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‘I have no idea what to do’: war-torn towns around Kyiv fear bitter winter

If it is too cold in the garage, Vadim sleeps in his old car. He lived on the third floor of an apartment block by Borodianka’s central street but it was destroyed by Russian grad missiles in March and there is barely anything here for him now, beyond the section of basement he could call his own. Every day he spends hours inside it sifting through the rubble, picking out fragments of his family’s belongings. It keeps him busy, he says.

The walk out of town to his garage is long and dispiriting but Vadim has few options. He does not want to live in the temporary accommodation for refugees, where conditions are variable. This is his home but, like the others who have stayed, he faces a quandary that may quickly become unbearable. If the warmer months were uncomfortable but broadly tolerable, the imminent winter will bring challenges that pose another real threat to life.

“I have no idea what to do next,” says the 65-year-old, who drove ambulances to and from a military hospital in Kyiv at the start of the invasion. “I must have prayed badly to god. I have nothing left.”

There is no access to heating or running water in Vadim’s garage and compensation from the local authorities will not cover arrangements of his own. He has received two €50 (£43.41) payments but that will not see him through freezing temperatures from November onwards and there is little reassurance forthcoming. Any hope of seeing quick restoration work carried out on his burned-out building seems far fetched and the anguish is collective. On the walls of a ruined nine-storey block further along the street, a simple message is daubed in both Ukrainian and English: “We want to live here.”

It is a common refrain in the towns and villages around Kyiv, which saw many of the grimmest atrocities known to have taken place since February. While some cannot bear to leave, others simply do not have the money to live in short-term housing, for which demand outstrips supply in any case. In the absence of quick solutions the ability to source firewood is going to be critical.

For Inna, who lives eight miles away in the village of Potashnya, there is no more important issue. She lived with her disabled husband in a house that was razed to the ground while the pair were, to their fortune, visiting her mother nearby. Now they reside in the relatively intact property of a neighbouring family who left for Germany, but the draft whistling through windows covered only by cling film will become more bitter by the week.

Homes destroyed by attacks in Potashnya, 31 May 2022.
Homes destroyed by attacks in Potashnya, 31 May 2022. Photograph: Natacha Pisarenko/AP

Inna is on the breadline: she is yet to receive compensation for the destruction of her home, as the documents that provided proof of ownership were reduced to ashes like everything else. That may arrive in time but for now almost every penny is spent on stockpiling firewood with which to cook and keep warm. She recently spent her savings on a month’s worth, but there will be no money for any more. It sits outside the building in a pile that will quickly diminish.

“Every brick in my house was put there by my own hands; we built everything ourselves,” she says. “Now it’s all gone, and I am nobody here.” Unless assistance is forthcoming, Inna will use blankets and wooden boards to keep out the chill, praying that such paltry insulation will be enough.

Life has dealt a better hand to the talkative and upbeat Olga, who sits outside one of the few cafes that are back up and running in Borodianka, eating an ice-cream. The concerns, though, are similar. With financial support from a daughter who works in Germany, she was able to buy €250 of firewood and hopes that may see her through the winter’s duration. Nonetheless, she will move to her smaller property in the countryside because it would be a stretch to warm the larger house in which she currently resides.

The winter does not faze Olga. In comparison to the terror wreaked by Russian soldiers in her town, she says, it feels like nothing. But she shares some of Vadim’s discomfort: when the war began she owned an apartment nearby and, after its destruction, received scant recompense and no indication that it would be rebuilt. The Guardian made repeated attempts to contact the local authorities but nobody was available for comment.

Unsafe housing is not the only problem in Borodianka that will be compounded by the plummeting temperatures. A lack of employment spells genuine danger.

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Serhiy recently turned 38 and, working for a construction company in Kyiv, had a well-paid career ahead of him back in February. He is now out of work and living alone, having helped his wife and daughter evacuate to Poland the following month. His house is in relatively good condition but paying for its upkeep will be another matter. Many people will not be able to afford gas heating this winter, he thinks, and even firewood will be for the lucky ones. The fear, for Serhiy and others in the area, is that their plight has slid down the list of priorities since those brutal months in the spring.

“At the beginning of April we were promised that the state and charitable organisations would restore everything by winter and the whole world would help us,” he says. “But nothing like this happened. Sure, cars with aid keep arriving but that’s not the main thing right now. We need to rebuild houses, and prepare for winter.”

Even if his funds cannot stretch to satisfactory heating, Serhiy will not seek alternative lodgings. He believes that, if the house is left unattended during the cold weather, the scale of repairs he faces upon returning will be financially unsustainable. Without a regular income, there is no solution that would serve him well.

The same goes for Vadim, who stands next to the ruins of a life that had been built on graft and reflects on the horrifying uncertainty the Russians have created. “I will not be able to forgive them,” he says. “I worked for 30 years and invested everything in my family and home. Now it has all gone.”

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