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Pummeled By Russian Rockets, Ukraine's Power Grid Sputters And Ukrainians Struggle

People wait at a tram stop during a blackout in Kyiv.
People wait at a tram stop during a blackout in Kyiv.

KYIV -- As the weather turns colder, and the nights grow longer, the streets of the Ukrainian capital are filled with the rumbling hum of power generators. For some, it's a constant irritation. For others, it's reassurance that food or coffee might still be available to buy in groceries, cafes, or bars.

Inside one convenience store in a northern district of Kyiv, storekeeper Yuriy Filimonov recently tried to persuade the owner to buy a car battery. That way, he can keep one or two light bulbs burning into the dusk of the lengthening evenings.

"This is totally screwed up," Filimonov, 34, said, using a stronger expletive. "I'm literally speechless about these attacks...I only hope it doesn't get worse."

Yuriy Filimonov stocks a dairy shelf amid a rolling blackout on November 6 in Kyiv.
Yuriy Filimonov stocks a dairy shelf amid a rolling blackout on November 6 in Kyiv.

Such is life not only in Kyiv, but in many cities these days in Ukraine, whose electricity grid has been pummeled by multiple barrages of Russian missiles and drone strikes in recent weeks.

The attacks, which have targeted power plants and substations, as well as water supply stations, have left at least 4.5 million Ukrainians without power across the country, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said. About 40 percent of the country's energy infrastructure has also been damaged.

Ukrainian officials are warning people -- in Kyiv and elsewhere -- to brace for a tough winter. "Whatever the terrorists want, we must survive this winter and become even stronger in the spring," Zelenskiy said in his nightly address on November 6. "Terrorists" is how many Ukrainian officials refer to Russia.

In Kyiv alone, with a population of around 3 million, about 450,000 households have been cut off, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on November 4. "Save electricity as much as possible, because the situation is getting worse," he wrote in a Telegram post.

The national government is also urging Ukrainians who fled the country not to return until after winter, said Iryna Vereshchuk, the minister for the reintegration of the Russian-occupied territories.

"Let's be honest, our enemies are doing everything for the city to be without heat, without electricity, without water supply, in general, so we all die," Klitschko told Ukrainian media over the weekend. "The future of the country and the future of each of us depends on how prepared we are."

Coping in Kyiv

The power outages have already begun to transform life in the Ukrainian capital, whose streets are normally clogged with traffic and whose central districts typically glitter with flashy billboards and illuminated high-rises.

In some parts of the city, lines of people wait at outdoor wells with plastic jugs to bring home for when the water shuts off.

People wait in line for drinking water in Kyiv during a recent outage.
People wait in line for drinking water in Kyiv during a recent outage.

As the sun goes down, streetlights remain dark; when air-raid sirens blare, employees of shopping malls and grocery stores are forced to go outside, or hurry down into bomb shelters, until the warning is cleared.

Kyiv residents navigate darkened city streets, or blackened building stairwells, with cell-phone flashlights, or head lamps. Drivers cautiously poke their way through intersections where traffic lights no longer work, and where pedestrians try to cross.

Antonyna Bondarenko, a 69-year-old retired schoolteacher, lives on the fifth floor of a 16-story building. She recently resorted to buying candles at a local church after her usual store ran out when people bought out the stock in anticipation of the outages.

A man wears a headlamp during a power cut in his building in the north of Kyiv.
A man wears a headlamp during a power cut in his building in the north of Kyiv.

The rolling blackouts that Ukraine's national grid operator, Ukrenerho, announced on November 6 means that she'll have to take the stairs up to her apartment more frequently. "I can still walk up and down the five flights of stairs, but now I have to schedule food preparation and laundry cycles during the blackouts," Bondarenko said.

The scheduled blackouts last for four-hour increments in northern and other districts of the city. Some neighborhoods closer to hospitals see outages less frequently. So far, the outages are on a schedule, so people can try to plan their lives around them.

Olena Kolomoyets, 41, who evacuated to Kyiv from the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in April, is making ends meet tending bar -- sometimes by candlelight -- while also caring for her 5-year-old son.

She says that for the moment, she's working 12-hour shifts seven days a week on alternating weeks. "I have candles, flashlights...and having gas helps to make food during the blackouts, but it's difficult to call someone when the power goes off," Kolomoyets said. "That feeling of insecurity is not good."

Olena Kolomoyets tends bar in Kyiv.
Olena Kolomoyets tends bar in Kyiv.

While Western countries have poured money and weaponry into Ukraine to bolster its fight against Russia and steady its economy, replacing things like transformers or substations is more painstaking and problematic.

A dozen countries have said they would supply equipment to help rebuild the energy system, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said earlier this month. The Group of Seven major industrial nations are also slated to meet to come up with a wider plan to help Ukraine survive the winter.

Nearly $350 billion is needed for reconstruction across the country, including for the ongoing damage to the electricity grid. That amount is expected to grow, according to a report in September by Ukraine's government, the European Commission, and the World Bank.

"Once all this is over, I want to return to my farmstead and help rebuild the country," Kolomoyets said.

With reporting by AP
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    Mark Raczkiewycz

    Mark Raczkiewycz is a Ukraine-based journalist. A former RFE/RL news editor in Washington, he is the Kyiv correspondent for the New Jersey-based Ukrainian Weekly newspaper. He also contributes to the English-language Kyiv Post and has reported for Bloomberg, the Financial Times, the Associated Press, the Irish Times, The New York Times, and other publications. 

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