Wet, dark cellars, basements, old bomb shelters and metro stations have become homes, schools, playgrounds and refuges for thousands of people in eastern Ukraine. These are the only safe places available for many living close to the frontline and suffering from constant shelling. In cities like Lyman, Lysychansk, Izium, Sievierodonetsk, Kharkiv or Avdiivka, most people have already left their homes. Still, many thousands remain—some trapped because there is no more public transportation, and others simply do not want to abandon their homes for various reasons. The availability of fuel is also declining in Ukraine, affecting people’s ability to move to safer areas.
"We had to leave Sievierodonetsk which is in Luhansk Oblast as it was under constant shelling. In my neighbourhood, every house has been touched by the fighting. I spent most of my time in a basement with my six-year-old son, but I decided to leave as I didn't want him to go through this horror anymore," says Iryna who is staying in a PIN supported collective centre in western Ukraine.
"It’s only safe in the basement. It’s good that we have one. We didn’t want to leave. We realise we won’t be able to return here soon," says Yevhenia evacuated from Lyman, in a report to Radio Free Europe.
"We were hiding in the basement. There were Grad rockets. It’s very scary. We were crying - my wife and our child who is turning 3-months-old soon. We don’t know how we are going to live. We've taken all we could," says Ihor—who was just evacuated from Lyman—to Levko Stek from Radio Svoboda.
Candles, torches, and psychological support
People hiding for weeks in basements need water, food, hygiene items and medicine. "Bomb shelters also need blankets, pillows, bed linen, and mattresses because often it is wet in the shelters, and they quickly become dirty," says Petr Drbohlav, Regional Director for the Eastern Partnership and the Balkans. "People sheltering in basements also need candles, solar-powered torches, dishes or kitchen utensils. Psychological support is among biggest needs," he adds.
The situation in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts in eastern Ukraine is especially dire. Recent data by UN OCHA shows that more than 47 per cent of all casualties so far verified in Ukraine have been recorded in those two regions alone. Furthermore, a survey conducted by HelpAge International found that 99% of older people in Donetsk and Luhansk Oblasts had no plans to leave.
Of the estimated 7.7 million people displaced within Ukraine, those who originally resided in the east now represent 45% of the entire displaced population; this is 3,468,000 people. According to a recent survey by IOM, 41% of all internally displaced people in Ukraine come from just 3 regions in eastern Ukraine - 21% are from Kharkiv Oblast, 15% from Donetsk Oblast and 5% from Luhansk Oblast.
The water situation is critical
The situation in eastern Ukraine deteriorates as fighting advances, making the water supply situation critical. In the east, there are over 1.4 million people without access to safe water according to UNICEF reports. In many places, centralised water is not available; it is only available twice a week for a few hours in other locations. "The only solution for the people is to bring them bottled water or establish water tanks and arrange regular water trucking," says Petr Drbohlav
In Donetsk Oblast, electricity and gas are still available in most places; in Luhansk Oblast, however, gas and electricity are not working in most settlements. The situation in Kharkiv Oblast is better, but the infrastructure is damaged in many places and electricity, gas, and water systems are not working in some places.
The situation with food is deteriorating quickly. Basic food is available but limited. Hygiene items, especially diapers and female hygiene products, are among the biggest needs.
According to a PIN survey, services like medical institutions, local authorities, communal services and the banking system are still working, but they are limited as many people left Donetsk Oblast. "The situation in Luhansk Oblast is much worse with many authorities having left, the banking system is not operational in many locations, the internet is almost not working, the mobile connection is minimal and medical institutions are providing only first aid," says Petr Drbohlav based on the recent survey.
Mattresses for bomb shelters in Kharkiv
Humanitarian access is challenging, and distributions are unsafe, especially in areas of ongoing fighting. For example, in Sievierodonetsk, the warehouse with goods and strategic reserves was destroyed during the fighting. Despite the challenges, People in Need and our partners are still doing their best to deliver aid to eastern Ukraine.
In the last week alone, we delivered 500 mattresses to bomb shelters and health facilities in Kharkiv and 10 tonnes of food for 700 people to frontline locations in Donetsk oblast. The next 40 tonnes of food and hygiene items should arrive in cities in Donetsk Oblast in the coming days.
People in Need continues to deliver humanitarian aid to other parts of Ukraine as well. This month alone, we supplied water to 18,500 people in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. In the Mykolaiv Oblast alone, we have distributed water to 11,000 people. We distributed 10 litres of water per person. We also distributed almost 13,000 water containers for 9,000 people. People in Need continues to support people in eastern Ukraine, as we have constantly done since 2014.
Author: Petr Stefan, People in Need