A year after Russia launched its full-scale invasion, around 5.3 million Ukrainians – 12% of the pre-war population – are displaced within the country. Many are struggling to meet their most basic needs, with the elderly and people with disabilities among the most vulnerable.
“Internally displaced people (IDPs)… both in collective shelters and hosted in private homes, still lack firewood, warm clothing and blankets, electric heaters and electric generators, and cash for utilities, as the country continues to confront cold winter temperatures,” Joanna Nahorska, a spokesperson for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), told The New Humanitarian.
Overall, around 13.4 million people have been displaced by Russia’s invasion, including eight million refugees. Internal displacement in Ukraine peaked in early May last year – around three months after Russia’s invasion began – at just over eight million.
Since then, more than 5.5 million people have returned to their homes, although “it is difficult to determine whether these returns are permanent or temporary”, according to Safa Msehli, a spokesperson for the UN’s migration agency, IOM, whose data includes both IDPs and refugees.
Read more: What happens when Ukrainian refugees return
Predictions that EU countries would face a fresh uptick in refugees leaving Ukraine as Russia bombarded electricity and energy infrastructure – leaving millions to face the winter without heat – have not come to pass. But hundreds of thousands of people have been internally displaced by ongoing fighting in the east and the south of the country in recent months – some for the second or third time.
Nearly two million of Ukraine’s IDPs are in the east of the country, living in areas heavily affected by the war, including close to the front lines.
More than 80% of damaged housing units in Ukraine are located in the north and the east of the country, in the Donetska, Luhanska, Kharkivska, and Kyivska oblasts, which have seen the heaviest ground fighting and bombardment, according to Alyona Budagovska, a spokesperson for the NGO People in Need.
Those who have remained close to the front lines include a significant number of elderly people and people with disabilities. They often lack the financial means to relocate further away from the fighting and have had little choice but to move in with family and friends living nearby.
Additional barriers – infrastructure that is not handicap-accessible, and people not having smartphones to receive information about evacuation opportunities – have also made it difficult for the elderly and those with disabilities to escape the hostilities, according to Laura Mills, a researcher at Amnesty International.
“This puts older people and people with disabilities in the line of fire with striking frequency,” Mills said.
‘We lost our homes; we lost our families’
Yevhen, 62, is one of the many IDPs who have remained close to the front lines in the country’s east. On 5 December last year, a missile slammed into the village of Novosofiivka where Yevhen lives, killing two people, injuring two of his relatives, and destroying 13 houses.
“My sister and her two-year-old daughter are still in the hospital. They are both disabled and will face lifelong consequences,” Yevhen told The New Humanitarian during a recent visit.
Yevhen’s home was also one of those destroyed, and others who were rendered homeless have been living with neighbours or family members in Novosofiivka or nearby villages.
Residents The New Humanitarian spoke to were afraid to give their full names because they feared they might end up living under occupation if Russian forces advanced. They also said they would like to leave and move further away from the front line but didn’t have the money to do so.
“We lost our homes; we lost our families. It’s a collective trauma for all of us in the village,” said Tolia, 43, of the 5 December attack.
“I lost my sister and her husband,” he added, as the sound of shelling from the front line – approximately 50 kilometres away – rumbled in the distance.
Iuliia, a 33-year-old woman with cerebral palsy, was hit by debris from the missile strike while she was sitting with her mother and aunt in the kitchen of their home. She fell from her wheelchair and injured both her legs. Iuliia cannot speak, but her mother, 63-year-old Katerina, said she couldn’t leave her alone in the house anymore “because her physical and mental health have worsened dramatically”.
Katerina and Iuliia are still living in the damaged house, even though Katerina is afraid that the walls – cracked from the missile strike – might collapse, and cold air pours in from the shattered windows.
In the nearby village of Kupriianivka, Liudmyla, 65, was sleeping on her couch when a missile struck her home on 6 December. “By some miracle, both me and my three cats survived,” she said.
Now, Liudmyla is living with her son and his wife. “They do not have a spare room in their house, [so] I live in the corner of their living room,” she said, crying.
“I don’t ever go back to where my old house stood because I just keep crying every time I see it,” she continued. “I hear shelling and shooting every day. It’s unbearable.”
‘No money left’
People in Need is providing humanitarian aid to people affected by the missile strikes in both Novosofiivka and Kupriianivka. And in towns and villages across eastern Ukraine, the group is repairing damaged houses and fixing water supply and heating systems.
“Most of the IDPs want to return home, and choose to live in nearby safe towns or areas not far from their homes,” explained Budagovska, the group’s spokesperson. “The problem is that most of the settlements have critical destruction of housing and infrastructure.”
Some who have the financial means choose to move further away from the front lines.
Western Ukraine is hosting around 860,000 IDPs. “We see approximately 200 new IDPs arriving by evacuation trains every day, with around [another] 100 – or more – new IDPs who use different forms of transport,” Vasyl Zelenko, deputy director of Caritas Ukraine in the western city of Lviv, told The New Humanitarian.
“For internally displaced people, finding a place to stay is the first step to rebuilding their lives,” said Frances Oppermann, deputy country director for programmes at the NGO ACTED Ukraine.
But many IDPs can’t afford rent, and low-cost housing options are limited in the safer parts of the country. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people have ended up taking shelter in some 7,200 collective centres – many of them ill-equipped to meet long-term needs.
NGOs are working with local authorities to try to make sure those staying in the centres have heating, water, food, and bathing facilities. They also try to provide psychosocial support services, including for children traumatised by the war. But employment opportunities are hard to come by, and people’s resources often run out.
Local authorities in eastern Ukraine caution people against returning to their homes because of the ongoing fighting, damaged infrastructure, limited resources, and scarcity of jobs. But some feel they have little choice.
This is the case for Iryna Kapko, 40. Along with her husband and two children, Kapko fled her hometown of Horlivka in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine when Russian-backed separatists launched an insurrection in 2014, eventually settling in the central city of Dnipro and re-establishing their lives. But when Russia invaded in February last year, Kapko and her family found themselves displaced once again.
“For the second time in my life, I had to leave everything behind and flee again, with no money left,” Kapko told The New Humanitarian.
They went to Uzhhorod – a city in the far west of Ukraine close to the border with Slovakia where they had lived temporarily after 2014 – but were shocked by how the cost of rent skyrocketed because of the war. The family paid a real estate agent a steep fee to secure a flat. But “after just one month, my landlady increased the rent… and told me that I could leave if I don’t like it,” Kapko said.
Unable to afford the increase, Kapko and her family returned to Dnipro, where they found an affordable flat. The front lines are around 120 kilometres away, but the city regularly comes under bombardment and there’s the constant fear that Russian forces could advance at any moment.
Living closer to the fighting again is leaving a mark on the family’s mental health. “We don’t have a basement. When we hear explosions, the only place where me and my children can hide is our bathroom,” Kapko said. “We hear air raids. We walk among destroyed residential buildings and experience immense fear almost every day.”
For parts of this reporting, The New Humanitarian used transport provided by People in Need.
Edited by Eric Reidy.