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Luhansk: A deeply comatose city

Luhansk: A deeply comatose city
Article by: Halyna Tereshchuk
Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
Lviv – After the so-called ‘elections’ on November 2 in the ‘LNR’ and ‘DNR’ the people who did not leave their homes for various reasons, are learning to live under the new conditions.  Some openly supports the new ‘government,’ some are silently accepting, and some make themselves learn to survive. Radio Liberty spoke with Svitlana, a business owner who has lived in Luhansk for almost 30 years after having graduated university in Kyiv. She talks about how people manage usual everyday problems. 

In July Svitlana left Luhansk. She crashed with her friends and acquaintances. However, in September, she returned home, to Luhansk. As of today, she has no work or income. She lives off her savings and her friends’ help. 

Svitlana, was your home preserved? Is there heating, as it is below zero in Luhansk? Is there water and gas?

Luckily, the apartment and the building were not damaged. Water supplies are irregular, sometimes 5-6 hours a day, sometimes 2-3 hours. However, the water was not chlorinated before and it isn’t now. So we cannot drink it or use it to cook food. Most apartments have no central heating. Only a couple of buildings in the city center were connected. They switch off electricity during evening hours, between 5:30 and 10 p.m. People who have generators have electricity in their homes. There is gas, but the pressure is very low, if the apartment building is tall, there is not enough pressure to reach the top floors.

Do many windows have light in them when, naturally, electricity is on?

Individual windows, very few. If we’re talking about a 9-story building, I counted 18 windows with the light on. They also turn off electricity on the peak when people turn on their appliances. The Luhansk mine was flooded and the entire district of Yuvileyny still lacks water and electricity.

And in the streets, is it safe for people, especially young women? 

If it’s not late in the evening, and if the girls don’t provoke, then I have not seen instances of danger. But I have long ago taken my only mink coat to my friends in Kharkiv. I am not going to bring it back or wear it, especially, because it is dangerous. I don’t put on any jewelry, you walk around all mousy in order not to be noticeable.

What does Luhansk look like now in general? Can you feel the war around you, or is everything peaceful and quiet? 

People walk the streets, and next to them are individuals in full military ammunition. They come into stores and stand in line together with civilians. However, they buy everything as well, they don’t just take what they need just because they have weapons. I saw them pay too.

The city lives its life, if it can be called that, actively, until 2 p.m. Marshrutkas circulate until 4-5 p.m. Therefore all the Luhansk citizens try to do their errands before 2 p.m. Those who work longer stand at bus stops and wait for transport. After 6 p.m. marshrutkas no longer circulate, and the city becomes still in total darkness. You can hear the cannons in the distance, it’s a feeling of war. There are attacks on Shchastya, the ‘cossacks’ cannot contain themselves in Stanytsya Luhansk.

Are there cars in the streets, not only those that belong to the so-called new ‘government’ and the mercenaries, but civilians as well? 

There are now, I even saw expensive SUV’s: Lexus, Mazda. Expensive normal cars.

So the people are coming back home? 

Yes, they are, because this is their home.

Does looting happen? 

Not anymore. This happened during the active period, they mostly looted big rich houses.

Please tell us, Svitlana, what do the people look like, are they very worn-out and thin?

Very, I lost 20 kilograms myself. The people’s diet changed, plus the stress and pressure. It is a bit easier now that we have tap water. We have survived the constant search for technical and potable water.

The so-called ‘LNR’ government has a program called ‘Providing the population with potable water.’ They would give everyone 10 liters of potable water for 10 days when they presented their passports. But there has been no water in those points for two weeks now. They sell potable water. First it was 30 kopeks per liter, then 40; starting November 1 it’s 60. However, the people who have no money left cannot buy water for themselves.

What is the situation with food? Is it sold and are the prices very high? 

Until recently we bought everything at markets. Supermarkets sold food at their doors, they would take out their shelves and people could buy legumes, chicken, oil, eggs. Luckily, the villagers bring vegetables and fruit. There are enough potatoes, carrots, beets. The prices are the same as they are in Kyiv, however they are bit higher on agricultural products.

Is there baby food? 

The supermarkets just opened, but there were shops like in the Soviet days. They have a baby food isle, diet food, but the selection is very poor.

Banks do not work, the people have no pensions. Where does one get money to buy even the cheapest food?

Before the elections on November 2 it was announced that as a pilot project, in one of the districts they would issue not pensions, but material and social assistance. People signed the letters. They said: “material aid for the elderly – 1800 UAH.” The new ‘head’ of the ‘LNR’ government Igor Plotnitsky later announced that the pension for all population categories in the ‘LNR’ would be the same – 1800 UAH. The money was issued in post offices. The people first signed up for the line, stood for three days. The lines were crazy, and there still are some, for these handouts.

How do people who are not retired but who have lost their jobs live?

They don’t, nobody wants to deal with them. Though the new ‘government’ says they will have a center for the unemployed. The ‘government’ building is plastered with announcements that such and such workers are needed, usually low-qualified ones. The people go, those who have nothing, because they need to survive somehow. Announcements for those who want to go to the ‘police’ or ‘army’ are also hanging there. It says they have a salary between 5 and 8 thousand UAH.

