As the conflict in eastern Ukraine between the armed groups and the government enters its fifth year, 3.5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. An estimated 30 percent of people (more than one million) affected by the conflict since 2014 are elderly, many of whom have been driven from their homes by the violence along the contact line that divides government-controlled areas and non-government-controlled areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Older women and older people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are particularly vulnerable. The European Union, as one of the largest humanitarian donors in Ukraine, has focused its humanitarian funding on projects in the areas near the front line and especially in the so-called non-government controlled areas where the needs are particularly acute.
The industrial town of Avdiivka with its coke and aluminum plant, belching pillars of smoke, is one of the larger urban areas situated right on the front line. Donetsk airport, where major battles took place, is only a few kilometres to the south. Despite the conflict, 16 000 people still live in Avdiivka, many of whom are pensioners.
Viktor Georgievich, 81, spends most of his days in bed in his cluttered room in a small apartment, the walls and doors cracked from shelling. Viktor came to Avdiivka in the 1960’s to work in the factory and start a family. His wife and their older son died, and 30 years of hard working conditions caused problems with his spine and legs. Now, his few visitors include his younger son Alexandre, daughter-in-law Natasha, and their two children.
He receives regular visits from Yulia, a volunteer with the international NGO HelpAge, one of several humanitarian organisations that receive financial support from the EU to tend to the specialised needs of the elderly.
“Thanks to Yulia, I get to sit outside the apartment block and see the neighbours,” Viktor told us. “But it is becoming more painful to walk and I need my stick and someone to help. Yulia also helps me with my physio exercises and other treatments I need. With her visits, and my family around I am never lonely. I love to play with my baby granddaughter and see her smile. At least the broken windows were recently replaced after lobbying the local authorities.”
One particular area of concern is the payment of pensions to the elderly living in non-government controlled areas. While pitifully small, these pensions are usually the only source of income for hundreds of thousands of elderly in Ukraine. For the pensioners who reside in non-government controlled areas, the government imposed a condition for them to register as internally displaced people in order to receive Ukrainian pensions. While some of the pensioners have moved to government-controlled areas, others remained in non-government controlled areas.
Thousands of elderly are therefore forced to regularly cross the official crossing points in the searing summer heat or blistering winter cold to access their pensions and buy the basic essentials. This places tremendous strain on the fragile health of many elderly people. With EU support, the French NGO Premiere Urgence Internationale (PUI) set up first aid stations at major crossing points which can address sudden health problems the elderly may suffer during their arduous crossing.
Some also cross to look for relatives with whom they have lost contact, who they fear are perhaps imprisoned or even dead. Many elderly continue to remain in their homes along the front line because of an emotional attachment and often believe they are too old to move.
Antonina Mikhailovna, who lives in Myronivskyi and recently celebrated her 90th birthday is just one of thousands of elderly who fled their homes at the beginning of the conflict but returned soon after. “I was very homesick there and decided to come back after a short time.” She also refuses to move in with her grandchildren, and her children passed away long time ago. Her home was repaired with the help of People in Need, a Czech NGO and the UN Refugee Agency. But she can regularly hear the shelling. “The fact is that every evening when we go to watch the news on TV, we think ‘God, let us live to see the day when there will be no war’,” Antonina adds. Many others like Antonina, who live in small villages near the front line, no longer have access to government-run health services. With EU funding, the NGO Medecin du Monde works with local medical staff to visit isolated communities regularly so that senior citizens can be examined and be supplied with vital medicines.
Back in Avdiivka, Nadezhda Fedorovna tries to sit up for her volunteer visitor. Now aged 85, she was partially paralysed in 2016 when her apartment was hit by artillery fire. Her son still lives with her, but he suffered a bad stroke two years ago, and is not able to look after her. “I have no more hopes and dreams for myself, but I wish strongly for peace and health for our community and our country,” she says.
Viktor, who worries about his daughter-in-law and his grandkids, echoes Nadezhda’s words, “The kindergarten closed so Natasha lost her job there and my son only works shifts so is struggling to pay for food and rent. This country has suffered so much and now we need peace. I want my granddaughter to grow up healthy and happy.”