I R K U T S K, Russia, Jan. 22, 2001 -- Winter in Siberia is usually spectacular and always very cold.
But this winter has been relentless. Week after week, temperatures have been dipping to 50 below zero. Siberians are accustomed to the cold, but they were completely unprepared for temperatures this low.
Not surprisingly, the hospital in the city of Irkutsk is overwhelmed. In just one week, the cold killed 17 people, and doctors amputated the limbs of at least 70 others who suffered severe frostbite. Pausing for just a short period of time could prove extremely dangerous — one man who stopped to fix his car had to have both his hands and feet amputated because of frostbite.
Some aid has been sent — the American Red Cross recently came to Siberia bearing more than 40,000 pounds of food.
But still, in cities and villages across Siberia, heating systems are breaking down. People are warming themselves around outdoor fires, and frozen pipes have forced others to get their water from community wells.
Corruption Makes Matters Worse
In truth, Siberia should be one of the richest places on Earth. Underneath its frozen ground, there are massive resources of oil, gas platinum, nickel, and gold. But everywhere you look, there's poverty. That's because corrupt businessmen and government officials are siphoning much of the wealth generated in Siberia out of the country. While Russia's infrastructure falls apart, the corrupt are getting rich.
One example is the Cherimkovsky coal mine, the third most productive mine in the country. Sixty percent of it has been privatized, and no one is taking responsibility for the town. Vitaly Muzhakov works at the mine, and he says his apartment is very cold. In his neighborhood, the aging steam pipes have burst, and ice has nearly sealed up the apartment windows.
Anger and fear are pervasive. One woman told ABCNEWS, "For the first time in my life, I feel like I could die from the cold."
With spring still five months away, that's a very real possibility for many Siberians.