I CALL MY FLAT THE HELLHOLE
2 December 2015
The stairwell leading to Olga’s* apartment is chilling: the doors are sprayed with shrapnel holes, glass crunches underfoot and the walls bear deep gouges and cracks. It’s eerily quiet.
With each step I think about the families who would have been here when the shells hit – did they survive? Have they fled now? Do they have money to repair their windows and walls?
Olga opens the door and warmly welcomes us inside. After taking off my shoes I look up to see a giant hole in the kitchen wall and loose wires hanging from the roof. I meet Olga’s eyes and she starts telling me her story.
Life on the contact line
Olga lives with her husband and two sons in Svitlodarsk, a town wedged between government forces and armed groups on the contact line in Eastern Ukraine. Olga’s husband had just sat on the couch with his dinner when the shells crashed through the kitchen window and landed in their sons’ room. If he’d been two minutes longer making his dinner, he would have been killed.
Olga remembers the moment she saw her husband after the shelling: “His first words were: ‘You wanted an arch between the kitchen and hall, didn’t you? Now you got it.’ After everything he experienced, he was still joking.”
“When I stepped into my flat I saw that the floor was cluttered up with pieces of wall. Everything was broken. I was pacing the room for an hour without any idea of what to do. There was no glass in the windows and cold air was coming from outside and chilled me to the bones.”
Olga chokes back tears as she describes how she feels now, almost a year after her home was shelled.
“I call my flat a hellhole…I wish it was clean and cosy as before,” she says. “There are still holes in the walls and I hope to repair them before the winter. But we don’t have enough money to do it. Prices have increased heavily. Maybe when I will fix all these holes in the walls the sense of home will return, but now I feel like I’ve lost it.”
Winter is here
Olga and her family are not alone. Thousands of homes along the contact line in Eastern Ukraine have been damaged or destroyed by shelling, and most families cannot afford to pay for the repairs as the cost of materials has more than tripled.
I can’t imagine what it’s like for children to live in a home without windows or doors or a roof. Even with layers of thermals and a down jacket the cold still takes my breath away. It burns my nostrils and numbs my feet and hands.
And the worst is yet to come – it can reach as low as -27 degrees Celsius here in winter.
A few weeks after meeting Olga and her family, I’m back in Svitlodarsk as the first snow falls and settles on the frozen earth. I stand on the side of the road and watch as trucks loaded with Save the Children’s shelter supplies arrive in town. We’re providing families with construction materials including roof tiles, glass, concrete and plaster, and organising for labourers to do the repairs.
After seeing so many families in desperate need of help, I feel a wave of relief knowing they will soon be warm and protected from the freezing conditions. And for children like seven-year-old Maxim*, whose apartment was almost completely destroyed, to feel safe and secure again.
“My dream is to live with my mum in the apartment…and to celebrate my birthday together with my mum at home,” Maxim tells me as he scuffs the snow with his boots. “My room will look nice. Beautiful and unusual, with exciting wallpaper and stickers.”