Coping in the Kharkiv cold

By Brian Dooley

For months, the city of Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine has been bracing for a bitter winter. Back in August we reported on local fears about how the cold during the war might bite hard into people’s lives.

So far Kharkiv is coping, despite temperatures hovering around minus 16 Celsius this week, and regular bombardments by Russian missiles of this and other cities’ heating and electricity infrastructure. There were more rocket attacks at the weekend, killing a man south of the city, and a market was hit this morning, causing at least seven casualties.

Although more than 6 million people in Ukraine are reported to have so far been left without heat or electricity for some period, repairs to damaged power stations are being made fairly quickly, and before this week the winter has been unusually mild. A network of dozens of European countries and cities are supplying emergency heating, light, and water to Ukraine.

Locals are adjusting to this new world of extreme cold and power outages.   They grab every chance to recharge phones and flashlights. For most people, long hours, even a day or two, without electricity is hard but manageable. But for the elderly and infirm living in skyscrapers, not being able to use the elevators is punishing, and coping without water for a couple of days can be tough.

Dotted throughout the city are emergency stations called Points of Invincibility, open 24 hours a day, where locals can go to get warm and charge devices.

Many in Kharkiv have invested in generators in case the heat fails, and have bought hefty power chargers. The big battery power packs only need about an hour of electricity to charge enough to keep phones and laptops going for days.

“At first I didn’t want to buy any extra gear for the office,” said Serhii Prokopenko, managing editor of the independent Gwara Media, based in the city. “But straight after the first blackout on November 11, I went out and bought a two-kilowatt generator. They cost around $500 now. And I got a Starlink box for internet connection for the office too — they cost between $600 and $1000. It’s all extra expense, but it means we can keep reporting, keep doing our work.”

Krystyna works in the city center coffee shop Rabbit, which had its windows shattered last year in a rocket attack but opened again a couple of months later. “We don’t have a generator but we just adapt — we can still serve filter coffee and desserts if there’s a power cut,” she said.

In the countryside, things aren’t always easier. While houses with fireplaces and homes that don’t depend on gas or electricity for heat are now much sought after, there are dangers in areas around the city previously occupied by Russian soldiers. Last week, a middle-aged couple were killed by a trip-wired explosive when they were searching for firewood in a forest near Kharkiv.

Ukraine is about half way through its winter, and things in Kharkiv could be worse. But locals talk about enduring the coming February Frost, which often brings the most bitter freeze, and activists warn they might be facing several more cold months.

Vasyl Malikov is Director of LGBT NGO Spectrum Kharkiv. He said the NGO Alliance.Global provided a five kilowatt generator for its office in Kharkiv to continue its HIV prevention and humanitarian activities, while Spectrum Kharkiv continues to conduct community events and provide humanitarian aid from that same office in the city. “Right now I’m confident we can cope, even if the winter stretches into April,” he said.

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  • Brian Dooley

Published on January 9, 2023

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