As many as three million Ukrainians are expected to leave their homes this winter, World Health Organization officials said Monday, as the Ukrainian government began helping residents evacuate areas they say lack electricity and heat can guarantee.
Voluntary evacuations, including from Kherson — the recently recaptured city in southern Ukraine that spent months under Russian occupation — began as Moscow’s mounting attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure hit residents across the country, stoking fears of staying warm and securing basic necessities like to get rolling power outages. Water outages and heating outages are becoming the new normal.
Iryna Vereshchuk, a deputy prime minister of Ukraine, said in a statement in Telegram that the government had started helping residents leave Kherson. At least one train left the city on Monday evening. The government also plans to help evacuate residents from Mykolaiv, another city with destroyed electricity and heating infrastructure.
Ms Vereshchuk urged “vulnerable categories of citizens”, including the elderly and those with reduced mobility, to take advantage of the government’s offer of free transport and accommodation.
“Given the difficult security situation in the city and the infrastructure problems, you can evacuate to safer regions of the country for the winter,” she wrote.
Although local officials estimate that only about 80,000 people remain in Kherson – well below the pre-war population of about 250,000 – some have begun to return to the city. A steady stream of traffic flowed into Kherson at dusk on Sunday.
But winter could be difficult, in Kherson and beyond.
Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, expressed his deep concern for the coming months. “Cold weather can kill,” he said. The coming winter, he added, “will be about survival.”
Ten million Ukrainians are currently without electricity and half of the country’s energy infrastructure has been damaged or destroyed, said Kluge. Russian forces have stepped up attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure over the past two months, causing power and water shortages in what appears to be an attempt to make the cold months as unbearable as possible.
The WHO expects between two and three million Ukrainians to leave their homes this winter “in search of warmth and safety,” Kluge said.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 7.8 million people have fled Ukraine as refugees since February, the largest forced displacement of people in Europe since World War II. Millions of others fled their homes but stayed in the country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged residents on Monday to limit their energy consumption. “All of our employees and businesses should be very economical and spread consumption over the hours of the day,” he said in his late-night address to the nation.
Hospitals are also confronted with the additional risk of energy shortages, said Kluge. Residents’ difficulty in accessing reliable health services has raised WHO concerns about the spread of the coronavirus and seasonal flu this winter.
And the country’s healthcare system itself remains under threat. Since the beginning of the war, there have been more than 700 attacks on health facilities, said Kluge.
In March, a Russian attack hit a maternity hospital in the besieged southern city of Mariupol, one of the earliest signs of Moscow’s readiness to attack health facilities and civilians.
And there were other challenges to the health system: in early November, Russian soldiers retreating from Kherson looted hospitals and pharmacies, as well as grocery stores, leaving many residents without food and medicine.
“The health system in Ukraine is facing the darkest days of the war so far,” said Kluge. He added that his organization provides emergency repairs and resources, including ambulances and electrical equipment.
Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal said in a statement Monday after meeting Mr Kluge that he was grateful to the WHO for its “strong support”.