Sarajevo’s pain echoes as Ukraine prepares for dark winter

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina (AP) — Vildana Mutevelić is crammed into her apartment with her two young children and older cousins. They had no heat, electricity or running water as the shells tore the roof off their buildings and nearly killed them.

To survive, she improvised.

Mutevelić made a lamp out of used motor oil, water and shoelaces as a wick. She cooks over a fire fueled by books, furniture, shoes or clothes. She discovered that the plastic spoon, when lit, can be used as a makeshift flashlight if she’s out and about. The plastic sheeting covering the burst windows was just a flimsy buffer against the freezing cold. Her world news comes from a neighbor whose radio is powered by a car battery.

“The power went out immediately,” Mutwelich, 70, said through an interpreter. “Everything in our freezer melted. Basically, those were our stocks. That’s it.”

For Mutvelic, these are memories of three decades ago, when Bosnian Serbs laid siege to Sarajevo, killing thousands of civilians. But it all happened again in Ukraine. Russia’s armed forces are targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as winter weather sets in.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has accused Russia of “energy terrorism”, said earlier this week that some 9 million people were without power. The country’s attorney general, Andriy Kostin, told The Associated Press that Russia’s deliberate attack on essential utilities in Ukraine was another act of genocidal, the most heinous war crime.

“We are convinced that the crimes committed by (Russia) in Ukraine have all the hallmarks of genocide,” Kostin said in a statement. “The aggressor state is ‘weaponizing the winter,’ depriving Ukrainians of the basics of life — electricity, water and heat.”

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This story is part of an AP/FRONTLINE investigation that includes the War Crimes Watch Ukraine interactive experience and the documentary “Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting War Crimes” on PBS.

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Suffering and dying civilians as a way to bring governments to their knees is not a new wartime strategy. But it can easily fail. Families, neighbors and the entire community banded together to brainstorm and resist. As Sarajevo did. Just as Britain did 80 years ago when it refused to bow to the relentless onslaught of Nazi Germany.

“Modern man’s ability to survive coercion and aggression simply because he wants to continue to exist is sometimes underestimated,” said Bruno Tries, a geopolitical adviser at the Institut Montaigne, a Paris-based think tank.

The Ukrainians showed the same determination and ingenuity. Larysa Shevtsova’s apartment in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson loses power and water. But in cramped kitchens, gas still flows into the stove. With two firebricks and the advice of a family friend, she and her husband were able to keep the temperature in their home tolerable without being confined to the kitchen.

They put a brick directly over one of the four burners of the stove, and covered the other three with cauldrons and kettles. When the rectangular block was hot enough, it was carefully carried into the living room and placed on top of a Soviet-era space heater that no longer worked. Shevtsova, her husband and two sons, one of whom is 3, huddled around the bricks for about 30 minutes to keep warm.

“We use this method to heat a room,” Shevzova said. “Until then, we just froze.”

Since February, the Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” have independently documented more than 40 Russian attacks on Ukraine’s power, heat, water and telecommunications facilities from various sources.

The scope of Russia’s destruction of roads is not limited to one region of Ukraine. From east to west, Russia has launched drone and missile strikes aimed at causing maximum damage to Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, with attacks increasing sharply since September, according to an Associated Press analysis of data.

Repeated attacks have accustomed Ukrainians to daily power outages to keep systems from overloading as temperatures continue to drop.

“We should be clear about what Russia is doing,” President Joe Biden said at a joint news conference with Zelensky at the White House last week. “It intentionally attacked critical infrastructure in Ukraine, disrupting the systems that provide heat and light to the Ukrainian people during the coldest, darkest time of the year.”

Russia shows no sign of slowing down on Ukrainian energy cyber attacks. Russian President Vladimir Putin said the wave of strikes was in response to an Oct. 8 truck bombing on a bridge linking mainland Russia to Crimea, which Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million to 3 million Ukrainians will leave their homes this winter in search of warmth and safety.

“It’s never a military imperative to intimidate civilians, demoralize them, and make them demand the surrender of their leaders,” said Mary Ellen O’Connell of the University of Notre Dame, a law professor and International law expert. “Even if you’re attacking a military objective, if the intent is to terrorize civilians, then you’re committing a war crime.”

Moscow has launched 168 missile strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure since Russia’s incursion began in February, nearly 80 percent of which occurred in October, November and December, according to Kostin. Ukraine’s state-controlled Naftogaz oil and gas company reported earlier this month that more than 350 of its facilities and 450 kilometers (279 miles) of gas pipelines had been damaged.

