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ROME – With Russian air and missile strikes targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure amid their ongoing war, thousands of Ukrainians have been left without power, prompting aid workers to look for temporary fixes for people at risk as winter temperatures continue to drop.
Speaking to Crux, Tetiana Stawnychy, director of Caritas Ukraine, described situation on the ground in Ukraine as “very critical.”
“There’s obviously still very intense ongoing fighting along the frontline, we still have waves of fresh internally displaced persons. Additionally, we have these newly liberated territories where we’re trying to get resources in to provide for people who have been occupied for a really long time,” she said.
The biggest challenge by far, Stawnychy said, “are the direct hits to the energy infrastructure in the country.”
“It’s critical energy infrastructure, and it’s a very difficult situation,” she said, saying Russian strikes have so far destroyed around 50 percent of Ukraine’s energy capacity, “so there’s rolling blackouts in about 17 regions in Ukraine, plus in the capital. That’s the piece that’s probably on most people’s minds.”
Compounding the energy crisis is the onset of winter, with temperatures in some areas of Ukraine already dropping below zero.
Stawnychy said the workers and volunteers with Caritas have been prioritizing house repairs since the end of the summer, patching up windows, doors, and roofs that were blown off in strikes so people can move back into their houses for the winter.
Some people, she said, have started to return to their homes, but this is now being complicated by the damage to the energy infrastructure.
“With the high-rise buildings it’s a problem because they’re dependent either on electricity or on the government being able to provide heating,” she said, saying the situation is better for houses that can produce their own heating independent of the country’s power grid.
To this end, part of Caritas’s most recent work, Stawnychy said, has been to provide hard fuel in areas where it’s needed, as well as small portable heating stoves.
Over the past few weeks Russian military have pounded Ukrainian energy and power facilities, leaving millions without heat or electricity as temperatures continue to drop with the onset of winter.
Local authorities in many regions have urged citizens to ration their electricity, using only what is essential, while energy companies have attempted to organize blackouts to ensure people are able to access heat and electricity at the most critical times of day.
Citizens in cities recently liberated from Russian occupation such as Kherson and Kharkiv have been urged to evacuate to safer areas in central and western Ukraine, as local authorities fear damage to infrastructure in the areas is too severe for the rapidly approaching winter months.
Recent strikes in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv have caused blackouts in roughly two-thirds of the city. Three of Ukraine’s nuclear energy plants had to be switched off Wednesday due to Russian missile strikes, however, as of Thursday morning officials the plants should be operational again by evening.
Power for critical facilities such as schools and hospitals has also reportedly been stabilized.
Despite ongoing attacks, intense fighting, and internal troubles within the global Caritas network related to Pope Francis’s decision earlier this week to fire the entire leadership of Caritas Internationalis and name a temporary administrator to oversee management affairs, Stawnychy said the work on the ground has continued uninterrupted.
According to Stawnychy, there are now more workers and volunteers with Caritas Ukraine than when the war first broke out after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
Thanks to a generous response to an emergency appeal launched earlier this year, Caritas Ukraine was “really able to scale” up their work over the past few months. They now run 42 humanitarian centers throughout the country and provide support to around 450 parish hubs responding to basic needs.
Caritas Ukraine has more than 1,600 staff working on the ground in Ukraine and roughly 2,000 volunteers, “so we are really able to maximize the use of the church infrastructure,” Stawnychy said.
In addition to fuel and stoves they are providing in areas with no electricity, Caritas is also providing basic needs such as food, water, hygiene, and shelter, as well as psycho-social support through programs that offer counseling and child-friendly services where children traumatized by the war can process their experience through art therapy and other methods.
Worker and volunteer teams are also present in recently liberated cities, providing basic necessities and psychological support, Stawnychy said.
In terms of the cumulative toll the war has taken on the people, Stawnychy said “it’s hard,” but that the presence of community has helped, especially those working within Caritas.
“It’s almost like I see that we find our own healing by being in Caritas right now… it’s a community of people and we all support one another in the mission,” she said, saying, “there’s something really healing about going outside of yourself and helping other people.”
“War destroys relationships, war destroys trust, it brings chaos, so when you go out and help people and when people can receive it and you feel that you’re giving and receiving back, that you’re helping somebody, it’s like restoring that thing that gets ripped in war, it’s restoring relationships that get destroyed in the war,” she said.
In terms of the risk of nuclear war, Stawnychy said that fear was more palpable at the beginning of the war, but that most people have tablets to take for radiation on hand, in case things get to that point.
Right now, “the focus is really on the energy infrastructure,” she said, voicing her belief that the solidarity being shown with and inside of Ukraine will be key to its recovery.
Asked whether there is hope that Vatican’s ongoing offers to help mediate the crisis could prove effective, Stawnychy declined to comment, saying, “I think we will just have to wait and see the particular, concrete situation at the time.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen