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'People feel they don’t have a right to celebrate': Christmas in a bomb shelter in Ukraine

Under unimaginably difficult circumstances, Christmas will be a more significant time than ever for those caught in war in Ukraine

A christmas tree and child in a Ukraine bomb shelter

Photo: GLAZUNOV NIKOLAY

In February, Russia invaded Ukraine. Millions of Ukrainians fled abroad. Many more stayed behind.

This winter, according to the UN, an estimated 11.2 million people are in need of shelter assistance and essential items such as blankets. With Russia targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, the freezing temperatures will bring new hardships to those trying to survive.

Depaul Ukraine, part of Depaul International, have supported homeless and marginalised people in Ukraine since 2007 but had to transform their operations this year. Thousands have lost their homes due to bombing; entire towns are without a water or heating supply.

They work across Ukraine, including Kharkiv, which is known as the city with no windows after months of constant bombardment. Deep underground is a bomb shelter where men, women and children – mostly women and children – are staying.

Publicly run, Depaul Ukraine provides support to those living there – from distributing food and hygiene items to installing a generator, and now helping them to plan a Christmas that is as normal as possible despite the extraordinary circumstances.

Olga Shevchenko

Olga Shevchenko, humanitarian programme manager for Depaul Ukraine, explains what life is like for the people of Kharkiv and beyond, and why celebrating Christmas this year is more important than ever.

The Big Issue: What is the latest situation where you are in Ukraine?

Olga Shevchenko: I’m in Ternopil Oblast, at one of the projects where we have the mothers and children that were evacuated from Kharkiv. The situation is pretty bad in terms of the electricity. Last week we didn’t have electricity in Kyiv for over 40 hours, also in Kharkiv and all across Ukraine because of the damage to the power plants. So that’s the big problem now because we don’t have phone connection and internet in a lot of places. That slows things down. But the rest is good, I think.

With no power, does that impact on heating as well?

Yeah, definitely. A lot of apartment complexes are out of heating and water. Because the pump works on electricity. Private houses as well. A lot of them depend on electricity for everything.

What is the mood among the mothers and children you’re supporting who had been evacuated from Kharkiv?

A lot of them experience uncertainty. Some of them are ready to move back to Kharkiv, but their houses are dam- aged or there’s no heating or they’re afraid that there will be no electricity and they feel safer in the west. But they all are pretty much homesick and wanting to come back home.

For those who remained in Kharkiv, what is life like?

We have temporary accommodation projects where we place families with children in hostels. Then we also have support centres where people can pick up their food baskets. We have a psycho- logical support team working in a big bomb shelter in Kharkiv – 300 adults and 35 children stay there. A lot of them haven’t come out since the beginning of the war because they’re too scared.

Why is it important to celebrate Christmas in the bomb shelter?

We see it as an opportunity to remind people that life moves on and you can’t get stuck in this trauma. Some people feel like they don’t have a right to celebrate anything until the war is over because they have had family members go to the army and fight and die.

We have this saying here that since February 24 [the day Russia invaded] it’s still February. So now it’s like February 251st or something. But I think it’s really good to just bring people together and have this little milestone, of OK, we’ve been through this for this long and we survived, we all are good, we are well, we have something to celebrate.

How are the plans coming along so far?

We first wanted to just do this for children. But when we started talking about planning this and planning the menu, we saw how adults were getting excited. They all started sharing the foods they used to eat for Christmas at home, and they are all now wanting to cook something for a community table together. So it’s really nice. For the shelter, they made their own decorations with our team. We want to have gifts for children – some sweets, warm socks and things like that.

Families get festive in their Ukraine bunker
“It’s very good to have a sense of hope at this time”: Kharkiv residents living in a shelter get into the festive spirit. Photo: GLAZUNOV NIKOLAY

What will be on the menu?

They have a list of food items we will buy for them because they want to cook themselves – traditional Ukrainian salads and a big chicken, things like that.

How are you and the team coping in this difficult situation with no end in sight?

I think we’re doing well, it’s good to know that we can do something. Some of my friends who left Ukraine feel worried about how things are here and how their loved ones are. Feeling helpless is very damaging. It’s the worst feeling. So being here and being able to help and do something for others is very good for me. Of course, we get tired and things get stressful but we all are grateful that we can do this together.

What can we in the UK do to help people in Ukraine?

You can donate through our website, that’s probably the best way. But even just keeping us in mind helps. Whenever we hear about the support that we get from different countries, it’s very encouraging. Because it’s getting tiring, this war, and we know Russia is very big and can fight for a long time. So it’s good to know that people do not forget us.

Christmas is about hope. And it’s very good to have a sense of hope at this time. And to remember that it’s all going to pass and good things are going to stay.

You can support Depaul Ukraine’s winter appeal here

This article appears in The Big Issue magazine. Buy a copy from your local vendor.

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