Nataliia Kolga* is 67 years old. She lives alone in the village of Maiorske, located only 200 meters away from the contact line in eastern Ukraine.
The armed conflict in eastern Ukraine has been going on for almost seven years. Despite some progress after the July 2020 ceasefire, civilian houses are still often damaged by the ongoing shelling. Nataliia’s home was not spared either. A majority of families relocated to safer areas, including her son who has a family of five children and is now struggling to meet ends in another part of Ukraine.
In the neighbourhood, Nataliia is known for her kindness towards abandoned animals. “Many families could not bring their pets along and left them behind. I took care of 15 cats and 4 dogs, and found new homes for the majority of them,” says Nataliia.
“I don’t want to leave Maiorske. My son and his wife hardly make ends meet, and I don’t want to put any additional burden on them. All I want is to stay in my own home which holds memories of the best years of my life,” she adds.
Before retirement, Nataliia worked at the local railway station. In her free time, she performed as a ballet dancer in a local amateur group. Like many retirees in Ukraine, she is entitled to a very small pension of about USD 80 per month. Her pension mostly covers the monthly cost of the medicine she needs.
One critical problem Nataliia had to face during winter months were damaged windows in her house. In 2014 and 2015, the fighting was very intense in the area. On several occasions, windows in the building shattered due to blast waves caused by ammunition explosions. Nataliia was unable to afford proper window replacement and had to use composite boards to cover holes. During winter, she could hardly keep her home warm.
This winter, UNHCR together with its partner NGO Humanitarian Mission Proliska helped Nataliia to solve the problem by installing modern windows in her apartment. Thermal insulation improved significantly. “May God bless the people who made it possible! I didn’t expect someone would help me, this is a miracle. It is significantly warmer in my home now and I feel much better,” said Nataliia.
Shelter interventions in Maiorske started back in 2019. The village, like several others along the contact line, saw many of civilian houses damaged by hostilities. People used their own resources or humanitarian aid to patch the holes. However, such ’repair works’ did not meet basic standards and could not ensure insulation. Most people living in villages along the contact line are extremely vulnerable. The average income for an elderly person is less than USD 100 per month, which makes it impossible to cover existing needs.
Thanks to funding from the Government of Japan, UNHCR Ukraine implemented shelter interventions to improve living conditions in villages near the contact line. Jointly with its partner NGO Proliska, UNHCR identified 28 households and provided them with cash grants that were used to cover the installation of new windows through local contractors. In total, 47 people benefited from this support and had proper windows installed in their homes, ensuring protection from cold winter temperatures in affected villages.
Tetiana and Yurii Rozhkovy also live in Maiorske with their 11 and 13-year-old children. Most of the apartments in their multi-store building are abandoned: central heating does not function and pipes bursted because of frost. To keep warm, the family purchased a small stove. Nevertheless, without proper windows, it was very difficult to keep a safe temperature in the apartment.
“Due to COVID-19 quarantine, our two sons had to switch to remote learning. We were desperate to make sure that home was warm enough so that they would not get sick. We are very grateful to donors for their support,” said Tetyana and Yurii.
Olena Kolomiyets is a 67-year-old single woman living in Maiorske. In 2015, a shell hit and damaged windows of her apartment. Olena could not afford to replace the window frames. “I covered windows with plywood boards, carpets, blankets, pillows and rubber sheets but it did not provide proper thermal insulation. Sometimes during the cold season, the temperature would go as low as -20C°. Such conditions are life-threatening. Since the window was replaced, I was able to survive freezing temperatures. It is significantly warmer in my apartment and I spend less money on heating.”
In 2020, with the funding from the Government of Japan, UNHCR jointly with its NGO partners repaired over 170 houses of conflict-affected families living near the contact line.
*All names have been changed for protection reasons.
Photos: UNHCR/Artem Getman
This article was edited by Sarah Vallee. Find volunteering opportunities at https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en