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They sit in ones and twos in half-destroyed homes. They shelter in musty basements marked in chalk with “people underground” — a message to whichever troops happen to be fighting that day. They venture out to visit cemeteries and reminisce about any time other than now.
Ukraine’s elderly are often the only people who remain along the country’s hundreds of miles of front line. Some waited their entire lives to enjoy their twilight years, only to have been left in a purgatory of loneliness.
Homes built with their own hands are now crumbling walls and blown-out windows, with framed photographs of loved ones living far away. Some people have already buried their children, and their only wish is to stay close so they can be buried next to them.
But it does not always work out that way.
“I’ve lived through two wars,” said Iraida Kurylo, 83, whose hands shook as she recalled her mother screaming when her father was killed in World War II.
She was lying on a stretcher in the village of Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi, her hip broken from a fall. The Red Cross had come.
Ms. Kurylo was leaving home.
Almost two years into Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with war at their doorsteps, older people who have stayed behind offer varying reasons for their decisions. Some simply prefer to be at home, whatever the dangers, rather than to struggle in an unfamiliar place among strangers. Others do not have the financial means to leave and start over.
Their pension checks still arrive like clockwork, despite months of war. And they have devised systems of survival as they bide time and hope they live to see the war end.
Virtual connections can often be the only link to the outside world.
One day last September, at a mobile clinic about three miles from Russian positions, Svitlana Tsoy, 65, was having a remote checkup with a student doctor at Stanford University in California and talking about the hardships of the war.
For most of the past two years, after their home was destroyed, she said, Ms. Tsoy and her mother, Liudmyla, 89, have been living in a basement in Siversk, in the eastern Donetsk region, with 20 other people. There is no running water and no toilet. Still, they are reluctant to leave.
“It’s better to endure inconveniences here than among strangers,” Ms. Tsoy said.
Halyna Bezsmertna, 57, who was also at the clinic — she had fractured an ankle diving for cover from mortar fire — had another reason for remaining in Siversk. “I promised one very dear person that I will not leave him alone,” she said. In 2021, her grandson died, and he was buried nearby.
“I won’t be able to apologize to him if I don’t keep my word,” Ms. Bezsmertna said.
Many who do decide to evacuate eventually realize that they have abandoned not just a home, but an entire life.
In Druzhkivka, an eastern city near the front line but firmly controlled by Ukrainian forces, Liudmyla Tsyban, 69, and her husband, Yurii Tsyban, 70, were taking shelter in a church in September and talking about the home they left behind in nearby Makiivka, which had been gripped by fighting.
There, they had a beautiful house in a village near the river, and a boat, they recalled as they scrolled through photographs. And they had a car.
“We imagined how we would retire and travel in it with our grandchildren,” Mr. Tsyban said. “But the car was destroyed by an exploding shell.”
In August, the St. Natalia nursing home in Zaporizhzhia was hosting roughly 100 older people, many of whom have dementia and need 24-hour care. The nurses say that when they hear explosions, they sometimes tell those patients that it is thunder, or a car backfiring, to keep them from becoming upset.
At another nursing home in Zaporizhzhia, Liudmyla Mizernyi, 87, and her son Viktor Mizernyi, 58, who share a room, talk often of returning to Huliaipole, their hometown — but they know better.
Huliaipole, located along the southern front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces, has been at the center of intense fighting for much of the war. Mr. Mizernyi was injured and left permanently disabled when the walls of their cellar caved in after it was struck by mortar fire. After that, they felt they had no choice but to go.
“We want to go home, but there is nothing there, no water, no electricity, nothing left,” Mr. Mizernyi said.
Anna Yermolenko, 70, was reluctant to leave her home near Marinka. But as the explosions grew closer, she knew she had no choice, and since the summer, she has been living in a shelter in central Ukraine.
Her neighbors contacted her to tell her that her house was still standing.
“They are looking after my dog, and I asked them to look after my home as well,” she said. “I pray that after the war we can go visit.”
But that was in August. Marinka has been nearly demolished by fighting, and this month, evidence was mounting that Russian forces had taken control of the city, or what was left of it.
It is not only missile strikes and shelling that have destroyed homes in Ukraine. When the Kakhovka dam along the Dnipro River burst in June, with evidence that Russia had exploded it from within, floodwater rushed into nearby villages.
Several months later, Vira Ilyina, 67, and Mykola Ilyin, 72, were surveying the damage to their flooded home in the Mykolaiv region and picking through their few salvageable belongings.
“Some of the walls went down and we were not able to save any furniture here,” Ms. Ilyina said. “That’s the present we get for our old years!”
Vasyl Zaichenko, 82, who is from the Kherson region, finds it difficult to speak of the loss of his house to the flooding. “I lived here for 60 years and I’m not giving this up,” he said. “If you built your house with your own hands for 10 years, you just cannot abandon it.”
At a temporary shelter in Kostyantynivka at the end of summer, Lydia Pirozhkova, 90, said that she had been forced from her home city of Bakhmut twice in her life. She evacuated the first time as Germans swept through in World War II, and the second under Russian shelling.
“I left everything — cats and dogs — and took my bag and left,” she lamented, “but I forgot my teeth.”
It is tempting to try to go back for them, but those false teeth may now be property of the Russian invaders. And after all, the loss may be the least of her troubles.
“I am thinking, why do I need these teeth?” Ms. Pirozhkova said. “I was born without teeth, and will die without teeth.”
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