In a remote village in eastern Ukraine, not far from the front lines of the Russian invasion, elderly women made their way slowly through an empty parking lot, toward a temporary medical clinic where they hoped to pick up much-needed medicine. They didn’t flinch at the sound of bombardment in the distance.
Liubov Chernyakova draped her arms over the back of her wheelchair, and leaned on it as she walked. The 69-year-old, with gold teeth and a furrowed brow, didn’t pick up speed even as explosions rumbled. It has been hard to live here, she said, because there is no way to predict where the bombs will fall.
She stays, she explained, because the alternative is moving in with her children. They live in cities far from the front lines, but she doesn’t want to be a burden. “My life was hard and I don’t want to make it hard for them,” she said. The village council tried to evacuate her, but she refused.
This is what life is like for older people who have stayed behind in eastern Ukraine even as Russian forces pummel their homes. This village, which The Globe and Mail is not naming because people living and working there are fearful it could be targeted, is one of many near the front line that have largely emptied.
Since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February, 2022, it has fired missiles at civilian buildings and critical infrastructure across the country. But in recent months, Russian forces have increased their attacks near the front lines in the east. Cities and villages there have been subjected to continual shelling.
There is evidence that many of the people who remain in these communities are elderly. Eurostat data show that only 5.4 per cent of the more than six million Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Europe since the start of the war are older than 65.
The people still here have grown accustomed to the sounds of war. Many of them survive without electricity or running water. They’re sick and sore, and live with the constant risk of death. In many cases, the thought of starting over is too daunting. Some have physical disabilities, or are hardly surviving on meagre pensions as it is.
The United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has found that people over the age of 60 made up 32 per cent of civilians killed during the war’s first year, even though they account for only 25 per cent of Ukraine’s population. The data excluded victims whose ages were not recorded.
Laura Mills, a researcher with Amnesty International who authored a report on the war’s impacts on the elderly, said some who remain in their hometowns may find themselves in impossible situations. “Sometimes what happens is they will stay behind, and then they will suddenly be forced into a position where they have no option but to leave,” she said. “But then it’s much more physically and otherwise difficult for them to do so.”
Some of the elderly Ukrainians she has interviewed have developed disabilities or lost limbs because of untreated infections. In some cases, she said, they were living in basements, without clean water. “It’s really this question of, ‘how do I rebuild a life?’” she added. She said many own their own homes and supplement their pension income by growing crops or raising farm animals. The costs related to moving to a city are, for many of them, unfathomable. She said one woman had described the thought of leaving as “evacuating into the void.”
The temporary clinic in the village was being run by Médecins sans frontières (Doctors Without Borders). Among those waiting to see a doctor was 82-year-old Vira Barabashova, who tapped her cane on a Globe reporter’s leg to get their attention.
“Why are you in helmets?” she said, surveying the reporter’s protective gear. “All of the time, I’m just sitting on the bench when there’s huge shelling.”
Ms. Barabashova said she was there to pick up some medicine for blood pressure and back pain.
She said she had lived in this village “for like 100 years,” and had a pension.
“If there is shelling above me, I just look at it and do nothing,” she said.
She said she lives alone, and had refused an order to evacuate. “I won’t leave this village,” she said.
The clinic was set up inside an empty room in a cold building. There was a row of chairs for patients to sit on while they waited for care.
Olena Smolyar, 65, and Yana Hrytsenko, 48, sat together. They had come from a village nearby.
Ms. Smolyar said hearing the bombardment had taken a mental toll on her. It had also been hard for children, she added, including her 11-year-old grandson. Her daughter and son-in-law fled their home in the eastern Ukrainian city of Vuhledar and moved to the relative safety of Dnipro. But it was too hard for them to find work and an apartment there, she said, so they came to her village and moved in with her.
She said she was planning to get her blood pressure checked, but that she also has headaches and problems with her lungs.
Ms. Hrytsenko said she also needed help controlling her blood pressure, and was having stomach problems. She said her own daughter and grandchildren had fled to Switzerland, while she and her husband stayed behind.
This is her home, and she has a cow to take care of, she said.
Doctors who practice in the region are used to hearing stories like this. Kateryna Minko, a physician with MSF who works on mobile teams in eastern Ukraine, said most of the group’s patients are elderly, have not seen physicians in a long time and need treatment for common ailments, such as cardiovascular diseases, hypertension and diabetes.
MSF offers people sought-after medications that would otherwise be impossible to come by. Clinic staff typically include a physician, nurse, psychologist and a health promoter.
Dr. Minko that said in many of the villages where MSF personnel work there is no electricity, no running water supply and no cellphone service. Without access to phones or the internet, residents are cut off from the world, she said, and medical teams can have difficulty reaching them for follow-ups.
She said one of the greatest needs among patients is psychological help. Some are lonely.
“They want to be heard,” Dr. Minko said. “And it is very important for them to be heard and to share their emotions.”
Outside the clinic, Ms. Chernyakova described the problems she was having with her knees and with her heart. She said she lives alone with her cat and dog, and spends her days thinking about the war, and her past. She thinks about how hard it was working on a farm for 32 years, milking cows, and how sad things are now.
As she spoke, there was a loud boom behind her, startlingly close. The MSF workers at the clinic said they would quickly see their remaining patients, but would cut the visit short.
Moments later, there was another boom from artillery fire, but the patients didn’t react. They continued waiting.
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