Ukrainians freeze in eastern city

Maria Sutkovska has been living in her black cap, several wool sweaters and a bulky coat since a massive utility breakdown cut off heat to her eastern Ukraine city 18 days ago, plunging some 60,000 people into what they are calling "The Ice Age." "At night, I am scared that I'll die from the cold," said the 68-year-old retiree, who lives alone in an apartment that is a bone-chilling 3 degrees Celsius (37 Fahrenheit).

The outage began Jan. 22 during a cold snap when temperatures plunged to a record low of -38 C (-36 F). The breakdown was unprecedented even in this ex-Soviet republic, where aging communal heating and electricity systems suffer frequent problems, particularly when forced into overdrive.

A 4,500-person repair team has been working round-the-clock to get the heat back on since President Viktor Yushchenko visited last week, but some 20,000 people remained shivering in unheated apartments Thursday, warmed primarily by hot-water bottles. Yushchenko set the deadline for Saturday, but few were optimistic.

Military tents have been erected, where residents can come to warm up and receive some hot tea. Some 11,000 of the city's children have been evacuated to other Ukrainian cities, and many political parties have raced to outdo each other by donating money, boilers and tickets out of the city, apparently eager to win support ahead of the March parliamentary elections. Churches are handing out hot meals as rescue workers beckon the shivering into the government's tents.

"But then they have to return to their frozen apartments," said worker Volodymyr Oleinikov as he picked dry rot from a small stove set up between the tents. He's sick himself, and eager for his shift to be over so he can return to his home, which has heat.

Ukraine suffered heartily during last month's cold snap, with more than 700 dying across the country. The victims were primarily homeless and intoxicated people. "Hundreds and hundreds of our residents have died this winter," opposition lawmaker Nestor Shufrych said in parliament Thursday. "Tell me ... why is cold killing our people?"

Doctors in Alchevsk said they've seen four times as many patients suffering from the cold as usual over the last month. "In their cold apartments, people don't notice the frostbite in time," said doctor Viktor Prudnikov. "We've lost this war with the cold," said Oleksandr Antipov, 52, recovering in a hospital after having his fingers amputated. His wife stood next to him, also injured when the pair tried to fix a boiler in their home at the height of the cold spell.

Gradually heating has been restored in one apartment building after another. But some 270 buildings remained without heat Thursday, and even those switched back onto the system were uncomfortably cold, with temperatures only around 12 C (54 F). Some residents lugged firewood home, and others depended on small space heaters.

"We aren't planning to carry out huge repairs in these homes, we're just managing to extinguish the fire," said Oleksandr Kobityev, head of the repair effort. There were also no guarantees that another massive accident wouldn't happen again. Viktor Guz, who heads a civic group, said that one of the main problems was that the heating pipes which pump hot air throughout the city have different owners: One organization is responsible for the pipes in the homes, and another for those outside. "As a result, there is no one person in charge and these pipes have gone for a decade without repairs," he said.

Sutkovska shivered in her home, bundled in as many clothes as she could manage. "I'm scared I won't live to the next winter," she said, tears swelling in her eyes and her skin discolored by the cold. "I don't have the strength to fight this cold", reports the AP.


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