People need medical assistance: women give birth to children, someone needs surgery, someone has a toothache. Where do they go, whom do they ask? 

Luckily, I am not sick and I did not go anywhere. This is really lucky. However, the new head of the ‘government’ of the ‘LNR’ Igor Plotnitsky promises social cards. Those who went to the elections got them. This gives an opportunity to get medical care, all necessary medicine; you can call an ambulance, if you have a card, and the paramedics will provide you with medicine. I don’t know how this social card works. I don’t have it and I hope I won’t use it. But the people manage somehow. The oblast hospital worked and still does as both a clinic and a hospital. This is where the people go.

My friends have a dentistry. They are not open yet. For business to start working, they have to re-register with their government, the ‘LNR.’ It has an ‘Agency for Trade Relations,’ which issues business permits.

Can medicine and hygiene products be bought in pharmacies? 

The Luhansk pharmacy business is selling off everything that was left in the stocks in horrible condition. I know that the pharmacies are being refused re-registration. Even those who have pharmacy chains in the city. Nobody explains why. But there are some that re-registered with the ‘new government,’ or maybe they were nationalized, it is unclear. They work – the others don’t. Many people simply lost their businesses.

What is the situation with other businesses in the city – hairdressers, markets?

Some hairdressers have opened already, as they underwent registration. In general private businesses in markets are open, as they have permission. Repair shops are also open because they have a simplified registration procedure.

Are Luhansk citizens forced into joining the rebellion? 

During combat, yes. The people dug trenches, it happened.

How many civilians died of hunger, in collapsed buildings, from bullets, do you reckon? 

I think nobody will ever say these numbers. There will be people who not only died of hunger, but who died in fallen buildings, lonely people in the private sector.

Do Luhansk citizens support each other today and before?

Those who survived all combat, they even prepared food all together in communal buildings using improvised stone ovens in the courtyards, for everyone. These people communicate. Even the open ‘cottonheads’ who just accept Russia’s, Putin’s side, everything what is happening in Luhansk, they became slightly better and softer than before the war. They may give their seat to the elderly in transport, or give a hand, help carry a bag. This happens, and it did not before.

What changed them?

They probably comprehend that they survived war. It is difficult to analyze this now, but it does exist.

We talked about water, gas, electricity. Do people pay for public utilities?

We pay nothing. The local ‘government’ said that on October 15 all the measures of electricity, gas, water, all debts will be ‘annulled,’ nobody understands how this will happen. And starting October 15 we have been paying other prices, lower than Ukrainian ones. However, I saw them, they are the same tariffs.

Do schools and kindergartens work? 

The paradox is that six new schools opened on September 1, not fully, not equipped, but they opened. As of today, 52 out 60 Luhansk schools are open. I know this for sure, because I monitored the situation. Chlorinated water is not supplied to schools either and in 2/3 of the schools, electricity comes from generators. 18 thousand children in the city go to school. 21 kindergartens are open in the city, with about 3 thousand children.

Do the bus station and the railway work? 

The railway station does. Every day there are trains to Kyiv, every other day they go to Odesa and Moscow as well. The Kyiv train comes with a big delay. There is no information at the railway station. When trains come to Luhansk, they let nobody out of the carriages, two armed people go inside and check their papers. Only then do they let people get off. They need registration.

Svitlana, what kinds of feelings does Luhansk evoke from you today?

I loved this city very much. Today, Luhansk has become an alien dying city to me. Even though the Philharmonic holds concerts and the Russian drama theater also opened on October 26; the musical theater also started the season, and there is a marionette theater that only has performances for children in Ukrainian. There is a cultural component, but the city became alien to me, despite the fact that some things work there somehow. There are university students too, because all higher education institutions opened on October 1.

Something in Luhansk changed irrevocably to the extent that I cannot say that I feel comfortable, cozy there, my soul just hurts very much. The city was ruined, it was turned into a village center. Luhansk is degrading, the part of its soul when the city developed and lived has disappeared. There are districts which suffered serious damage. They are the districts that were shown on Russian TV channels. There are no Ukrainian news channels even on cable. Mostly the youth uses the Internet; the ‘cottonheads’ don’t get how it works.

What next? How will you live?

From Ukraine’s point of view, we are part of Ukraine. However, in reality, the ‘DNR’ and ‘LNR’ are two new states and we live in them. On Ukrainian territory, but they are absolutely different states which have new laws they make up as they go.

I cannot even convey my state, my feelings, I am stupefied. The ‘head’ of the ‘LNR’ Igor Plotnitsky said at the press conference after the so-called elections that in the nearest future they would create a banking system, a simple one, which would only work on ‘LNR’ territory. ‘LNR’ sees the economy as money-product. Money ends or there is money that people send from Ukraine. The new ‘government’ will try to create a new form of economic relations – money-product. It is a stillborn child and it is sad to see it, and very painful. And somehow we have to learn to survive and just live…

Translated by: Mariya Shcherbinina
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