Winter is coming: Ukrainians are preparing for the brutal season ahead

KIVSHARIVKA, Ukraine (AP) — Nine-year-old Artem Panchenko helps his grandmother light a smoky fire in a makeshift outdoor kitchen next to their nearly abandoned apartment block. Light is falling fast and they must eat 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 what promises to be a brutal season.

Artem and his grandmother have been living without gas, water or electricity for about three weeks, since Russian missile strikes cut off utilities in their town in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region. For them and the few other residents who remained in the compound in Kivšarivka, gathering at night and cooking outdoors is the only way to survive.

“It’s cold and there are bombings,” said Artem on Sunday while helping his grandmother cook. “It’s really cold. I sleep in my clothes in our apartment.”

More Russian strikes on Monday in Kiev, the capital, and other Ukrainian cities, with drones and missiles targeting power plants, added to the general sense of foreboding about the coming winter.

As the freeze approaches, those who haven’t escaped heavy fighting, regular shelling and months of Russian occupation in eastern Ukraine are desperately trying to figure out how to get through the cold months.

In the nearby village of Kurylivka, Viktor Palyanitsa pushes a cart full of freshly cut logs along the road to his house. It passes a destroyed tank, the remains of damaged buildings and the site of a 300-year-old wooden church that was razed to the ground as Ukrainian forces fought to liberate the area from Russian occupiers.

Palyanitsa, 37, said he had collected enough wood to last the whole winter. However, he planned to start sleeping next to the wood stove in a rickety outbuilding rather than his home, since all the windows in his house were blown out by flying shrapnel.

“It’s not pleasant. We spend a lot of time collecting wood. You can see the situation we live in,” said Palyanitsa, quietly underestimating the dire prospects for the next few months.

Authorities are working to gradually restore electricity to the area in the coming days, and repairs to the water and gas infrastructure will follow, according to Roman Semenukha, deputy of the Kharkiv regional government.

“Only after that we will be able to start restoring the heating,” he said.

Authorities were working to provide firewood for residents, he added, but had no timeline for when utilities would be restored.

Standing next to his pile of chopped wood, Palyanitsa did not wait for government help. He said he doesn’t expect the heat to be restored anytime soon, but that he feels ready to fend for himself even when winter comes.

“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 areas of the neighboring, hotly contested Ukrainian-controlled Donetsk region urged all remaining residents to evacuate and warned that gas and water services in many areas were unlikely to be restored until winter. As in the Kharkiv region, ordinary Ukrainians continue to live in thousands of homes destroyed by Russian airstrikes, with leaking or damaged roofs and broken windows that cannot provide protection against cold or wet weather.

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

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

In the center of Kurilivka, a group of men cut down a tree near the bus station with a chainsaw. As they worked, they alerted an Associated Press reporter to Russian landmines still hidden in the surrounding grass.

With so many destroyed cities in the area and modern comforts all but gone, the quest for survival trumps any concern for preserving what came before. Without utilities, the houses became rudimentary medieval shelters where residents lived by candlelight, collected water from wells and huddled together to fend off the cold.

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

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

Makeshift leaning structures dot the overgrown courtyards of their housing complex where residents gather to cook over fires. A woman was collecting the remains of wood from a ground-floor apartment that was demolished by a Russian rocket. Another resident joked that his home had become a five-bedroom apartment after one of its exterior walls collapsed.

Anton Sevrukov, 47, toasted bread and heated a kettle of water on the fire to bring tea to his disabled mother.

“There is no electricity, water, gas. We are cold,” he said. “I make tea for mother on the fire, but she only drinks a little to warm herself up for a while.”

In the darkness of his cramped, musty apartment, Sevruk’s mother sat under a blanket on a sofa piled high with plates of rotten food. Zoja Sevrukova said she was bedridden for seven years and spent most of her time sitting, playing solitaire with a battered pack of cards.

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

Sevrukov said he asked a friend from Kharkiv, the regional capital, to buy him an electric heater – just in case the power comes back on. It’s almost too much to even think about the deprivation that could be ahead of us.

“I hope we will have electricity soon, so we can somehow survive this winter,” he said.


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