Winter aid provides lifeline for people in eastern Ukraine

UNHCR has increased aid supplies to people in eastern Ukraine, where freezing temperatures and fighting make the winter months a struggle.

Sergei and his mother are among around 15,300 people in Ukraine who are receiving winter aid from UNHCR.  © UNHCR/Hugo Reichenberger

KYIV, Ukraine – Even during gunfire and freezing winters, Sergei* and his 83-year-old mother always had their rose garden to lift their spirits. Then, one day in 2016, a shell reduced it to ash. Now, for them and millions of others in eastern Ukraine, it will be a struggle to make it through the winter months.

Plummeting temperatures and conflict have led UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, to step up distributions of aid, including clothing, fuel and cash, to the most vulnerable.

“At least this coal can provide my mother with a more comfortable winter,” says Sergei, who received three tonnes of coal from the agency to keep the house warm and for cooking. “If you hadn't given us the coal I would have bought it – but then I wouldn't have had money for medicine for my mother, transport to Donetsk from our village or food like bread."

About 15,300 people in Ukraine are receiving winter aid from UNHCR, including single parents, the elderly and people with disabilities or chronic illnesses. Most have been displaced from their homes by the conflict in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, now in its fourth year.

“This coal can provide my mother with a more comfortable winter."

Houses near the line of contact are frequently damaged by shelling and villages have been cut off because of damaged or degrading infrastructure. Restricted access to transport has made it harder for people to collect benefits, food and medicine.

Winter brings additional hardship, as temperatures can plummet to minus10 Celsius in December and minus 25 in January. Many people live in poorly insulated homes or collective centres and are often forced to choose between buying food and medicines, or fuel to heat their homes.

In non-government-controlled areas, UNHCR is providing 4,000 tonnes of coal to 3,000 households and more than 7,500 items of winter clothing. UNHCR is also repairing 500 homes to make them suitable for the winter. In government-controlled areas, UNHCR provides unconditional cash grants to 1,000 households, and winter jackets to more than 4,700 children.

Katya, who is 78 and lives alone near the contact line in Luhansk, had her roof punctured by shelling last year. UNHCR has helped to repair her house and provide her with coal to see her through the freezing winter. "My husband passed away last year and I have no children – I’m all by myself," she says. "I don't know how I would have survived winter if it wasn't for this coal."

Ukraine. Helping the vulnerable in a town under fire

Dinu Lipcanu (left), who heads UNHCR's office in Mariupol, Ukraine, visits local residents whose houses have been damaged by artillery shelling in Avdiivka, Donetsk.  © UNHCR/Markiian Lyseiko

Movement across the line of contact is especially difficult during the winter. Checkpoint operating hours are reduced and heated waiting areas are limited. To help rectify this, UNHCR reinforces existing weather shelters at checkpoints or builds new ones as needed. 

“Our colleagues have recently described the incredible difficult situation of people living in eastern Ukraine during the start of the winter,” says UNHCR’s Ukraine representative, Pablo Mateu. “Some of the scenes are heartbreaking. As they drive into villages with UNHCR vehicles, they notice many vulnerable elderly walking out towards the vehicle, asking for help.

“Winter is an intense period for our humanitarian work. Weather conditions affect infrastructure already in poor conditions, especially roads, while electricity and gas supplies are often unreliable. 

“In some of the more remote, conflict-affected locations, people are sometimes unable to access basic goods. Many elderly people use most of their pensions to get coal and keep their places warm, and sacrifice the purchase of medicines for chronic illnesses. It is our priority to ensure that the most vulnerable IDPs and conflict affected persons have means to survive this year’s harsh winter.”

In total, the conflict in eastern Ukraine has displaced more than 1.5 million inside the country and more than 1 million outside its borders. UNHCR required US$37.6 million to assist them in 2017. However, only 35 per cent of the necessary funding has so far been received.

*Names changed for protection reasons.