War in Ukraine Leaves Many Elderly in a Vulnerable Position

March 10,2015

DEBALTSEVE— In eastern Ukraine, the elderly are left especially vulnerable by the conflict between government forces and Russian-backed separatists.

In the wrecked suburbs of Debaltseve, 77 year-old Ukrainian pensioner Lydia Stepanovna is trying to come to terms with the events of the last few months. She’d lived here quietly for 16 years until January, when her town became the focus of a massive pro-Russian rebel offensive -- and the brief epicenter of a new standoff between Russia and the West.

Rockets rained down, and the house next door took a direct hit.

“One night I was just turning over in my bed, there was a distant boom but then suddenly there was a huge barrage of shelling landing everywhere around here. I was so scared, I’ve never heard such a huge sound in my life. I was crouching next to the cupboard praying to God to help me or kill me quickly. I didn't want to be left disabled,” said Stepanovna.

The stress of the war has taken a terrible toll on the elderly of Ukraine. Many now live without gas, water and electricity. The UN estimates 60% of the internally-displaced are senior citizens, who often experience poor health and increased anxiety.

“Every day there was bombing, when you go out the toilet you are afraid; when you go to bring water you are afraid. When you're bringing water and the bombing starts you throw it down and run. Bombing lands on all sides,” said Stepanovna.

Many elderly people in rebel-held areas have not received their pensions in months, though rebel authorities have distributed aid and recently paid out $40 per person to tide them over.

On the wall of Lydia’s kitchen there’s a tattered picture of a hearty breakfast. But on her ancient stove there’s only dried bread and the onions, apples and walnuts she gathers from her garden.

Lydia’s best friend, Luda, is 80 and lives across the street. She lived in her basement for a month during the shelling.

“You can see all the windows in my house are broken. And you can see my roof is full of holes. When the rain comes, the water will get inside," said Luda.

With her house open to the weather, Luda said she now has a cough that won’t go away.

This is not Lydia and Luda’s first war. Both were children during World War II and remember the German invasion of 1941. Lydia’s mother worked in a local factory at the time.

“We were living near the chemical plant and it was bombed all the time. We remember the bombers in the sky,” said Stepanovna.

Today, Lydia’s son is fighting with the rebels, but she said she just wants the war to stop.

“This war is happening for no reason, for no reason. No one in the world can understand why this war started. Even when the German soldiers were here we didn't see such things like we see today. When I left this town, it was ruined enough, but when I came back, it was so ruined that I started to cry,” said Stepanovna.

The elderly of Ukraine have now suffered through two wars on their soil.

Now, as their country buckles under a fresh round of fighting, it is they - perhaps more than most - who comprehend its futility.