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Evdokia with her sister tending roses. Polina Bashkina

Life in Ukraine 'When soldiers broke into my mother's house, she simply asked not to kill her'

Polina Bashkina speaks to older Ukrainian people left to cope on the front lines of this war.

“TODAY, MY DOG’S stroller broke down. I don’t know how I’m going to walk him now,”

Nataliya, a 70-year-old pensioner, tells her daughter. The woman remained in Ukraine near Kyiv, along with a disabled dog, hit by a car, which Nataliya had picked up on the street.

Having worked all her life as a Ukrainian language and literature teacher, Nataliya hoped to live peacefully in her country house in retirement, gardening. But the war has begun.

“Leave urgently with the child. It’s not for long,” she said to her daughter in early March, “and we, the two disabled, will stay here. This is my house, my husband is buried here, our dogs are buried here, my trees are here…”

5 Nataliya's grandson with the disabled dog in a cellar at the beginning of the war. Polina Bashkina Polina Bashkina

“This is my home, I have lived here all my life, I will not go anywhere…” is the most common explanation for why older people refuse to leave. In addition, disbelief and fatalism: “Who needs us there? We are strangers there. And here is our native land. I was born here, and I will die here.”

Living through two wars

“If someone told me that there would be two wars in my lifetime, I would never have believed it,” says 76-year-old Kyiv resident Mykhaylo. He was once evacuated, experienced what cold and hunger are, has a certificate, “Children of war” and “Chernobyl Category 3″, went through “perestroika” (Mykhail Gorbachov’s period), the dashing 90s, and now in 2022, again, difficult wartime emerges.

1 Mykhaylo and Nina at home. Polina Bashkina Polina Bashkina

“Just a year ago, my husband had a stroke. Hospitals, doctors, my daughter and I literally pulled him out of the other world,” says 70-year-old Nina, Mykhaylo’s wife. It took a year to recover. And now we have the war. So my daughter and granddaughter urgently left for Germany, and we were called, but where will you go if they have not settled there? They are refugees.

We are no longer young, with a bunch of diseases, and it is generally unclear whether my husband can survive on the road. And it’s scary to think about how we will be abroad without our own corner, language, money, or clinic.

Evdokia, 76 years old, goes out every day to care for her garden, which helps her not to give up. Every day, under shelling, she grows roses in Kharkiv, believing in the victory of Ukraine and remembering how beautiful and flourishing the city was before the war.

“My niece and daughter were in the yard when the rocket hit our house. And I stood on the balcony, ”the woman recalls. “I was told to move away from the glass, but I just froze, watching the children rush, and they were not allowed into the basement. Everything around rumbles. We’re being bombed, and I can’t believe it’s real. Nobody expected Russia to attack us. It was impossible to imagine, even in a nightmare. Therefore, we, until the last, refused to believe and leave. I still cannot understand how our “Russian brothers” turned out to be not people but animals.”

2 Evdokia with one of her daughters who stayed, tending roses. Polina Bashkina Polina Bashkina

At first, Evdokia hid in the basement of her house. “Then the pipes started leaking, the ceilings fell down, and we were flooded with boiling water,” says the pensioner. So we moved into our daughter’s apartment. Unfortunately, the windows were also smashed. I had to put in new ones. In the end, only we remained in our house; the rest left.

My daughter Tanya had a tough time with Covid, and besides, her children had to be saved – she, thank God, left. And we, with my husband, are already such an age, where should we go? And in Ukraine, someone needs to stay to support everyone. After all, our president stayed, and we stayed. As they say, where he was born, he came in handy there. We have to, we just have to stay. Let the youth leave.

 Although the bombing continues daily, the physical fear is gone, says Evdokia. “I read “Our Father” and pray “Lord, protect!” Before my eyes is the image of Oranta – the Virgin, with a cover. And I pray that she will shelter and save all our soldiers and Ukraine. And see? Our warriors are winning, thank God!”

‘Where would we go?’

Another reason for refusing to leave the shelling is poor health. Every day Nataliya spends more than an hour just getting dressed in the morning. Her worries for every child raped or killed, every animal shot or a horse burned alive, finally crippled her health.

4 Nataliya's grandson with the disabled dog in a cellar at the beginning of the war. Polina Bashkina Polina Bashkina

A rare disease, when the immune system works against its body, affected the joints, eyes and internal organs. There is no cure for systemic lupus erythematosus; moreover, Nataliya developed an allergy to the medicines that alleviate her condition. A vicious circle.

Nataliya's disabled dog in a wheelchair Nataliya's disabled dog in a wheelchair.

After consulting with her doctors, the woman independently regulates her state, which she has already learned to understand over the years of the illness. “In Ukraine, I can purchase any medicine in a pharmacy without a prescription. There are also no strict obligations to follow treatment protocols: for example, I can refuse to take hormonal drugs”.

3-2 Destroyed buildings around Evdokia's apartments. Polina Bashkina Polina Bashkina

Anna’s mother (the person’s name has been changed at her request) cannot leave, no matter how much she wants to. Now she is in occupied Mariupol. “The government did not organise the evacuation of Ukrainians on time. People, including my mother, ended up in a trap; their whole families died,” says Anna.

“Only a third of the houses remained from our street. Mom survived air strikes, mortar attacks, and missile launches from ships. Tanks stood between the houses and exchanged fire with the enemy,” says the daughter.

My 30-year-old friend was killed by mortar fire, the second – by shrapnel in the street. Neighbours collected their 16-year-old son piecemeal: they removed the head from the tree. People from fear and horror jumped out of windows.

“I am terrified that my mother will be found and killed if our family is identified under this article. Sometimes I manage to get through to my mother.” Although she tells little, it can be dangerous for her life, says Anna. “But still, she told me how two soldiers broke into her house and started a shootout from the windows. Mom didn’t even understand if they were Ukrainians or Russians. She just asked them not to kill her.”

‘It’s scary’

In addition to fear for their lives, older people also have to endure loneliness. “Of course, we miss our girls very much – we all lived together, but now we haven’t seen each other for eight months,” Mykhaylo complains.

3-1 Destroyed buildings around Evdokia's apartments. Polina Bashkina Polina Bashkina

“We rejoice when the Internet and the light are not turned off, and at least we can chat via Viber. And when there is no light and sirens howl, we lie down and talk. By candlelight. So that, as in youth, is more romantic. Sometimes we lie down right next to our shoes in a tiny hallway. We went to the shelter only in March. The nearest one – two blocks away from us – is the subway. At our age, marathons many times a day do not work. So we stay at home, where “native walls help,” although it’s scary,” says the pensioner.

“It’s scary, and there’s no joy at all. Sirens, explosions, rising prices, and pensions are not enough – food has become very expensive. There is only one pleasure left in life – when relatives invite us to their summer house for the weekend, light the stove, warm up, because it is already very cold in the apartment.” says Nina. “But we’ll survive! In our lifetime, there was just nothing.”

Her husband encourages her. “I hope the war will end soon, and our girls, like many others, will return, improve their lives, find a job, and finish their studies (their granddaughter is on a student grant). In the meantime, we believe in the Defense Forces of Ukraine and that other countries will help Ukraine defend the whole of Europe,” Mykhaylo shares.

Polina Bashkina is a Ukrainian writer and journalist. Her book 12 Months. A Year of Sense was published at the end of 2021. Previously, Polina worked in business and political PR and marketing. She headed the press service of the General Prosecutor’s Office of Ukraine worked in the Ukraine President’s Administration.


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