The western Ukrainian city of Lviv, along with much of the rest of the country, was plunged back into darkness and cold wednesday after another devastating barrage of missile attacks launched by Russia.
Western Ukraine’s energy infrastructure was already in a critical state after the launch of more than 100 missiles by Russian forces the week of November 15 left transmission and distribution networks severely compromised.
A CBC News team recently visited the region and witnessed the disruption the Russian attack has had on these communities and their people, and how winter itself could become a deadly force in the conflict.
The cumulative impact of the strikes means that millions of Ukrainians have lost the sanctuary that their homes provided. Instead, those who have lost warmth and light are increasingly turning to communal places for comfort and companionship, a way of countering the psychological devastation of Vladimir Putin’s war on his country.
‘Another Kind of Home’
In Lviv, the Pekar cafe and bakery is a sanctuary.
With access to an industrial-size generator from a nearby hotel, Pekar can keep the lights on and the water running when other businesses and homes experience frequent blackouts.
“It’s comforting to have people around you who can support you in these times,” said Ira Zayats, a software developer, who told CBC News that she regularly comes to the bakery on Akademika Hnatyuka Street.
“It turns a bad day into something very, very positive. It’s like coming to a different kind of home.”
Lviv is only about 70 kilometers from the Polish border and has never been at serious risk of Russian ground attack.
However, the city’s electrical infrastructure has been one of the hardest hit by Russian missile attacks.
On its recent visit, CBC News witnessed continuous blackouts. Some lasted for minutes, while others continued for hours.
When blackouts are planned, many businesses prepare to close, but during sudden blackouts, others will continue to operate in the dark.
People eat in restaurants by candlelight; Store clerks sit behind non-working cash registers in retail stores and accept cash payments until power returns.
Without the light from street lamps or store windows, car headlights often provide the only spooky illumination in the dark.
the threat of winter
A map provided by the country’s largest transmission company shows the worst of the damage to the power grid: the capital Kyiv, eastern villages near the newly liberated city of Kherson and swaths of the country’s western region continue to suffer blackouts. .
“I am very concerned that they [Russia’s military] it will do enough damage to be blacked out for weeks,” Zayats said. “I think that will cripple the economy. I just choose to believe that we will persevere.”
The World Health Organization shares those concerns, saying winter could prove “life-threatening for millions of people in Ukraine,” in a statement earlier this week. “The devastating energy crisis, the deepening mental health emergency, the restrictions on humanitarian access and the risk of viral infections will make this winter a formidable test for the Ukrainian health system and the Ukrainian people.
In response to the blackouts, Ukraine’s central administration plans to set up temporary shelters, which will provide heating, internet and electricity, President Volodymr Zelenskyy announced Tuesday night.
He has nicknamed the shelters “invincibility centers.”
Previously, Zelenskyy had said that up to 10 million Ukrainians are dealing with blackouts of varying lengths. And the state of the country’s power grid remains critical.
Even before the latest missiles hit, Volodymyr Kudrytski, CEO of Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s national energy company, had said that the country’s generating stations could no longer provide 24-hour power to the entire country.
Kudrytski said during a news conference on Tuesday that the missile strikes have caused “colossal” damage, either destroying or damaging 15 generating stations.
The utility, he said, already had several backup transformers installed, secretly hidden and separate from main generating stations, but noted that Russia has hit some utility stations between five and eight times.
CLOCK | Life without electricity, heat in Ukraine:
Ukraine is now urgently looking for replacements abroad. And while countries like Spain, Belgium, India and China have transformers that Ukraine can exchange for damaged ones, finding the right one can be a difficult process, Kudrytski said.
“The task is not just to find the powerful transformer, it’s to find the right voltage,” he said.
In Kyiv, which suffered extensive damage to its power grid, authorities said the capital had gradually rebuilt its power capacity ahead of Wednesday’s round of missile attacks, though there are still rolling blackouts sometimes lasting eight hours or more.
Cold, the new enemy
But it is in Kherson that the situation is perhaps most serious.
“There is a total blackout in Kherson,” said Alla Malchenko, 33, who was left behind during nine months of Russian occupation of the city because her husband works as a doctor. Before the war, she sold women’s fashion online.
While Kherson had a pre-war population of about 280,000 people, only a fraction of that now remains.
Malchenko says that the liberation of the city by Ukrainian troops was a success, but with the arrival of cold weather, life has become a struggle.
“It is so cold in the houses and buildings. People are getting massively sick,” he told CBC News in a Zoom interview.
Malachenko said she shares a small generator with her parents, and her daily routine involves lining up for fuel to run it.
“In the morning they [my parents] come to us and we give you our generator so you can heat your apartment and freeze your refrigerator.”
At night, she said, she retrieves the generator, which allows her and her husband to charge their phones and keep the fridge running.
Neither she nor her parents have running water in their apartments, so they also have to line up to fill water bottles to wash clothes and flush the toilet.
Like others facing power outages, Malachanko said she avoids being indoors during the day because of the cold. Instead, he seeks communal places.
“Psychologically, it’s difficult,” he told CBC News. And although she would prefer to go to Kyiv, where life is easier, she plans to stay with her husband.
Explosives delay reconstruction effort
Ukrainian officials say it appears retreating Russian troops damaged or destroyed much of Kherson’s water and power infrastructure when they left, making recovery more difficult than in other parts of the country.
Complicating the city’s reconnection to the power grid, the entire region is also covered in explosives.
Utility crews are working in tandem with sappers who must first clean up UXOs and declare a safe area before repair work on the power grid can begin.
“Sometimes it takes more than an hour to clear a square meter of territory,” said Oleksandr Khorunzhyi, a press officer for Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, emphasizing the enormity of the work ahead.
So far, he said, they have dealt with more than 5,000 explosive devices left behind by Russian troops.
However, in at least two buildings in Kherson, including a police headquarters, mines and booby traps were so rife that the buildings had to be demolished, Khorunzhyi said, as it was impossible to get rid of all the explosives.
‘People are afraid’
The harsh truth on the ground is that the amount of work needed to make Kherson a functioning city again may not happen soon enough, with the height of winter descending.
In Lviv and Kyiv, people can still buy warm clothes and have access to supplies like lanterns and candles, but that’s not the case elsewhere.
Simon Johnsen, a Norwegian aid worker with Frontline Medics, said the people he sees in Kherson have no electricity and are already dangerously cold.
And shops in places like Krematorsk and Mykolaiv are closed, meaning those who live there are dependent on humanitarian aid, he said.
“I think people are afraid of what comes next,” said Johnsen, who is part of a medical evacuation team that has been working in war-torn eastern Ukraine. “Worst case scenario, people will die and freeze to death.”