DONETSK, Ukraine – Dark tunnels in the basement of a bombed-out hospital in the eastern city of Donetsk lead to a makeshift shelter. Opening the door hardly alleviates the gloom, for the only lighting inside is the flicker of handmade oil lamps.
The inhabitants move around like shadows, eyes dull and faces weary with hardship, dressed in several layers of worn-out sweatshirts, vests and jackets. The tiny rooms are lit with sunflower oil poured into saucers and set aflame.
These people took refuge in the abandoned hospital's basement after their own homes were destroyed. They are either too poor or old to flee the brutal separatist war that has ravaged Ukraine's east. Their dire situation is about to become much worse as Donetsk, which has lost nearly half of its 1 million-strong population, braces for winter. In eastern Ukraine, where temperatures typically stay below freezing all winter, damage to critical infrastructure and lack of adequate shelter for the newly homeless could mean death from cold for many.
"We have nowhere to go," says Vera Dvornikova, a 70-year-old janitor who has been living in the basement of Hospital 18 on the northern outskirts of town since her apartment was obliterated by shelling in late July.
Her murky room is cluttered with shabby relics of the past, battered old chairs and something with a blanket on it, which could be a bed. "We don't even know who we should ask for help," she says. "We just sit here like rats."
The basement that Dvornikova shares with 19 others has no running water or heating, and electricity has been cut off for a month. Asked how she is preparing for winter, Dvornikova mutters vaguely about keeping warm with an oil cloth and two blankets which she took from the hospital upstairs.
The hospital lies in a residential area full of five-story blocks with missing roofs, gaping holes in the walls and gutted windows. The neighborhood is across the bridge from the airport which has been an epicenter of heavy fighting between pro-Russian rebels and government forces for weeks. As the homeless huddle in basements, gangs of purring stray cats roam the streets outside.
A few blocks away, a repair team is fixing a hot water pipe that will soon switch heating on for one of the damaged houses. Alexander Zuyev, the team's supervisor, says it is not within his power to help Dvornikova and her fellow lodgers because the hospital, like many buildings in the neighborhood, has been too heavily damaged. Without the roof and windows, he said, fixing the heating is pointless.
Some of Donetsk's boiler stations that provide heat to homes are situated on the front line of fighting. Accessing them to switch on the heating — if the equipment is intact — is simply too dangerous, Zuyev says.
About 1,000 houses and apartment blocks, some 10 percent of the city's total, have been damaged by shelling, according to Maxim Rovinsky, a former official in the Donetsk City Hall. Many are beyond repair. The rebel government says that over 3,000 homes have been damaged.
Ukraine's Social Affairs Ministry says the government has compensations measures in place for damaged houses, adding that regional governments are obliged to provide temporary accommodation for people in need. But in reality, residents of destroyed homes find no officials to turn to — forcing them to find their own shelter like the residents of the hospital basement.
As of Tuesday, nearly 2,000 private houses and several dozens of apartment blocks were without electricity, while 49 villages and 3 towns in the region were partly or fully cut off, according to the local energy company DTEK. The separatists' self-proclaimed prime minister, Alexander Zakharchenko, said Russia is helping with funds to repair infrastructure but he did not specify how much money was at their disposal.
Compounding Ukraine's energy woes, European Union-brokered talks to guarantee Russian gas imports into Ukraine throughout the winter broke up inconclusively early Thursday, with a draft for a 'common understanding' sent to Moscow and Kiev for consideration, according to an EU official who asked not to be named because an agreement had yet to be reached.
Heating woes aside, the rebel stronghold is surprisingly well-stocked considering it is almost entirely surrounded by government troops. Many grocery stores, pharmacies and open-air markets are open. One upscale restaurant, well-established before the war, is offering its customers oysters this fall.
Food prices have shot up, however. Valentyna Dedyk, director of the wholesale food distributor Sotrudnichestvo, says her suppliers have raised prices by about 25 percent since June. Some foodstuffs are produced in Donetsk, she says, but many are shipped from other Ukrainian regions across the enemy lines — increasing costs. The goods are now shipped with the help of an intermediary who can guarantee the cargo clears checkpoints on both sides.
And the sight of well-stocked markets in Donetsk can be deceiving. The elderly residents who stayed behind cannot afford to buy from them since most have not received pensions for at least three months. Coal miners and municipal workers like Zuyev and his team who were repairing pipes have not been paid for months, either.
Even after losing control of the area in spring, the Ukrainian government kept paying pensions and benefits there before they froze them in May. The press office of the Social Affairs Ministry said the government has cut off pensions to about half a million people in the area under rebel control "as the cash could simply be stolen." But the pension can be withdrawn from "any location under government control." Rebel leader Zakharchenko said on Wednesday they were going to start paying "part" of the pensions next month.
In the basement of Hospital 18, auto mechanic Vladimir Tumanov, whose home was destroyed in late August, lives in limbo with his 73-year-old mother who is too ill to leave town.
"We will get through this winter somehow as long as mortars ... stop falling on our heads," Tumanov says. "Everyone here prays every day for the war to end."
Yuras Karmanau in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.