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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Flashlights, fire and ingenuity: Life without power in Kyiv

Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, Nov. 30, 2022. After months of repeated Russian strikes, Ukraine’s capital can no longer take electricity, water, heat, cell service or internet for granted.

By Marc Santora

Elevators across Ukraine’s capital are stocked with emergency supplies in case the power fails. Banks have sent messages to customers to assure them their money is safe in the event of prolonged blackouts. The National Philharmonic played Tuesday night on a stage lit by battery-powered lanterns, and doctors last week performed surgeries by flashlight.

This is Kyiv, a modern, thriving European capital of 3.3 million people and now a war-torn city struggling with shortages of electricity, running water, cellphone service, central heating and the internet.

One popular cafe has created two menus — one featuring heated food like homemade pasta for when it has power, a second offering cold dishes like Greek yogurt with granola and applesauce when it doesn’t. At another restaurant, a chef cooked on a sidewalk grill, and as the coals burned red, two young men warmed their hands. The sun sets early, before the school day is done, so children hold flashlights while waiting for their parents to arrive in total darkness to pick them up.

Generators of all sizes rattle and roar across the city, where municipal officials estimate that 1.5 million people are still without power for more than 12 hours a day.

Every week for nearly two months, Russia has sent waves of missiles targeting Ukraine’s energy grid. Those targets include Kyiv, which had been relatively unscathed since last spring.

After nine months of war, nothing is so new as to be shocking, but the attacks on power have left residents of Kyiv exasperated and exhausted. With temperatures in the city often below freezing, extended power outages are also potentially deadly, threatening health care services, raising the risk of people suffering hypothermia and leading to a rise in accidents.

Even as crews work around the clock to repair damage from the latest barrage — one last week that temporarily knocked every nuclear power plant in the country offline — Ukrainian authorities issued urgent warnings that another wave of missiles could be on its way.

“You go to bed knowing today was bad and tomorrow could be worse,” Vlad Medyk, a 25-year-old musician, said Monday.

He has moved his bed away from the windows in case a Russian missile explodes nearby, and he tries to make sure his phone is fully charged before he falls asleep so he can hear an air raid alarm. As he spoke, he was busy improvising a covering from cardboard boxes to protect a new generator from the falling snow outside the music shop where he works.

Last week, the skies above Kyiv thundered as 20 Russian missiles were shot down over the capital. Roughly a dozen more found a target, part of a fusillade of the more than 600 that Russia has aimed at infrastructure across Ukraine since October.

The damage from the last assault has so far proved the most difficult to recover from. A week later, most residents still do not know when they will have power.

Herman Halushchenko, the country’s energy minister, said Wednesday that the stability of electricity supply was “improving every day.”

“If — this is key — there will be no further attacks on the power system, then in the near future, we will be able to stabilize and reduce the time of the outage,” he said.

But the hardships of the past week have already changed Medyk’s outlook. One of the missiles destroyed a music studio in an industrial park on the city’s outskirts where he plays with his band Onaway, killing two security guards and a woman who were there at the time.

Planning for the future is a luxury he said he does not have; he is simply trying to get through the present.

“You don’t think about entertainment, about work that really brings you pleasure,” he said. “You think about banal, life things for survival. It all comes down to this.”

For the most vulnerable — older residents struggling to walk up darkened stairways in high-rise apartments, the sick who need urgent care, traumatized children who crave routine — the hardships can be dire.

For more, it is a strange and wearing life.

Through all the stress and danger, though, Kyiv residents grind on, showing up for work, caring for family, chipping in to help others in need and even allowing themselves a few indulgences.

Maryna Musat, 38, a masseuse who works in central Kyiv, said she was surprised that not a single client had canceled recently.

“We all carry on despite the darkness,” she said.

Even on the day last week when strikes were bursting in the air, a regular client managed to reach her for a booking.

“So I took my bag and went to work,” she said. “It’s a bit depressing when you work in total darkness for hours, but I learned to massage with closed eyes.”

In the Podil neighborhood, the capital’s old trading district, generators were providing power to pharmacies, restaurants, health clinics, hotels and sporting goods stores as businesses seemed determined to keep their doors open.

If the Molotov cocktail was the symbol of defiance for the citizen army of baristas, janitors and accountants that sprang up after Russia invaded nine months ago, the generator is now the weapon of choice on the energy front.

“Can you imagine?” Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion who is now the mayor of Kyiv, said in an interview in his office Tuesday afternoon. “In one moment, you do not have electricity. Not just that. You do not have water. If you want to take a shower, no chance. You do not have heating. Your cellphone doesn’t work — no connection.”

He said it was like being stranded on an island.

“You are alone, in darkness,” he said.

Unpredictability has led to improvisation.

“We created this menu that says, ‘kitchen with no lights’ and ‘kitchen with generator,’ so everyone will still have some food and drinks,” said Valeria Mamysheva, 20, a barista at the Bursa Hotel’s cafe.

At the moment, she said, they were on generator power, so they had to limit consumption and could not use the espresso machine.

“We have tea, we have some alcohol when it is acceptable to sell it, and filtered coffee,” she said.

Her smile was bright, but her eyes were tired. An air raid alarm had just been lifted, and she confessed that she was exhausted.

“I have no energy left for anxiety and constantly being in a worrying state,” she said.

Despite the hardship, she does not want to leave Kyiv.

“There is no place better than home, and I just realized I am going to miss it if I go somewhere,” she said. “So I decided to stay here and support the economy somehow.”

Antonina Kharchenko, 25, said she no longer tries to take the metro to work since fewer trains means jammed platforms. But her biggest problem, she said, was not having heat in her home when the power goes out. She priced generators online, but the cheapest she saw was more than $2,700.

“They were sold out anyway,” she said.

Ihor Mykhnenko, the 41-year-old head of fire security for the State Emergency Service of Ukraine in Podil, said that improvisation could lead to new dangers.

Many people have taken to using gas camping stoves in their homes, often placing them on top of electrical stoves.

“When the power comes back on, the gas stoves blow up,” he said.

But in Ukraine, risk is relative.

Dmytro Balla, 21, escaped Russian occupation in Kherson, Ukraine, at the end of the summer and is one of the tens of thousands who came to the capital as a place of refuge.

“It is cold, always cold,” he said, warming his hands on a restaurant’s outdoor grill as a gentle snow started to fall. “But the air raid alarms, the lack of electricity — that is nothing after you survive Russian occupation.”

Dmytro I. Ostapenko, Ukraine’s former minister of culture and arts and now the director of the National Philharmonic, said that from the moment the lights first went out earlier in November, they decided the show would go on.

“This is our front line,” he said, holding a lantern as he made his way around the darkened corridors of the stately 19th-century mansion that the philharmonic calls home.

As musicians prepared to take the stage and someone fixed a broken piano string by the light of a cellphone, Ostapenko said the mission of the musicians was clear.

“We work to warm the souls of people,” he said. “So that people can find comfort here in this extremely difficult time. So that people believe in themselves and believe in us.”

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