In bomb shelters, homeless of Donetsk prepare for cruel winter

Little help is being given, by rebels or by Kiev, to those driven from homes

Irina Peredery (50, left) and Natalya Golovina (61) outside the entrance to the unlit, unheated bomb shelter where they spend nights with more than a dozen other people. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin

The last rays of the autumn sun warm a small crowd standing outside Donetsk’s ruined School 106, but underground it is already winter.

There, 18 mostly elderly people spend their nights in an unheated, candlelit, Soviet-era bomb shelter that has been without electricity and water for months, since missiles fired by the Ukrainian army wrecked local power lines and plumbing.

“Winter is on its way and I’ve no idea what we’ll do,” says Irina Peredery (50), who worked as caretaker in a school that now stands windowless and shrapnel-scarred on the front line between government forces and separatist rebels.

Sasha (5) with sister Ella (1) outside a ruined school next to the unlit, unheated bomb shelter where they spend nights with their mother and more than a dozen other people. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
Volunteers distribute humanitarian aid to local people, organized by Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, in Donetsk yesterday. Photograph: Photomig/EPA

“I trust our leaders, here and in Kiev, to come to some sort of agreement,” she says. “Surely they are clever people. Surely they have families too, and understand what we’re going through. I want to believe that they’ll sort this out before winter.”


A conflict that began in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in April has killed more than 3,700 people and driven about one million from their homes. The bloodshed continues regardless of a supposed ceasefire.

Shelling by government and rebel forces has killed hundreds of civilians in Donetsk, and nightly artillery fire rocks residential areas around the city’s strategically important airport and Petrovsky district, where School 106 is located.

“The militia is here and the Ukrainians are a couple of kilometres over there,” says Natalya Golovina (61), waving towards towering slag heaps from the local coal mine.

“Why do the Ukrainians treat us like this? Why do they kill old people and children? So what if we want to live separately from them? They hated us from the start, called us idiots and second-class citizens. Is that reason to kill us all?”

Widespread rejection in eastern Ukraine of the country's pro-western revolution has hardened during the conflict. The army's bombing campaign confirmed for many people Russia's claim that "fascists" had seized Kiev.

While Ukraine's government insists it is trying to "liberate" the east from Moscow-backed "terrorists", locals often support friends, relatives and neighbours who have taken up arms to fight for independence or to join Russia.

The rebels man small roadblocks and fire mobile artillery from built-up areas, then quickly move on. The army’s return fire usually misses such targets, instead hitting homes, factories, mines, power stations and schools such as 106.

Hapless operation

The result is a hapless military operation, a widely popular insurgency, an embittered local population and infrastructure on the verge of collapse as months of freezing temperatures and snowfall approach.

“There’s artillery fire nearly every night,” says Peredery. “We try to get back to our apartments in the mornings, when it tends to be quiet. They are all badly damaged, but some still have power, so we can wash and cook. But we make sure we are back at the shelter when it gets dark.”

She turns on a torch and walks down the stairs into the dank pitch darkness of the cellar. In the frigid gloom the torch picks out makeshift beds against the walls; boxes serving as tables; a candle sitting on a hard mound of wax; a cold kettle; a little potted plant that glows unnaturally green in the beam of light.

“Thank God we don’t have rats,” Peredery mutters, after climbing back out into the sunny school car park, where volunteers are unloading blankets.

"In two weeks it could be freezing, so we have to move quickly," says Dima Balashov, co-founder of the Donetsk non-government organisation Responsible Citizens and a journalist whose publication folded when war began . "We hand out food, medicine, soap, blankets and heaters to people who have electricity.

“But for people whose houses have been badly damaged or destroyed, we need to find a place for them to spend winter. They can’t live in cellars and bomb shelters when it’s minus 20 degrees.”

Urgent need

Balashov thinks that more than 1,000 people in Donetsk are in urgent need of winter shelter, but no suitable space has yet been found or offered.

Responsible Citizens relies on donations and help from a few major international charities. It distributes food parcels provided by a fund established by Ukraine’s richest oligarch, the Donetsk-born Rinat Akhmetov.

Balashov says that the Ukrainian government offers Responsible Citizens no official help, while the rebel Donetsk People’s Republic only tolerates its work. “Both sides say ‘these are our people’, but no one is caring for them. We need to find a school or similar place where the people who have lost their homes – and have no money to move, or relatives to go to – can spend the winter.”

About a third of Donetsk’s prewar population of one million are thought to have left the city, and its broad avenues are often eerily quiet, even before the 10pm curfew.

Many of those who remain are poor and elderly, and their needs seem far from the thoughts of militants fighting to escape Ukraine’s rule or politicians in Kiev, whose strategy for the east sometimes seems to involve nothing other than more bombing.

After last Sunday’s election, Ukraine’s pro-western leaders are now in talks to form a new coalition government. They are also seeking a new gas deal with Russia, to avert the danger of a major national, and even European, energy crisis this winter.

Separatist chiefs in Donetsk and Luhansk, meanwhile, are gearing up for elections this Sunday to find leaders for their “people’s republics” and fill their new so-called people’s councils. Ukraine and the West say the votes are an illegal sham.

“After elections there, and here, there will be legitimate authorities on both sides. I hope then our leaders will find a solution,” says Peredery. But her smile can’t chase the worry from her eyes.

“They do say hope dies last,” she adds.

Artillery fire

A crack of artillery fire sounds from Ukrainian lines, jerking the huddle of people from their pool of warm sunlight.

“You’d better go,” says Golovina. “Say hello to Ireland.”

With that, they all gather up their new blankets and line up by the steps, ready to disappear back down into cold, damp, pitch-black safety.