In Ukraine, a humanitarian economy as the last bastion

In Ukraine a humanitarian economy as the last bastion

Before the war, the village of Staryï Saltiv, in the Kharkiv region, was a small Ukrainian Saint-Tropez, like to tell the inhabitants. Sleeping between two hills, the immense lake remains magnificent on this winter day, misted with pink under the setting sun. Fishermen attempt to catch catfish from a bridge partly torn off by an explosion, casting their lines through a gaping hole.

Staryi Saltiv was liberated by the Ukrainian army in late April, but Russian shelling continued even after the Russians withdrew from the Kharkiv region in September. The two bridges providing access to Staryï Saltiv were destroyed, as were 80% of the buildings in this village of 3,500 inhabitants, 45 minutes northeast of Kharkiv.

Most of the 1,000 residents who have returned to the village are now living on humanitarian aid. “There is no more work… It’s a problem, but we will find a solution, if the bombs stop…”, breathes Tamara Alexenko, sixty-something, ex-cook at the city school – transformed in a heap of ruins -, who is queuing for a serving of soup. Suddenly, deaf bombardments in the distance startle the fifty people, mainly seniors with Tupperware, who are waiting calmly.

Before the Russian invasion, nearly 3 million Ukrainians depended on humanitarian aid, especially in Donbass, where the country’s army has been fighting since 2014 against Russia and the separatist forces it supports. But, since February 24, 2022, the UN estimates that nearly 18 million Ukrainians are in need of humanitarian aid. The World Bank estimated at the end of last year that almost a quarter of the population lived in poverty, compared to 2% before the war.

“Thanks for the meal”

“We can only make estimates, because the statistical instruments do not work, and no one conducts real surveys”, specifies Hlib Vyshlinsky, economist at the Ukrainian think-tank Center for Economic Strategy, in Kiev. Large or single-parent families, people with disabilities and especially the elderly, who were already vulnerable, are even more vulnerable. Ukraine has nearly 10.7 million pensioners out of 40 million inhabitants, who often have to work and depend on help from relatives, with pensions capped at 4,500 hryvnias (about 115 euros), half less than the average salary.

“Thank you for the meal,” shouts a group of babushkas with applause. A hot meal: a lifeline in a city where there is no more gas, heating, water and almost no electricity, and where the shops have been destroyed. Just like packages sent by families from the rest of Ukraine or abroad.

“The hardest part is that sometimes we have to choose who we help, we can’t help everyone,” regrets Alexeï Mazourtchouk, a volunteer with the Myrne Nebo foundation, which provides supplies every day. Staryi Saltiv. The former event planner and videographer himself lost his job and has been living with a friend since his apartment in Kharkiv was destroyed.

If the Russians never managed to take this city located 40 kilometers from the border, they put the economy on the ground. For months, the daily bombardments have prevented people from living, going to work, shopping. All the inhabitants (they were 1.4 million) did not return. In Saltivka, Alexey’s district, the huge blocks of concrete buildings built during the Soviet era to house the workers no longer have windows, are riddled with shrapnel and sometimes ripped open by artillery fire.

A conversion to humanitarianism

You have to go to a warehouse at the gates of the city, where the Myrne Nebo foundation prepares the meals, to rediscover the bustling life of Kharkiv. In the freezing cold of this former factory, the radio at full volume, dozens of volunteers of all ages and social backgrounds knead bread, cut chickens, peel carrots.

They are part of a project launched by the owners of the posh Nebo chain, which owns several restaurants and bars in Kharkiv and its region. Just after February 24, 2022, they decide to open their doors to volunteers, who come to cook what is in stock. Eight months later, Myrne Nebo has kitchens in Kharkiv, Izium and Kupiansk. The association manufactures industrial quantities: 7,500 hot meals concocted every day, nearly 30,000 shopping kits distributed each month, for nearly 150,000 beneficiaries. Hygiene products and food are provided by local or international partners, including Unicef, or purchased from local farmers, with funds received from foreign foundations.

“Many bosses have reoriented their business towards humanitarian aid so as not to sink. They understand that only the end of the war will allow them to resume normal economic activity”, underlines Hlib Vyshlinsky. A reconversion which also makes it possible to provide jobs in the disaster areas. Thanks to foreign funds, Myrne Nebo has hired 120 people. Fifty more are volunteers but receive free, like employees, food products, the price of which has jumped, due to inflation of 33%.

Barman, cobbler, philologist… Behind the stoves, few had experience in catering or humanitarian work before the war. “We do it for a symbolic salary and because we are fed, but above all not to go crazy”, testifies Maksim Maksimenko, a 28-year-old neo-baker. Before the war, this big guy drove heavy goods vehicles to Europe. “I could have emigrated to Slovakia (where my wife and daughter fled) or to Poland, but I always came back to Kharkiv, this is where I am at home,” says the young man. He had just finished repairing his apartment in the north of the city when the first missiles destroyed it in seconds on February 24.

“Avoid Disaster”

“The scale of needs is enormous, but the mobilization of civil society too, people help, the displaced also become volunteers, and that’s how we avoid a catastrophe”, sums up the sociologist Oksana Mikheïeva. If humanitarian aid was primarily financed with local resources at the beginning (through crowdfunding and donations from entrepreneurs), today it depends above all on foundations, companies and foreign NGOs. Resources are indeed running out among Ukrainians, whether or not they have left their homes. In all, 8.1 million of them are registered as refugees in Europe, and 7 million are internally displaced, according to the UN.

“The big difference with other humanitarian crises is that many displaced people can continue to work online since the Covid-19, recalls Oksana Mikheïeva. But, because of the massive power cuts, the economic situation is likely to deteriorate. even worse in areas with little fighting. Without electricity or internet access, it is difficult, if not impossible, to carry out professional activities.”

In Staryï Saltiv, residents are not always aware of the entire logistics chain behind their hot meals. But Tamara Alexenko, a beneficiary, is sure of one thing: “Without this help, I don’t know how we could live…”