Dozens stood outside of the entrance to an apartment block on the outskirts of Kharkiv. Some were talking, others stared off silently, lost in their thoughts. All were exhausted and digesting their new realities. The disheveled building they call home loomed in the background, its windows blown out from days of shelling by Russian forces.
Located less than 20 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, has seen some of the heaviest fighting since the war began in late February. Nearly half of its 1.4 million residents fled in the weeks after the assault began.
As members of Nonviolent Peaceforce, an international unarmed civilian protection NGO, we visited Kharkiv in May to assess the needs of vulnerable populations, identify critical protection concerns and establish relationships with civilian-led response efforts throughout the frontline communities most impacted by the war.
While watching the building’s remaining residents tolerantly wait in line for their daily hot meal — provided by local, self-organized community volunteers — it was hard to ignore the fact that they were mostly the elderly and disabled.
Older people and people with disabilities should be prioritized for humanitarian assistance. These highly vulnerable populations are often unknown to humanitarian organizations and unable to access services they so desperately need.
The majority burden of providing support has been placed on self-organized, local volunteers. Across Ukraine, they have been delivering food items and medication. However, due to the informal nature of this volunteer response, supplies have been limited and there has been far too little humanitarian engagement on issues of protection. Efforts need to be taken to connect these populations with more well-resourced humanitarian assistance structures.
To make matters worse, months of living under shelling has had profound psychological impacts on those who have stayed. Chronic exposure to air sirens, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, and the general devastation of Kharkiv are distorting perceptions of danger and altering acceptable risks.
“We are not afraid anymore,” one woman told us, while several more stood around her nodding as an air raid siren wailed in the distance.
Another woman, named Tatiana, who was waiting in the food line as explosions went off nearby, invited us to visit her apartment and meet her husband Konstantin.
“My husband broke his hip before the war,” she said. “He can’t walk.”
As the bombardment began back in February, civilian collectives assisted residents, who were both willing and able to evacuate the city. Tatiana and Konstantin chose to stay. The two faced a predicament many in Ukraine have been confronted with in recent weeks: “Volunteers could have helped us to evacuate, but what would we do after the evacuation? Conditions in collective centers are overcrowded, and how would I take care of him there?”
In the apartments where the couple live, all of their neighbors, except one, have either evacuated the city or withdrawn to the building’s basement. Sheltering in cellars, metro stations and car parks is often the only option many families have for cover. For those who choose to remain or don’t have other alternatives, such ad hoc shelters aren’t always sufficiently reinforced to withstand the level of shelling the east of the country has been experiencing.
Staying in these shelters for hours, days or weeks is often harsh on those who find refuge within them. Artiom, an 8-year-old boy sheltering in the same basement with his family, said “I’ve gotten so used to playing inside the shelter, I no longer wish to step outside and play with my friends.” Artiom has been attending online classes and wishes to continue his education.
The conditions in the basement are deplorable. Sewage water drips from the apartments above and pools on the floor; there’s no light aside from the little bit cast by lanterns, candles and cellphones; temperatures remain chilled at best. This leads some, like Tatiana and Konstantin, to avoid the shelters and face the horror of Russian artillery. “We haven’t gone to the basement once,” Tatiana said, as she sat on a bed beside her husband, holding his hand and fighting back tears. “It’s very scary to hear the bombing.”
Their neighbor, Yuriy, a man in his late 60s, who lives with a disability, said he feels isolated and forgotten. “I can’t go to the basement,” he said pointing to his wheelchair. When asked how he endures the war, Yuriy explained, “It is a desire to live and survive.” Surviving has not been easy.
Russian artillery has targeted key infrastructure making basic items and services hard to come by. The nearest ATM, pharmacy and food stores are at least two miles away from where Yuriy lives, and this makes access impossible at times for residents living with reduced mobility. Making matters worse, money is tight or not available at all in some areas. Many report being unable to access their pensions, savings and other social benefits.
This is a struggle faced not only by those choosing to stay but the entire country. Access to services has been a major challenge, especially by those having special needs. When the house of 70-year-old Valentina was destroyed, she left her village in Luhansk, in the east, and headed west to Lviv. Valentina, who spent roughly 11 hours traveling alone by bus, joined her relatives who had evacuated from the village a month earlier. Luhansk has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks and its major city, Severodonetsk, is said to be 90 percent destroyed. Although Valentina is safe now, her worries are far from over.
She stays with her relatives and other internally displaced persons, or IDPs, from all over the country in a remote tourist camp in the Carpathian Mountains of western Ukraine. In the last two months, no humanitarian organization has offered support to Valentina or the others displaced in the encampment.
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A lack of humanitarian presence in remote locations has led us to call for aid efforts to decentralize the response and expand beyond urban hubs — while also bolstering and funneling international humanitarian funds towards local, community-led response efforts. Nonviolent Peaceforce will continue to have an active presence in both IDP transit hubs and these isolated, frontline locations.
One of our main objectives is to create area snapshots, highlighting both the protection concerns amongst vulnerable subpopulations, as well as advocate such needs to the larger humanitarian sector. Nonviolent Peaceforce also plans to step into the role of facilitating hyper-localized response structures to ensure limited community resources are well utilized. The key step is building deep relationships — moving at the pace of trust with these local collectives — and conducting robust service mapping in order to best refer individuals and local organizations. Once established, Nonviolent Peaceforce will be well positioned to act as a bridge between the on-the-ground civilian response and humanitarian machinery.
We have outlined these recommendations, among other location-specific needs, within our rapid assessments conducted in Kharkiv, and Mykolaiv, which builds on the summary of our preliminary findings published in May. We will continue our engagement with local communities in order to provide direct support and continue to draw attention to gaps in service. This is part of our role as an international NGO: to amplify the voices of the locals, both in regards to the incredible work they are doing, as well as their urgent needs. The international community must then follow through on the commitments made in what is known as the Grand Bargain, a unique agreement between institutional funders, partners, NGOs and individuals.
Meanwhile, as the summer continues and the owner of the tourist camp feels the economic pressure to reopen the business, IDPs like Valentina and her family will again be at risk of losing their shelter. Such economic push factors are a worrisome trend forcing many to return to their areas of origin, even if they are not safe.
“I see some people are going back to their villages and I think ‘where would I go?’” Valentina said. “My village is occupied. My house destroyed.”
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