Up Close With Ukraine's Elderly, Left-Behind Victims Of The War
There are few children left in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, but there are many elderly people, trapped by their health in their homes. Their fate is a mirror of the tragic fate of a nation that was already aging before the war.
KYIV— "When I hear the bombs I get under the table and I cry like when I was a child during World War II," laments Eiludgarda Miroshnychenko.
To get to her house in the heart of the old center of Kyiv, just ten minutes by car from Maidan Square in normal circumstances, we had to pass through 15 checkpoints.
But Eiludgarda doesn't know this because since the Russian invasion began, more than a month ago, she has only left home to go down to the neighborhood grocer a handful of times. She is 85 years old, has heart problems and is terrified that something will happen to her and that it will take her daughters hours to realize that something is wrong.
So, a small red suitcase and a cloth bag have been prepared in her bedroom for weeks. In them, she only carries a change of clothes, her documents and medicines.
Almost everybody else has left
Due to her health problems and her age, Eiludgarda is afraid of getting on a train with hundreds of people crammed into a wagon, standing for hours, with no one to pick her up at the destination and accompany her to an airport in Poland. From there, she could finally fly to Barcelona, where one of her two daughters lives.
“When we lived in the Soviet Union, we went to Moscow or other cities and no one asked us where we were from, we all got along. I don't understand how they can be doing this to us," she explains, sitting next to two blooming orchids that she offers to give to the journalist.
Watching the news raises her blood pressure.
She doesn't think she'll ever see this apartment again, where she raised her daughters, retired from her job as a physicist-mathematician at the Automatic Engineering Institute, and where she became a widow.
"I once heard that ten years of negotiations are better than one day of war," she says, sitting in her worn pale leather chair, with a glass window behind her whose possible shattering is itself a daily risk of war.
It's been days since Miroshnychenko stopped turning on the TV to protect her health: watching the news raises her blood pressure and since the war began she needs to take more medicines to lower it. She is outraged that she is not young enough to stay to “defend her country as a volunteer”, explains this woman who used to coordinate a rolled aluminum program in a factory of more than 3,000 workers.
“My daughter studied in Moscow, my husband was a Soviet soldier. And now the whole family relationship that we had with our neighbors has been broken," she explains, surrounded by the photographs that define the milestones of her life: her grandmother, a young woman with a round face and crystalline eyes looking at the future from Estonia, where the name Eliudgarda comes from; her parents, daughters, grandchildren smiling at the camera … A family tree of faces that look at us from the walls and that will stay here when she finally changes her house slippers for padded ankle boots and locks the two doors that the houses of the old Soviet buildings still have.
About 80% of her neighbors have left. Only she and a man are left in this building. And in the one next door, a couple of families. "It hurts me that my neighbors didn't ask me if I wanted to go with them," she adds. "They left without a word."
Photo of an elderly resident at a care center, waiting to be evacuated from Toretsk, Ukraine, on April 13.
Those who stay
Helen Kuchma's mother had been battling neck and bone cancer for four years when Russia invaded Ukraine. And then not only her life but also that of her daughter became much more complicated. “We couldn't take her down to the basements when the alarms sounded because she was bedridden, there was no way to transport her, nor to be able to keep her in decent conditions for hours in a shelter. Also, there isn't anyone in our building so we would have had to go to the buildings across the street. So we stayed on the eighth floor of her apartment, my father, her, and I, not knowing if they were going to bomb us at any moment,” explains this secondary school teacher in the Ukrainian capital.
Specialized medical clinics closed in the first days of the invasion, and Helen spent hours running from one pharmacy to another to get the morphine that would ease her mother's pain. Most of them suffered shortages and the queues were endless, though she finally ended up getting it. Still, her mother died shortly after.
Since then, she has been a volunteer in a support network that has been created in the center of Kyiv, dedicated to collecting medicine and buying food for the elderly who are trapped in their flats due to mobility problems or, also, for fear of something happening to them.
Hardly anyone wants to speak out these days, for fear of ending up in jail.
