Christmas in Kyiv: “Cold and loneliness scared me – not the Russian missiles”

Roman may have been at his best when I saw him, but remarkably he sounded almost cheerful. He lived with his huge, thick-furred cat, which he joked provided warmth. The hut consisted of a toilet, a small corridor with a hotplate and a room where the only furniture was a bed with sleeping bags. He had neither heating nor electricity. I gave him a headlamp I bought in Paris; he accepted the small gift like a pot of gold.

We sat together in our coats, gloves, hats and boots. Still, the cold was searing, unbearable. Roman said he sometimes slept part of the day to keep warm. His mother was living at a friend’s house nearby because her house had also been destroyed. When she arrived with food for her son, she told me that she also lost her home and all her belongings.

“Everything,” she asserted, pointing to her heavy parka, which was passed on by a neighbor. She pointed to her shoes, her hat, her gloves. Nothing was hers. “Good people have given me clothes to wear, but I have nothing left.”

Roman was still fighting his wounds. The thick ice in front of the hut made it almost impossible to walk without much effort. He and his mother were both homeless and dependent on the kindness of others. Still, they seemed grateful, full of determination and backbone. “Well,” she shrugged, “we’re alive.”

I thought back to the winter of 1992-1993 when I was covering the Bosnian War. During the siege of Sarajevo I thought I would never understand the concept of warmth again. All of us – citizens and journalists alike – slept in our clothes. In the morning it was too cold to change clothes and moving outside was risky, not because of the snipers and shellfire, but because of the freezing cold that seemed to freeze the lungs. The cold was painful, but worse, it made everyone depressed because it was impossible to operate – to move, to do basic tasks. Life had come to a standstill. And I thought of a journalist friend who had told me that the unheated Bosnian winters would affect her health for the rest of her life. It’s true. It’s as if once you endure this kind of freezing, your internal body temperature never fully recovers.

I asked Roman how on earth he thought he was going to survive the winter. “We are strong,” he replied. “We will win this war.” I get it. He would make ends meet like us in Sarajevo Grit, out of pure will – and by being part of a community of like-minded souls.

Later, back in Kyiv, I spoke to Victoria Amelina again. She echoed a similar sentiment. “When I don’t feel good enough to climb stairs,” she said, “I know I can stay with my friends. Winter teaches people to rely on each other. We won’t freeze to death. And not only people help each other, but also animals. My dog ​​likes to keep me warm.”

Janine di Giovanni is the managing director and co-founder of Reckoning project: Ukraine witnessesan NGO that documents and verifies Kremlin war crimes in Ukraine. Christmas in Kyiv: “Cold and loneliness scared me – not the Russian missiles”

Charles Jones

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