CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — There was one topic of conversation among the women bundled up in front of a bombed-out building the other day as they waited in a long line at a humanitarian food truck, a nippy wind swirling around them.
“When are you going to get your glass?” one asked.
“Have you called about the glass?” another said.
“It was really cold last night. Didn’t you feel it?” said a third. “When’s the glass coming?”
This is becoming a big problem in Ukraine. So many windows have been shattered by explosions — “millions of them,” one humanitarian official estimated — that there is a nationwide run on glass.
In the towns and cities that the Russian military has pounded with earthshaking artillery barrages, nothing has been spared — not the high-rises, not the schools, not the squat little cottages. Just Monday, the shock waves from a powerful Russian missile that exploded more than 800 feet from a nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine blew out more than 100 of the plant’s windows.
This is what has happened to countless people’s homes in the line of fire: They might have been spared a direct hit, but all their windows have been shattered. And winter is coming. Fast.
The other week here in Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine, the temperature dropped from about 80 degrees Fahrenheit to almost freezing.
No doubt that Ukraine is facing a host of crises within crises, but one of the most urgent is the scramble to get damaged homes ready for winter, and that is where the glass comes in.
Appreciate this material just for a moment, because hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians really need it right now. Glass lets in light and keeps out cold. You can see through it, so no matter how small or cramped your place is, you have a view. Glass keeps out birds, bugs and dust, and you can open a window and let in fresh air.
The alternatives, which you can see all over Ukraine now, have obvious deficiencies.
Plywood may cover a hole in the wall, but it leaves the inside space dark, which can be depressing. And the scraps of tablecloths or plastic film that a lot of people are using — one man said he had nothing better than the Ukrainian version of Saran Wrap to cover his windows — might let in sunlight. But they don’t seal well and leave people curled up at night under three blankets, dreading winter.
“That stuff?” said Oleksandr Zhyla, a retired architect who used the plastic food wrap on his blown-out windows in Chernihiv. He pointed to his handiwork and laughed: “It doesn’t keep us warm at all.”
Even before the Russian invasion in February, Ukraine had glass issues. One of its biggest glass factories was in the eastern Donbas region, but it was bombed during the pro-Russian rebellion there a few years ago and shut down.
That left Ukraine relying heavily on Russia and Belarus for glass. But after this war started, those trade links were cut. So now almost all of Ukraine’s glass, two distributors said, is imported, much of it from pricier European markets.
And there are more problems. To make glass, you have to melt sand. And to melt sand, you need a lot of energy. And with global energy prices soaring, glass prices have risen sharply as well.
Add all of this up — the higher production costs, the increased demand, Ukraine’s logistical nightmares, like its seaports being blockaded by Russian submarines — and it’s no mystery that an ordinary pane of glass costs double, triple or even quadruple what it used to, according to glass suppliers. That makes it impossible for many people to fix their windows, even as the cold air begins to blow in. And every day, with the fighting still raging, more are being broken.
During a war, windows are always the first to go. If a bomb is powerful enough, the shock waves or reverberations will shatter glass far from the explosion, creating a blizzard of potentially lethal shards.
“You wouldn’t believe how small the pieces were,” said one woman, Nataliia Medvedok, who sat by a blown-out window in her living room in Chernihiv. She had been hiding in a shelter when her building was hit in March and came back to find the floor covered with pea-sized pieces of super-sharp glass.
In June, Zosia Jaworowska, who runs a small nonprofit foundation in Warsaw, Poland, asked humanitarian groups in Ukraine what they needed.
“They all unanimously said: We need windows,” Jaworowska said. “That was the most expensive and the least available building material.”
She swung into action and raised thousands of dollars to ship windows from Poland to Ukraine.
In Chernihiv, a private French aid organization, ACTED, is helping Medvedok and many others pay for window repair, part of its plan to get people ready for winter.
“Everyone is rushing, rushing, rushing to do what we can, right now,” said Frances Oppermann, ACTED’s deputy country director for programs. Winter in Ukraine, she said, is “intense.”
It’s also long, nearly half the year, with wintry weather stretching from mid-October to mid-March, and temperatures can plummet to 10 below zero. Fixing windows is part of a broader winterization strategy laid out by aid agencies that includes buying tens of millions of dollars worth of blankets, coats, woolen hats and traditional felt boots.
In Chernihiv, a first look can be deceptive. It is a beautiful city of about 200,000 people. Gazing across its immense cobblestone town square lined with elegant old buildings and seeing people jogging through the parks with their perfectly clipped bushes, it almost looks as if nothing happened here. But then you notice how many windows are boarded up or missing.
Chernihiv was blasted by Russian missiles and rockets in March but has not seen much fighting since then. While there has been a lightning Ukrainian offensive this month that pushed back Russian troops around the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Chernihiv has remained relatively quiet.
At the mayor’s office, there is still plywood covering some of the broken windows.
“I have bigger problems,” said the mayor, Vladyslav Atroshenko. “I can’t have children freezing in their apartments.”
His priority is to repair critical infrastructure to ensure the city is ready to turn on the heat when winter arrives, no small feat given the extent of the damage and how expensive energy has become.
Mykolaiv, a city in the south, has been shelled mercilessly by Russian forces. Vitaliy Kim, a top local official, said he has 50,000 square meters of windows to fix — that’s almost 10 football fields of glass.
“Even the windows in my own house are blown out,” he said.
Nationwide, the figures are staggering. Some 140,000 residential buildings have been destroyed; 44 million square meters of housing have been damaged; and millions of Ukrainians are living in homes “ill-suited to provide sufficient protection from harsh winter conditions,” according to the United Nations.
Considering that the front line zigzags for more than 1,000 miles and that Russia has hammered hundreds of places with artillery, it’s not hard to see how Oppermann came to an estimate of “millions” of broken windows. But no one really knows.
Zhyla went around his blown-out nine-story building in Chernihiv, counting the broken windows. He found 496. And that’s just one building.
He is worried that if the windows are not fixed by wintertime, the pipes in his building could turn to ice and burst, and then it will be really hard to live there.
“A simple $100 window can prevent an entire family from freezing this winter,” said Michael Capponi, founder of Global Empowerment Mission, an aid group that has installed thousands of windows in Ukraine.
Viktoriia Markova, whose home in Chernihiv was smashed to smithereens by an artillery shell, was recently given a small shelter in her backyard for her, her husband and teenage son. It is the size of an ordinary bedroom, and its walls are made of the same material as a port-a-potty.
It’s dark and stuffy inside and smells like plastic. And it doesn’t have any real windows.
“It’s not great,” Markova conceded. “But there’s just one thing on everyone’s mind. Victory. We’re all just waiting for victory.”