Russia is targeting Ukraine’s power grid “because it’s the easiest way to destroy civilization and create a humanitarian disaster,” Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, chief executive of state grid operator NEC Ukrenergo, told The Associated Press. Without electricity, basic utilities and other critical infrastructure sectors, such as communications and healthcare, would be paralyzed, he said.

“No transmission system operator in the world has ever experienced a disruption of this magnitude,” Kudrytskyi said.

NEC Ukrenergo described on Facebook how when it was knocked out it dispatched hundreds of technicians and experts to restore power to “patch what can be patched and replace what can be replaced”. But it can sometimes be a Sisyphean task. Russian shelling in early December cut power to much of the newly liberated Ukrainian city of Kherson, just days after it was restored.

During the bloody disintegration of Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s, the people of Sarajevo experienced the same darkness and cold as Serb troops laid siege to the Bosnian capital. Like Ukraine, Bosnia faces existential threats from a neighbor seeking to control the country through partition.

One stark difference between Sarajevo and Ukraine is the reaction of the Western world.

For nearly four years, some 350,000 residents of Sarajevo were trapped, facing daily shelling and snipers. Without regular access to electricity, heat and water, they can only survive on limited humanitarian assistance from the United Nations, drinking from wells and foraging for food.

Fearing more bloodshed and seeking a political solution, the U.S. and the European Union’s predecessor, the European Community, backed a U.N. arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia that prevented the Bosnian government from acquiring weapons to counter Serb attacks.

For Ukraine, money and arms are flowing. The United States has delivered or pledged billions of dollars in military aid, including batteries of Patriot surface-to-air missiles, the most powerful such weapon ever promised to Ukraine.

“Ukraine has weapons. What we got was an arms embargo,” said Vildana Mutevelić’s 38-year-old son, Mirza Mutevelić. “I think it’s another injustice.”

Lamia Polic, a retired nurse in Sarajevo, dodged bullets to fetch water and used a metal trash can as a stove. Firewood is hard to come by. By the summer of 1993, most of the trees in Sarajevo had disappeared, and the stumps were being dug.

“So we burned everything: slippers, shoes, old clothes, books, everything,” Polik said. “We heat the smallest room in the apartment, the kitchen, and we’re in there all the time. You build a fire, but it only lasts a few minutes, and then you wait until you can’t stand the cold anymore and start another. I remember our blankets and sheets were so cold, you could feel them being wet.”

Some residents of Kherson, a city along the Dnieper River in southern Ukraine, face similar difficulties. The city, the only regional capital captured by Moscow’s forces, fell to Russian hands in the early days of the invasion and was held for nearly nine months.

As they retreated in November, Russian forces damaged power lines and other critical infrastructure, leaving thousands of Kherson’s newly released residents in the dark.

Larissa, who declined to give her last name out of fear of reprisal from her family, told The Associated Press in late November that she sometimes felt like she had a nervous breakdown.

Unlike many homes that have access to natural gas, Larisa’s home relies entirely on electricity. So when Russian soldiers sabotaged energy supply lines, she and her husband were kept in the dark, unable to cook or take hot baths. So they ate canned mackerel, pate and porridge in the dark in the cold apartment.

About once a week, Larysa would go to a friend’s house who still had gas, wash her hair in lukewarm water and eat a home-cooked meal. Larysa said she and her husband wanted to buy a portable generator, but the price shot up from around $190 to more than $1,600.

“I’m tired of it all and want to go back to my old life,” Larissa said.

In Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, Mariia Modzolevska relies on generators and car batteries to keep her cafe Blukach running despite nearly daily power outages.

Customers will still come in. They charge their phones and other gadgets while sipping coffee from the cafe and eating sweet morsels. Modzolevska, 34, is finding ways to keep her store powered. An old, charged car battery keeps the credit card machine running. A diesel generator powers the espresso machine.

“We were making money until the first drone strike and the outage, and then revenue dropped by more than 30 percent,” she said. “Since we got the coffee shop equipped with power and internet, it’s back up. I don’t know how much longer we’ll be in business.”

Tetiana Boichenko’s corner apartment in Kyiv faces north. Even in November, her bedroom is cold. Heat and electricity come and go around her home, depending on whether Russian missiles hit their targets.

Boichenko bought a small tent for $10 and pitched it over her bed. Inside the tent, Boychenko was 3 to 4 degrees hotter than her room, covered with several blankets. Boichenko said she doesn’t plan to remove the tent until spring.

“I’ll sleep in it because it’s warm,” she said. ___

Dupuy is from New York, Lardner is from Washington, and Niksic is from Sarajevo. Associated Press writers Sam Mednick and Inna Varenytsia in Kherson and Jamey Keaten in Kyiv contributed to this report.

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