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Mykolaiv: A city without doors, windows and half of its citizens

Scarred by nearly one year of war, Ukraine’s southern Mykolaiv city and its remaining residents are struggling through a winter of freezing temperatures, darkness, and despair. For many, the main aim is to get through the day and organise practicalities - from finding drinkable water, staying warm, sourcing food, and hoping for electricity to heat water, charge phones and connect with loved ones near and far from home.

Alexandra Strand Holm

Posted on 30 Jan 2023

Written by Alexandra Strand Holm

By night, the streets of Mykolaiv are silent, dark, nearly empty with just a few people around and only some scattered lights in the windows of people who have put up candles or organised other lighting. Christmas trees lit up by battery-driven chains of small and colourful electric bulbs have become the lamp of the season in some instances when power cuts after sunset happen and last often for hours. It looks cosy, but these days in Ukraine it is not least a matter of finding simple, practical and multipurpose solutions that work – and that function not least as means to keeping old traditions alive at a time when they are even more treasured cultural and religious anchors to cling on to. 

When the sun rises, a different urban environment appears in Mykolaiv. Windows and doors of homes, shops, and offices are blinded by plywood as emergency repairs after blast damages affecting vast areas. Plywood covers are interim solutions to cordon off and make spaces protected, livable, and make people better able to heat up other rooms or parts of their homes.  

Reconstruction is for later 

With financial support from the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, DRC has provided 100,000 m2 of plywood to the City Council of Mykolaiv to close off missing windows and doors that have been blown out by bomb blasts.  

‘Supplying the plywood and enabling this emergency repair is a simple intervention that has had great impact. It has proven to be of critical importance, not least now as winter temperatures are plunging and with people struggling to heat up their homes. This help is already much appreciated by the authorities and residents of Mykolaiv,’ says Julian Zakrzewski, Country Director of DRC in Ukraine.   

In addition, the support to Mykolaiv includes 50 water treatment plants from Ukrainian Ecosoft fitted with 50 kilometres of pipes and water pumps from Danish Grundfos are being installed across Mykolaiv at strategic and accessible locations to provide people with sufficient and safe drinking water since the oblast was cut off from the main systems and sources coming from neighbouring Kherson Oblast. The interim water treatment systems work through so-called reverse osmosis and a process that is taking salt out of the water currently sourced from the estuary.  

Clean water at the hospital 

A hospital in Mykolaiv is among the locations where water treatment stations have been installed. It has beds for around 1,000 patients, and was forced to use salty water for months. The new water station serves multiple purposes from cooking, sanitation and supplying the 800 staff working there with access to safe drinking water. 

Not only lack of safe water has been an issue at the hospital in the past year. On 1 August 2022, the hospital was hit by a missile. . Luckily nobody was killed, but it severely damaged the new emergency ward that has been cordoned off and is now out of use. Two nurses sustained light injuries from glass cuts due to the blast, tells a technical caretaker of the hospital who was there when it happened. He and his family had moved to a wing of the hospital shortly before the strike as it was no longer safe in their hometown outside Mykolaiv city where fighting and attacks intensified.  

‘I used to work at the shipyard for many years and then retired. But the hospital gave me an offer to start working here and now I oversee all the technical installations and practicalities including the new water treatment system that is a big improvement to everyone here after many months of using water that is too salty,’ the caretaker, Gennady says.  

The hospital has also been challenged due to lack of stabile electricity, but generators are now in place as back-ups, not least to secure capacity to undertake surgery and other critical treatment.  

Electricity outages – planned and organised to reduce pressure on the damaged grid but often also unexpected after attacks - are the order of the day in Ukraine. Being an Achilles heel of a functional society, energy infrastructure continues to be targeted, leaving transformer stations and power grids damaged and out of order, eventually disrupting and disabling safe and comfortable life and living. 

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Half the population has left 

Based on the water consumption, local authorities estimate that 300,000 of the pre-war population of 600,000 have left the city to find refuge, protection, and safety elsewhere. Some have become internally displaced within Ukraine, others across borders where Temporary Protection schemes, safety and basic services are granted.  

People with resources, capacity and physical conditions that allow them to travel are the majority of those who have left. Like in the rest of Ukraine, the residents of Mykolaiv Oblast who have stayed behind – including around 100,000 in rural areas - have by now endured nearly one year of war, frequent missile strikes, destroyed infrastructure, as well as hours, days and even weeks in basements and interim bomb shelters - and now living through a second winter of war. 

A city of elderly and vulnerable 

At times, Mykolaiv seems almost as a city of elderly who are out strolling, shopping, fetching water, walking their dogs, sitting at benches or passing by parts of their beautiful Black Sea port city trying to grasp how well-known homes, buildings, schools and public institutions are turned into rubbles.  

