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The Winter of Blackouts: Ukraine in the Dark. Part 1

As a person from Ukraine, living in Berlin, I never understood when people here complained about lousy winter weather. The temperatures in Ukraine throughout the winter months sometimes fall as low as -27 degrees Celcius.

This winter, Russia knowingly, attacked the critical infrastructure of Ukraine, with the aim to leave its citizens without access to basic amenities in extreme temperatures. Although Ukrainians are working hard on fixing the damages as they come, the civil population is faced with waves of power blackouts and unreliable access to water and heating.

Doing a Ph.D. in Medical Psychology, I find it important to talk to people, who chose to stay and persevere, and learn what is keeping them afloat. For this series, I interviewed two women, who agreed to share their stories of surviving, quite literally, the darkest times of their life, and a psychologist, who helped me understand what consequence this daily struggle has on the mental health of many Ukrainians, who have no other choice.

The first story is from my friend Darya, who spent a part of her pregnancy and now the first months of her son’s life in war-torn Ukraine. Her story is told in the first person.

Darya, the mom of a newborn

When the war started, I was pregnant with my long-awaited baby. We were convinced that this was a perfect time to have a child, so the war came as a huge shock.

For the first few months, I left for Poland but could not bear being separated from my husband. It was already difficult to take care of the newborn baby, while the air raid alarms were going off multiple times a day.

When the winter started, we immediately felt the even harsher consequences of the attacks on critical infrastructure. Even though we live in the relatively “quiet” region in the West of Ukraine, power outages are frequent and unpredictable. Sometimes we have planned outages, which make it easier to plan the day. That is when I start running around, putting the washing in, loading the dishwasher, and charging the devices. However, most outages happen at random, leaving the power off for eight to twelve hours. It has a very demoralizing effect, especially because during this time, there is no mobile connection or Internet, and one feels isolated from the world. Now add the air raid sirens on top of that, while we cannot access the news, and that’s when anxiety really starts to kick in. Sometimes air raid sirens stop working because of the outage. We live close to Belarus, and they can attack at any moment, without us knowing.

In the beginning, the water supply was also scarce. We quickly realized how much water we use daily, in a house full of people. We had to cut down on flushing, I washed my baby every two days, and myself even less than that. Once we had to sleep without bedding because I had put it in the washer and then we ran out of power for a few days! After a long outage, the house temperature can go down to 10 degrees Celsius, and we all have to wear multiple layers.

I get worried about the development of my four-month-old baby. He just started to acquire a sense of routine but now he is quite moody and confused because he does not understand when to play and when to sleep. Here, daylight ends at 4 pm, and around then, everyone starts to feel sleepy.

People and businesses have adapted by now. Almost everyone has a generator so most shops, cafes, and other businesses have reopened and are functioning in an energy-saving mode but with electricity available. This means that we can live a little closer to how we used to. However, I am really questioning the impact of all these generators on our ecology. Generators are very expensive — it can cost up to 50 euros per day to use one. They are also very loud, and when every neighbor has one, walking down the street is impossible — everything is just noise and smoke. And most importantly, generators exude toxic fumes into the atmosphere and dramatically influence our air quality. There are a lot of fires happening around the city because of negligence in using them, so we decided not to buy one.

However, our spirit is still not broken. We try to find romance by using candles and LED lights. Without the Internet, there is no online entertainment, and it really brought our family together. We are all forced to be in the same room, next to a fireplace, and talk. We are trying to stay creative: playing board games, learning instruments, and knitting. Those hardships really put life into perspective. I hear people complaining about the small things and I think — “I am just really happy that I was able to take a shower today”. Somehow I still feel a lot better than I did, when I lived in Poland alone. Our life is an action movie but I definitely wish it was a bit easier to handle.

I look at Darya’s family and how much everybody glows up when they are playing with the baby, and I hope that there will soon be a light at the end of the tunnel and next winter they gather together as vividly, without any extreme circumstances, and just for the joy of it.



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