His name was Oleksandr. He came from a neighboring town and became the transmission belt with the Russian occupiers in the village of Hnilitsia, in the Kharkiv region. This collaborator was trying to cajole local Ukrainian authorities into working with the invaders. The authorities of the village, from which half of its thousand inhabitants fled, refused. Despite everything, there were no reprisals, the municipal officials themselves acknowledge. In Hnilitsia they imply that the Kremlin troops had more resistance in surrounding towns, where they ended up installing from the first day of the invasion, on February 24. Finally, they fled on September 11 in the middle of the local army’s counteroffensive. Oleksandr, the liaison of the foreign uniformed men, also put land in the middle. They believe that he crossed the Russian border, thirty kilometers away. Unlike other nearby towns, with serious damage from the fighting, the houses of Hnilitsia are still standing, but the population, victims of the earthquake that supposes a war, now depends on humanitarian aid. Also to eat.
As a consequence of the armed conflict, one in three Ukrainians is food insecure and up to 40% of people in war-affected regions in the east consume insufficient amounts of food, according to the World Food Program (WFP). In the last year, the price of the shopping basket has risen 35% in the country, acknowledges the director of that UN agency in Ukraine, Matthew Hollingworth, during an interview with EL PAÍS in kyiv. In addition, the Russian invasion has triggered the poverty rate from 2% to 25%, according to forecasts managed by the World Bank by the end of 2022. That figure can reach 55% by the end of next year, explained Arup Banerji, director in Eastern Europe of that institution, in an interview with the Reuters agency in mid-October.
Two vans leave from a huge ship in the city of Kharkiv loaded with food in the direction of Hnilitsia, about three hours away by road. They transport 300 individual rations. Each 12.5 kilo box contains wheat flour, oil, salt, sugar and cans of meat and beans. They are prepared by the WFP, a United Nations agency, and distributed by the humanitarian organization ADRA. Next to the bus stop, where one of the two delivery points is organized with the neighbors, there is a grocery store from which a few customers come and go. Most queue, however, to collect food from the NGO. That 35% increase in food prices “is a very large increase as a direct consequence of the war,” explains Hollingworth, who adds that in many places there is not even a place to shop.
In eastern and southern Ukraine there are about 2.5 million people living near the combat regions. Many are Ukrainians who have not been able to escape to safer areas due to economic problems or lack of family ties, Hollingworth describes. “Most of those who stayed had no choice and there are many older people who are alone or disabled,” she warns. In turn, Moscow has so far ignored all WFP requests and does not allow assistance in the area of Ukraine occupied by its troops. Although they do not reach those territories, the agency helps 2.8 million people a month in the country with basic food or with vouchers redeemable in stores.
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Covered in a green scarf, Maria Fediuk, 79, barely manages her box of groceries. She just picked her up on the road leading to Hnilitsia. She has been a widow for six years, she has spent her occupation in solitude, without family, without garden products, without animals… She says that the few savings she has are used for medicines. As a young woman, she worked in a nursery before turning to agriculture. Later, she herded cows that she also milked, until the farm closed. When asked if she misses the country’s Soviet past, the woman purses her lips between her teeth and shakes her head without opening her mouth.
“They don’t allow us to live better than they do. That’s why [Vladímir] Putin wants to keep our land, which is very productive. All Russians are jealous of Ukraine, ”says Oleksandr Zelensky, 69, who bursts out laughing when he says his last name, the same as the president’s. In any case, he clarifies that the Russians “did not do horrible things here.” “They took the car of one of the neighbors, but they didn’t kill anyone,” he explains. Zelenski waits with several dozen people for his turn to be given his food ration. For this man, who came to Hnilitsia in 1977 as a teacher, the main problem now is not so much food as the lack of mobile phone reception and internet connection. “We have to go up there to connect,” he adds, pointing to a nearby mound. Next to him, Gregori Babak, 63, one of the heads of the village, is clear: “The first need is peace.”
Black panorama until spring
The director of the WFP paints a black picture between now and spring. In addition to the lack of resources of a significant part of the population that survives near the front, there are now millions of victims of attacks on energy infrastructure carried out by the Russians in recent weeks. The last one – and the most compelling, according to the authorities – took place on Tuesday of last week. That has made the geographic scope of vulnerability much broader, Hollingworth notes. Another problem is that of the areas under Russian occupation, to which they have not been able to gain access. “We know that there are people in need,” he says, based on his experience in land liberated by the Ukrainians, but they do not have “a permit,” laments the head of the World Food Program in Ukraine. He assures that they will not stop knocking on the door, but, so far, Moscow has not opened it.
The seniority of Nikola Vitsota, 52, has elevated him to the leadership of one of the two areas into which the village is divided. The main challenge now, he says, is to recover mobile and internet connections. He was the one who refused to collaborate with the Russians. And not only that. He was also in charge of putting away any documentation that could be compromising or of some value to the occupants. He is grateful that the destruction has not been like that suffered in towns like Izium, in this same region. Neither do the dead. The Russians, who entered Hnilitsia on February 24 due to the proximity of the border, barely took an ex-soldier for three days to be interrogated, says Vitsota along with dozens of stacked boxes that the employees of the NGO ADRA leave them in the municipal offices. And, while he proudly shows a video on his cell phone, he remembers that it was he who had the honor of raising the blue and yellow flag of Ukraine again when the military entered to liberate the town.
In Hnilitsia there are hardly any kids and young people left. There were about thirty children before the war, now only about ten, Vitsota estimates. Someone flutters around the place during the distribution of food. Like a Rare avis, goes with his mother Valeria, a 21-year-old girl. She has two children. The eldest, three years old; the little one was born a week before the invasion. He recognizes that those who have stayed are because they have no way to leave. A few meters from her is Maria Fediuk, the old woman who lives alone. Her box of food sits on the bench at the bus stop. He can’t handle her and has a ride home. Some manage to move it on the bicycle or in carts. “I don’t know how I’m going to get back. I haven’t thought about it yet,” laments the woman.
She is not the only one who has this problem, but war not only brings out the worst in human beings. Also the best. Soon, the neighbors who have cars help others. It is the law of solidarity on the border of hunger. In any case, the biggest challenge is that, little by little, the population becomes autonomous again, because emergency aid cannot last forever, says the director of the World Food Program. That of a lifetime: teach to fish instead of giving fish.
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