The few people venturing out in the streets in the daytime are no longer the regular crowd of Mykolaiv. Most are women, some with children, and many elderly people. It is those who not been conscripted for military service (men between 18 and 60 years of age) or lost their homes or trust in staying on due to frequent bombardments and random attacks hitting residential areas. 

Some say that they either refuse to leave home and all they know. Others, that they simply cannot overcome hazardous and demanding travel due to poor health, lack of money or with no other places to go to. They stay on and try to cope. 

Returning to Mykolaiv 

‘The missile hit the block right here at 3 o’clock in the middle of the night,’ a woman explains pointing to the apartment block that has been ripped apart by the blast.

‘It was back in April and has been like this ever since. There was a 16-year-old boy in his bed next door to the living room. He survived, but both his parents were killed. The boy now lives elsewhere in Mykolaiv with his grandparents,’ the woman explains. She lives nearby and is at the site with her newly returned niece and the niece’s daughter who have come back after several months in Bulgaria.  

‘My husband is a sailor and far from home,’ the niece tells. ‘We went to Bulgaria to stay there for some time after the attacks were getting closer and more frequent. But it’s better to be here, no matter what’, she says. ’It may be dangerous and damaged or even in rubbles… but it’s home and what we know.’  

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Finding refuge in the city 

Mykolaiv city is home to an array of industrial production including proud traditions of ship construction with multiple docks and shipyards. These large factory areas and facilities have been targeted and largely destroyed since February 2022.  

The Mykolaiv shipyard was hit in July 2022 by a wave of strikes and aerial bombardments. Since then, it has been quiet around the factory grounds with signs of large impact from detonations and with piles of debris – a sight that has become prevalent across Mykolaiv.  

Down the main road along the shipyard area, an elderly man sweeps the pavement. He is from a rural area of Mykolaiv, new to town and has had to adapt to a whole new type of life and livelihoods, and is now a street sweeper.  

‘I used to live in the countryside outside of Mykolaiv city, but my home was destroyed in an attack some months back. My wife and son were in the hospital for some months. Now, we have moved into a small apartment here and we try to get by as good as we can manage,’ he tells.  

Housing for factory workers, homeless citizens, and returnees 

Not far from the shipyard is a large Gas Turbine Research and Production complex - ‘Zorya’ meaning ‘sunrise’ in Russian - from the Soviet era, but taken on by Ukraine and functioning up until recently. It is one of the many areas that have been hit as well.  

Two dormitories nearby from the 60’ies are also part of the Zorya area. They were previously serving students of engineering, mechanics and other technical trades and capacities related to the shipyard and turbine production. Since 1991, when Ukraine gained independence, the dormitories were continued for use but turned into housing for factory workers.  

DRC has contributed a community-based and locally driven initiative restoring and improving the ground floor of one of two former dormitories with ready-to-use rooms, communal bathrooms and spaces for cooking. Around 13 rooms are ready, including some with easy access and facilities for people with disabilities. They are now offered as interim housing free of cost to internally displaced people and others who have lost their home and want to return to Mykolaiv. They are intended not least to attract skilled workers who are willing to return and able to help rebuild the city. 

Larisa is one of the new inhabitants on the ground floor. She moved in recently and is grateful for the space. ‘Everything works well here and I’m grateful that I can stay for some time,’ she says and slips into her room. 

Among the inhabitants elsewhere in the four-storey building is Galina on the first floor who lives here with her husband. The floors above the ground are not renovated but improved and repaired over time by the tenants. For Galina and her husband, this has been home for 33 years. 

‘We like it here and have been given accommodation as employees at the factory. The rent is reasonable. We pay only for the utilities. So, in winter it can be up to 1,500 Hryvnia (around 37 Euro) and during summer only half. And we can stay on also when we retire.’    

Their one-room home is neatly organised and serves as a living-dining-sleeping space with beds, cupboards, a table and not least the plants that Galina grows and shows with pride. She worked at the factory’s greenhouse and later as a cleaner. Galina recalls a particular and traumatising day in April 2022, when rockets and missiles rained down on the area. ‘Even the balcony was shaking,’ she says. ‘Now, whenever I hear an air raid alarm, my heart sinks and I am constantly worried.’  

Her husband has just come back from fetching water, helped by another resident who has a car and can transport the heavy jerry cans back to the dormitories. They contain 20 litres and are enough for some days. Families living here with children often need to fetch water every day. The dormitory residents, like the rest of Mykolaiv, must make their way to the water supply stations with treated and tested water set up by Mykolaiv City Council with DRC support and through financial assistance from the Danish government.  

The frequent air raid alarms prevent people across Ukraine from moving around and getting themselves organised and prepared before another power cut and another night of worry, silence and pitch darkness. 

Spring is only a couple of months away but seems far on a winter day in Mykolaiv where another day has passed. Once more, with air alarms, power cuts, and concerns – and news that missile attacks have hit the previously busy and popular Black Sea port city.

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