One of the couples she visits daily is Dimitrii and Lera. They live in a rusty four-story building that the Soviet regime earmarked for geologists. When Helen informs them that she is with a journalist, Lera goes back inside her house and asks her husband not to speak. Fear grips everything these days in Ukraine: that someone could be a Russian agent, or an agent of the Ukrainian state who could end up accusing them of being a Russian agent, or that their words will one day end up as evidence to imprison them. Hardly anyone wants to speak out these days in this country for fear of ending up in jail in the middle of a war.
Yet Dimitrii insists on speaking. Even from the doorstep. “How can our older brothers do this to us? Well, because they weren't our brothers. That is what we have discovered with this war. They accuse us of being Nazis and they kill us like the real German Nazis did,” he says.
As Dimitrii shares his anguish, his wife yells at him from the living room to shut up, to go have some tea, to close the door on us. Helen seems surprised by Lera's reaction: like so many other people in the neighborhood, she brings her food and medicine every day that she gets after standing for hours in line.
She is surprised how she yells at her that the volunteers are not doing enough and that she shouldn't bring foreigners into her building again. A month of war has exacerbated the nerves and mistrust of Ukraine's elderly.
An elderly woman with her dogs walk past a damaged residential building by a Russian airstrike in Borodyanka, Ukraine.
The unexpected caregivers
The Ukrainian government's ban on men between the ages of 18 and 60 leaving the country has, on the one hand, accentuated gender roles by causing a mass exodus from the country of women who are left in charge of caring for minors and of dependent elderly people. But it has also caused many men to be left in charge of their fathers and mothers, as well as their in-laws.
This is the case of Anastasia Zavalo, who left with her two children to live in the southwest, near Mukachevo, two weeks after the war began. Her mother and her husband stayed in the capital, who thus became the caretaker of her mother-in-law, who was dependent due to mobility problems.
“If she felt better, she would have come with us. But she didn't want to because she can only move from her room to the kitchen, by holding on to the wall, ”explains her daughter on the telephone. “Our apartment is in an area that is not being bombed, but she watches the news and it upsets her a lot. And we don't want to leave the country. We don't know what's going to happen,” explains Dilo, an information technology worker.
On Feb. 13, Olena Chekushyna's father was diagnosed with prostate cancer. Getting the treatment he needed from the public health system would have taken him months. So she decided to wait until she received her March salary from the Israeli occupational risk prevention company she works for and then spend the 300 euros that would cost her the cheapest pack of pills for the following quarter.
But nine days later the invasion began, and Chekushyna realized then that she had to get the medicine right away if she didn't want things to get more complicated in the days to come. Without her own car, she had to go through various neighborhoods of the capital while the sirens sounded, until she found the medicines.
A woman rests before being transported to a train station in Pokrovsk, Ukraine, on April 13, 2022.
A dying public health service
The Ukrainian public health system was already in dire straits before the war. In fact, in 2021 there was a children's outbreak of polio, a disease that had been eradicated, and against which a massive vaccination campaign was launched. In fact, Ukraine is at the bottom of the countries for health spending: 7.42% of its GDP in 2017, the last year for which figures have been made public. This investment places it at 122 of the 192 published.
They live in their parallel reality, being in Kyiv.
But with the invasion, the situation of the health system has become critical. The World Health Organization (WHO) has verified 16 Russian attacks on health care attention and has warned that essential medicines such as oxygen and insulin, surgical supplies, anesthetics and personal protective equipment are in short supply.
And then there is confusion among the aging generation. Chekushyna's father continues to watch Russian television, as he had done all his life. And when his daughter goes to visit him, he tells her that what she was telling him were lies.
“All their lives they have been informed only by the Russian media. So they live in their parallel reality being in Kyiv," she explains. "He thinks that me and my brother were abducted by Ukrainian nationalists.”
Yes, these are some of the voices left in Kyiv, where it is rarer and rarer to see children. Instead, you see plenty of elderly women walking alone through empty neighborhoods, carrying a plastic bag, their head covered with a scarf.
Ukraine was already an aging nations because of the massive emigration of the youth to countries of the European Union since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But until the war, the precarious conditions in which many elderly people lived in Ukraine was largely hidden.
That has all changed when the bombs started striking: elderly people forced to stay are plain to see everywhere, left behind with a fate that seemed to say that this was how it all ends, as if it doesn't matter if death comes to them from disease, or basic medicines they can't find, or from the war itself.
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