sun plunges their home into cold and darkness.

Winter is coming. They can feel it in their bones when temperatures drop below freezing. And like tens of thousands of other Ukrainians, they face a season that promises to be brutal.

Artem and his grandmother have been without gas, water and electricity for about three weeks since Russian missile strikes cut supplies to their town in eastern Ukraine’s Kharkiv region. For her and the few other residents of the Kivsharivka complex, the only way to survive is to pack up at night and cook outdoors.

“It’s cold and there are bombings,” Artem said on Sunday as he helped his grandmother cook. “It’s very cold. I sleep fully dressed in our apartment.”

Adding to the foreshadowing of the coming winter were Russian drone and missile attacks on power plants in the capital Kyiv and several other Ukrainian cities on Monday and Tuesday. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy tweeted Tuesday that Russian attacks over the past week have crippled 30% of his country’s power plants and caused “massive power outages across the country.”

As the freeze sets in, those not fleeing the heavy fighting, regular shelling and months of Russian occupation in eastern Ukraine are desperate to figure out how to brace themselves for the cold months.

In the nearby village of Kurylivka, Viktor Palyanitsa is pushing a wheelbarrow full of freshly cut logs down the road to his house. He passes a wrecked tank, the remains of damaged buildings and the site of a 300-year-old wooden church that was leveled when Ukrainian forces fought to liberate the area from Russian occupation.

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Palyanitsa, 37, said he had collected enough wood for the whole winter. Despite this, he planned to sleep next to a wood-burning stove in a rickety outhouse rather than in his house, as all the windows in his house were blown out by flying shrapnel.

“It’s not comfortable. We spend a lot of time collecting wood. You can see the situation we live in,” Palyanitsa said, quietly downplaying the bleak outlook for the next few months.

According to Roman Semenukha, a deputy of the Kharkiv regional government, the authorities are working to gradually restore electricity supply to the region in the coming days, and repairs to water and gas infrastructure will be carried out next.

“Only then can we start heating again,” he said.

Authorities were working to get firewood available to residents, he added, but had no timeline for restoring utilities.

Standing by his pile of split wood, Palyanitsa didn’t wait for government help. He said he doesn’t expect heating to be restored any time soon but feels ready to fend for himself even after winter has set in.

“I have arms and legs. So I’m not afraid of the cold because I can find wood and heat the stove,” he said.

Authorities in Ukrainian-controlled areas of neighboring, hotly contested Donetsk region have urged all remaining residents to evacuate, warning that gas and water services in many areas are unlikely to be restored by winter. As in the Kharkiv region, ordinary Ukrainians still live in thousands of homes destroyed by Russian strikes, with leaking or damaged roofs and blown-out windows that can’t provide protection from the cold or wet.

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The danger of a winter without heating has spread even to other areas of Ukraine far from the front lines.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, angered and embarrassed by a Ukrainian attack on a key bridge to annexed Crimea, has intensified Russia’s bombing campaign, targeting Ukraine’s civilian energy infrastructure and leaving many cities without power. Monday’s strikes hit Kyiv, Sumy in northeastern Ukraine and Vinnytsia in western Ukraine.

In central Kurylivka, a group of men used a chainsaw to cut down a tree near a bus stop. As they worked, they warned an Associated Press reporter about the Russian landmines still hidden in the surrounding grass.

With so many of the area’s towns destroyed and modern conveniences all but gone, the urge to survive trumps any concerns about preserving what came before. With no utilities, the houses have become like rudimentary medieval shelters, where residents live by candlelight, fetching water from wells and dressing to ward off the cold.

Artem’s grandmother, Iryna Panchenko, said she and her grandson had been sleeping in an abandoned apartment next door since all their windows were blown out by a Russian strike.

“After the first wave of explosions, we lost one window and two were damaged. After the second blast, all other windows were shattered,” she said. “It’s very cold living here. It’s hard to cook, it’s hard to run back and forth between the apartment and the place where we cook. My legs hurt.”

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Makeshift shelters dot the overgrown courtyards of their apartment complex, where residents gather to cook over fires. A woman collected scraps of wood from a ground floor apartment destroyed by a Russian missile attack. Another resident joked that his home became a five-bedroom apartment after one of its exterior walls collapsed.

Anton Sevrukov, 47, toasted bread and heated a kettle over a fire to bring tea to his disabled mother.

“No electricity, no water, no gas. We’re cold,” he said. “I make my mother tea by the fire, but she only has a quick drink to warm her up.”

In the darkness of his cramped, musty apartment, Sevrukov’s mother sat under a blanket on a sofa piled with plates of spoiled food. Zoya Sevrukova said she has been bedridden for seven years and spends most of her time sitting, playing solitaire with a worn deck of cards.

“Now it’s really cold. If it wasn’t for my son, I would freeze to death,” she said.

Sevrukov said he asked a friend from Kharkiv, the region’s capital, to buy him an electric heater – just in case power is restored. It’s almost too much to even think about the hardships that might lie ahead.

“I hope we’ll have power soon so we can get through this winter somehow,” he said.


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