‘We hear Russian missiles in our house’: Ukraine mum of three struggles amid winter blackouts

“Every time Russia tries to [bomb] the hydroelectric station, we hear it in our house,” Oleksandra Aleksandrenko, a translator and teacher living on the northern edge of Kyiv tells i.

The Ukrainian mother of three lives next to a water heating plant and is also close to a hydroelectric plant “which Russia is trying to reach often – it is definitely their target” amid a campaign to destroy the country’s infrastructure ahead of winter.

Ukraine has suffered regular blackouts of electricity and communications, making daily life harder and harder for those even far from the front lines.

But it is not only the threat of getting caught in an airstrike which is causing worry – it is also the far-reaching consequences if critical infrastructure is hit, which is becoming a regular occurrence.

The unstable internet and mobile connection caused by power cuts has disrupted Ms Aleksandrenko’s work and her children’s education.

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“I was working with some Vietnamese people as a teacher and they fired me – and I totally get it, because I couldn’t provide a stable internet connection and sometimes I have to skip my work. I even couldn’t tell them when I couldn’t make it. So it was very inconvenient for them.”

Home-schooling at the best of times can be difficult, but without electricity it is almost impossible. Her three children – twin girls Adelaida and Margaryta, nine, and son Mark, aged 11 – cannot attend online lessons because the power cuts are unpredictable. “There is no schedule for that, so you cannot plan anything at all.”

All of this is taking it’s toll. “I am thinking about going abroad because now it’s getting worse, and I’m not sure we can make it through this winter.”

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Many Ukrainians will face the same difficult decision over the coming weeks; whether to leave their homes or stay. Already nearly eight million people have fled their homeland since the full-scale invasion in February, according to the UNHCR.

These mass attacks are becoming increasingly common, as Russia tries to destroy Ukraine’s energy sector following a series of battlefield setbacks. In the last week missile and drone attacks have caused air-raid sirens to echo across the country, while air defences sprang into action.

Despite this, critical infrastructure such as thermal power plants, hydroelectric plants and substations of main networks were hit, according to Ukraine’s state energy company Ukrenergo. This plunged many people into darkness and caused water to be cut off in major cities, including Kyiv and Kharkiv.

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Ms Aleksandrenko was without water for eight hours and without electricity for several hours, while her mother, who is 70 and lives 15 minutes away, still does not have power.

“It’s very cold. In my mum’s kitchen it’s like 10 degrees. I always try to convince her to come to my place every day, but she mostly refuses – I managed to convince her today. But she’s always like, ‘No, I want to stay at home.’”

“I know she is struggling, but she is stubborn,” says the 34-year-old. “She cannot even cook or boil the kettle for tea, as she has electricity, but I have a gas oven and that is why I can cook.”

A mother and her child receives a winter kit from the International Rescue Committee in Kharkiv oblast. Photo courtesy of the International Rescue Committee.
A mother and her child receives a winter kit from the International Rescue Committee in Kharkiv oblast in eastern Ukraine (Photo: International Rescue Committee)

Three weeks ago, when there was a large missile attack on Kyiv, the family did not have heating for two days. Her mother loses central heating or electricity every time there is an attack. Still, Ms Aleksandrenko considers herself lucky: “We don’t have these power cuts or shortages every day because of that water plant next to our house.”

Michael Despines, the International Rescue Committee’s regional director for Ukraine, said “Our clients repeatedly tell us they are worried about making it through the winter months. People’s capacity to cope with cold is further impaired by the destruction and failure of critical infrastructure, lack of heating and electricity, and the trauma of living under constant shelling.

“We are seriously concerned that these compounded factors will lead to a serious deterioration of the humanitarian situation and spark further displacement – and increase vulnerabilities of those who are forced to stay.”

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Initial analysis by the IRC found that more than 25 per cent of displaced people interviewed in Ukraine lack access to sufficient heating, while more than 60 per cent of homes are damaged.

The study, conducted in five oblasts (provinces) – Dnipro, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Odesa and Zaporizhzhia – also shows how the power outages are impeding humanitarian activities on the ground. With no internet or phone network, humanitarian workers are unable to communicate with local partners, suppliers and clients for long hours, which further hinders delivery of life-saving assistance.

Mr Despines added: “We are in a race against the clock as the temperatures plummet across Ukraine – people are freezing and we need to do more.”

There is also concern that Russia could launch a new major offensive in early 2023. General Valery Zaluzhny, the head of the Ukrainian army, told The Economist that a Russian offensive “may take place in February, at best in March, and at worst at the end of January”.

Ms Aleksandrenko, like many Ukrainians, is worried about this prospect. “We heard that Russia bought more drones from Iran. I think it’s a very possible scenario.”

Despite this, she is not giving up hope that the situation will improve. “I don’t want people to look at us with pity, because it’s not only about that. It’s a shitty moment in our lives, but it will end eventually.”

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