Elderly Ukrainians: ‘I was born in a war and will die in war’
Al Jazeera speaks to some of the 900,000 pensioners on the front line who fear they will not see a resolution to the conflict with Russia in their lifetime.
Popasna Raion, Ukraine – Maria, an 86-year-old grandmother in Orikhove, a front-line village, has little hope that she will see an end to the “never-ending war” in eastern Ukraine in her lifetime.
As more than 100,000 Russian soldiers remain massed along the Russian border with Ukraine, global fears are mounting that Moscow could yet invade its much smaller neighbour.
“At least with World War II, things were over quickly. This war lingers and is now in its eighth year; we can only hope that everything will be over soon,” Maria told Al Jazeera, referring to the conflict that saw Russia invade Ukraine and annexe Crimea in 2014, and back two separatist statelets.
She is one of about 900,000 elderly people who need aid and protection on Ukraine’s front line, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), which says that most pensioners in border towns and villages feel depressed, anxious, helpless and lonely.
Anna Davidovna, 86, a retired woman who lives 3 kilometres (2 miles) from the front line, in Zolote village, described the conflict with Russia as “worse than World War II”.
“Not only do we hear shelling and shooting frequently; there are also thousands of unexploded, dangerous objects around us,” she said, referring to unexploded remnants of war.
This reminds her of a traumatic incident she experienced during the second world war.
“When I was a child, me and my sister played close to a nearby river, where tomatoes and cucumbers grew. One day, we found a toy that looked like a fruit. But when we brought it home, our father immediately threw it out of the window, and it exploded – it was in fact a grenade,” she said.
“I feel sadness. I remember that as a child, we were playing outside and we heard wounded soldiers crying and begging others to kill them, because they were in so much pain.”
Dmitry Tymchak, a representative for Charitas Donetsk, a charity that supports elderly people in Zolote, told Al Jazeera that the 2014 war had “greatly affected” people’s emotional and physical health.
“The war divided their lives into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’,” he said.
In the time between 2014 and May 2021, the war in east Ukraine killed 14,000 people, according to Kyiv.
And life in Ukraine’s front-line villages is especially tough now, with cold winter temperatures dropping to as low as -30 degrees Celsius (-22 degrees Fahrenheit).
Alyona Budagovska, a spokeswoman for People in Need, an NGO present on the front line, said, “An elderly and lonely person is a typical portrait of one-third of the inhabitants on the front lines.”
“They don’t have enough money for food and medicine; they can’t afford repairs of their destroyed houses or buying coal or wood to heat their houses during the cold Ukrainian winters,” she told Al Jazeera.
Even so, Lydia Petrovna, 85, who lives in Marinka, a border town, told Al Jazeera that she does not want to leave.
She lives in a dilapidated house, surrounded by signs warning against snipers and landmines.
“I have been offered to move to Kyiv and to a nursing home twice. But this is my house and I have lived in it my whole life. I will not leave,” she said. “I want to die in my own bed.”
Lydia is now the only person left on her street, from where military trenches can be seen. Local volunteers bring her food and medication.
“There are no doctors that can come to this house – therefore, I am my own doctor,” she said, as she took her daily medication and ate a piece of dry bread.
“When I fall in my garden, no one can pick me up. When I’m scared because of shelling, I hug my kittens. “I was born in a war and will die in war too.”