Joe Lowry, Chisinau, Moldova
"I've worked with the Red Cross for 40 years and no one I know has ever seen anything like this, nor have their parents nor their grandparents." Alexandra Biltsan, local Red Cross chairlady makes this remarkable statement in an even more remarkable location. She's standing on the crusted top of a mudslide that sent the upper part of the village of Chernohusi, in western Ukraine, tumbling down the hill, killing one person and causing 50 people to be hospitalized. The village is just one of hundreds affected by the most severe floods to hit Eastern Europe in two hundred years.
More than 30 people have been killed, dozens are still missing and over USD 1 billion in damages has been caused in Ukraine and Moldova. The International Federation has already released CHF 600,000 from its Disaster Response Emergency Fund for immediate relief needs - water, food, clothing - to help the most vulnerable in one of Europe's poorest corners. An international appeal will follow tomorrow, seeking over CHF 1 million to help 36,000 people.
The disaster has hit the elderly and the poor most severely. In village after village, heartbreaking scenes are being played out. Hannah Savchuk (77) from the hamlet of Dubvitsi tells us how she slept in her loft with her chickens for three nights while the floodwaters swirled around her home. The tears come when she recalls coming back after two nights staying with neighbours to find her chickens had drowned.
Her neighbour Yaroslav Narozhnyak, a big strong pensioner of 62, a former miner and crane operator in Siberia stands in his garden, his belongings scattered on the ground, or piled on the table inside - a guitar, a some vintage cameras, rescued from the rising water. He doesn't say much, just stares at the gaping hole that used to be the gable wall of his house. He shrugs and gets ready to face the rest of his retirement on a pension of about 100 USD (less than euro65) a month.
And there's Hannah Berelyak, 70, resting her elbows on the fence and contemplating the ruins of her garden. All the vegetables she would normally preserve for the long, cold winter have been destroyed, leaving her to face a bleak, hungry winter.
Times are hard for the elderly, as well as for mothers. We travel to a tiny village called Kosovanka, literally off the beaten track. The tarred road turns to rock, the rock to mud, and the track peters out next to the house of Valentina Lopan (64). Her daughter, Zita, is expecting her third child, and is wading through filthy, thigh-deep water to bring her possessions over to her mother's house. The smell of raw sewage and animal dung hangs over the village, and the sun beats down relentlessly.
There are tears and frustration, and there's anger. Nadia Lupan, a grandmother at 38, woke up hungry, as did her husband, her five children, and the two grandchildren, on the floor of a neighbour's house. She borrowed some pasta, went over to their sodden home, and cooked breakfast. Her youngest children and the grandchildren are barefoot in the mud. "We lost everything," she says. "Everything. Our clothes, bedding, shoes, pots, plates. We have nothing."
We cross the border into Moldova. The lush green land is saturated. In the tress and on walls you can see the high water mark, showing that water rose to over a metre higher than the main road. The main river in the area, the Prut, rose nine metres over its normal level. Houses, with walls made mainly of mud, have dissolved and crumbled like chocolate.
Moldova Red Cross has emptied its disaster relief stocks and managed to provide assistance for 500 of the worst-affected families. Outside one distribution centre in Drepkauts village, crowds of people wait passively in the 36-degree heat. Very few want to talk. "We're still too depressed, we're in shock", says one young woman, turning away. "What will I do now?" one man repeats, time after time. "Who will help me rebuild my house? What do I do now?"
Lara Nyamtu (55) had a house 800 metres from the River Prut. "The water came over the roof," she tell us. "Everything was damaged." When asked what she needs most the answer is simple: "food". Her monthly pension comes to just USD 40 (25euro).
Inside, Red Cross volunteers are working frantically to provide rice, sugar and pasta, detergent, shampoo and soap. There are also shoes, blankets, sheets and clothes to distribute: "We register the food aid but for the clothes we just let people take what they need," says local Red Cross chief Galina Bzovaya.
The relief operation will get into full swing later this week when funds are in place to source the thousands of food parcels, household kits, bedding sets and hygiene items needed across the region. Mobile repair teams will also be created to perform light repairs on floors, doors, windows and roofs, particularly for lone elderly, single-headed and multi-child households. The visiting nurses service in both countries will assist with psychological support.
The danger of more flooding remains ever-present as rivers are still swollen and the land is sodden. Red Cross branches in the affected areas are on high alert and are assisting with the vital task of providing a clear picture of the evolving disaster and the current and likely needs.