In Siberia, a Remote Town Loses All Heat

ZAKAMENSK, Eastern Siberia -- It was bad enough when they were just hungry. Now Polina Abramova and her family suffer from the cold as well - trying to survive a Siberian winter in an apartment without heat.

Of the 14,600 people in Zakamensk, a town in the republic of Buryatia near the Mongolian border, 9,000 have lost heat for the rest of the winter after the central heating system went haywire Jan. 8. The accident sent a surge of steam through the pipes, bursting radiators and, in some cases, cutting off electricity.

Abramova, her son, who has epilepsy, and her 72-year-old invalid father are huddled in one small room, kept warm with a homemade electric heater made from metal rods wound with wire and set on a frying pan.

The heater keeps the frost off the windows, and creates a small circle of warmth. The other rooms in the apartment are the same temperature as outside: minus 50 degrees Celsius.

"Knowing what I know now, I would have never had children," Abramova said. "Sometimes we might have only one potato for all of us, sometimes we have no bread at all, and now we are freezing as well."

They can barely remember the last time they ate anything but the pickles they have been rationing since summer.

Town officials say there's no mon ey to repair the heating plant, a clanking monstrosity of dripping pipes patched with cloth and tape. Mayor Alexander Semyonov estimates repairing the damage would cost $11 million.

In most of the apartments in the nearly 100 affected buildings, exploded radiators lie on the floor. Ceilings are collapsing, leaving floors sprinkled with plaster and dirt. Inches of frost are accumulate on the inside and outside windows, while broken windows let in more cold and water. Ice has replaced warm rugs on the floor. The practice everywhere is the same: close off all rooms but one, and heat it with whatever there is, often a wood-burning stove; people spend all their time in coats and hats.

Jan Gertsin, head of the city's central heating system, said the plant has suffered for years from a lack of money for repairs. "It happened because of a general lack of financing and also because of a mistake made this summer during annual repairs," Gertsin said.

Zakamensk, a remote mining town, was once a prestigious closed city with good-paying jobs and plentiful supplies.

Four years ago, the city's metallurgical plants shut down, leaving 90 percent of its people unemployed and creating pensioners out of people as young as 30.

Galya Angarova, who works for the Red Cross in Ulan Ude, Buryatia's capital, went to Zakamensk to help in the emergency. What she saw was devastating - she had lived in Zakamensk 12 years ago and remembered it differently.

"Things were much better before. We had everything," she said. "It was even better than Ulan Ude. Now I see people begging for money and food and it was never like this before. The whole city is a disaster."

The city administration has begun moving people to new apartments, but they are in short supply. Most people rely on the Red Cross for food parcels, warm clothes and soup-kitchen meals.

"It's a classic snapshot of Red Cross beneficiaries in Russia, even without the tragedy of the breakdown," said Joe Lowry, information delegate for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

At the soup kitchen, hovering over her soup, meat and rice with her 6-year-old son Sasha, Lyudmila Kakhanova said she never thought she would know hunger. "Sometimes we eat, sometimes we don't. I have five children and no husband," Kakhanova said. "They go to school hungry for days at a time. It has been like this for a long time now, and every year it gets worse, now this heating disaster has ruined us.

"If it wasn't for the Red Cross, I don't know what would happen to us."

But getting aid to regions like this one is no easy task, and administrative barriers often hold up distribution. Last week, a half-ton of much-needed clothing arrived from the Red Cross. On Friday, it still sat in a local warehouse.

"The authorities decided that if they had distributed the few resources they had, it would have caused a scandal, so they decided to wait until the situation subsided. ... It's hard to justify who gets aid and who doesn't," Lowry said. "We have to respect their views because they're closer to the community. The most the important relationship is with the authorities if we want to get aid to people."

The interior of the local hospital was wrecked by radiator explosions. Pipes clutter the corridors and a team of Red Cross representatives used cigarette lighters to navigate the darkness.

Only three small rooms had electricity and small electric heaters. Patients sat warming their hands, wrapped in blankets. Outside their doors, water covered the floors and the stench of mildew mingled with ammonia.

On the other side of town, the Tibetan medical center was in better shape. Its old wooden one-story structure had heat and electricity and, though its beds were few, the elderly were allowed to shelter there for 10 days to warm up.

Darima Khatsomona, 70, was brought to the center Wednesday after the exploding radiator in her apartment fell on her and pinned her to the floor with a broken leg for 10 hours. There are no medical supplies, however, so Khatsomona lay without a cast or support for her broken leg.

Zina Roshchina, 63, approached a team of Red Cross workers in her courtyard, begging them for help. "Come and see how we live," she said. "It would be better to sit in jail."

While her 12-year-old daughter crouched next to the wood-burning stove with her puppy and pieces of the ceiling continued to fall, Roshchina asked if the government would help them. "The administration doesn't help at all, they come and look at the disaster and then do nothing," she said.

And few hold out hope that the presidential elections will bring positive changes to Russia and its remote areas.

"Here we only want that our children can eat and that we don't freeze and that we have happy lives once again," Kakhanova, the single mother at the soup kitchen, said.

"That's what we'll vote for, but who stands for that, I don't know."