The best time of the year is just beginning. At least when it comes to Polina and her friends. Santa’s wish list is already written, and now it’s even starting to snow. Almost all other children have left the remote village on the north-eastern edge of the Kharkiv region since the beginning of the war, and the school has also been closed for a long time. The first snow of the year is a welcome change.
“From now on we can go sledding and have snowball fights,” Polina explains enthusiastically. The ten-year-old and her friends have also almost finished the first snowman. They even managed to find a carrot for the nose. And the weather forecast shows: Your little work of art will probably not melt anytime soon. Temperatures down to minus twelve degrees have been announced for the next few days.
Most adults in the region are less happy with this weather forecast. On the contrary: with the falling temperatures, concerns are growing about not surviving the next few months. “The frost here is getting worse night by night. I don’t even want to think about where this can lead to,” says Iryna.
The pensioner lives on the outskirts of the small town of Isjum in eastern Ukraine, in a typical prefab apartment from the Soviet days. The six-story building was repeatedly hit by artillery fire, and almost all of the neighbors fled. Iryna stayed. “Where should I go? To escape you need at least a car and some savings,” explains the pensioner. “Most older people can’t just leave here. Besides, the looters are bound to come when there’s no one left.”
Iryna invested the last of her money in new windows, which had been shattered by the pressure of the explosions. She has also covered the panes with thick blankets so that less cold penetrates from outside. The central heating of the block of flats was also destroyed during the shelling of the past few months. In the fall, volunteers came to bring Iryna an electric heater for the winter months. She is grateful for that to this day – but it is still often cold with her.
For several weeks, Russia has massively escalated its attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and power outages are the order of the day. “We just had no electricity for two days,” the pensioner recalls. In such situations, she would only have one choice: dress even more heavily, use up the last reserves of gas and make hot tea.
Across the frontline, it is the elderly who are most at risk from falling temperatures in the coming weeks. Even if they have family members who can take them to less devastated regions or even abroad, many do not want to leave their familiar surroundings. Until a few days ago, Oxana Melnyk’s mother lived in a village on the other side of the front line, in the Russian-occupied part of eastern Ukraine. For months, Oxana persuaded her to leave the village. She warned them of the increasingly fierce fighting in the region and of the approaching winter. But the seventy-year-old remained stubborn. “She thought that somehow she would survive, that somehow everything would pass,” says Oxana. “But we all know by now: It’s far from over.”
Finally, she summoned up all her courage and climbed into her more than 40-year-old Lada. Together with an acquaintance, she drove along the destroyed roads of the only corridor that connects the Ukrainian-controlled with the Russian-occupied areas. Once there, she was finally able to convince her mother to finally pack her bags. “I kept telling her: This is about your life. What is really valuable? But not your apartment, but not just any car or whatever. Only life is precious in the end.”
On the way back, the women got stuck in the mud several times, were stopped at dozens of Russian and Ukrainian checkpoints – and then their ancient Lada also had an engine failure. In the end, however, they made it to a humanitarian center in the eastern Ukrainian regional capital of Zaporizhia, which was set up specifically for refugees from the Russian-occupied territories.
For the women, this is the first reasonably safe port of call for days – and most importantly, a place where they can finally warm up. Here in Zaporizhia, Oxana says that at first she didn’t want to believe that Russia was using the winter specifically against the civilian population. But that’s exactly what’s happening right now. “I just pray that God gives them a reason to stop,” she sighs. “Let her go in peace. They should just leave our country so that more people don’t die.”
They don’t yet know what will happen next for the women. First of all they want to go to Odessa. Oxana has an apartment there. It’s not really safe there either, like many other places in Ukraine, Odessa is currently a regular target of massive air raids. But at least the winter months in the port city on the Black Sea coast are not quite as harsh as here in the east of the country.
Author: Jan Philipp Scholz
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The original of this article “How Russia uses winter as a weapon of war” comes from Deutsche Welle.