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Growing old amid shelling and frostbite in Ukraine

Author : New York Times

To look at Paula Bronstein’s images of the elderly people trapped in Ukraine is to see lives frozen by conflict
18:30, 29 October 2018

Varvara Arkhipovna, 81, lives alone on a small pension in Katerinovka, Ukraine. Her village in the Luhansk region is exposed to sniper fire. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

To look at Paula Bronstein’s images of the elderly people trapped in Ukraine is to see lives frozen by conflict. Through bitterly cold winters, residents board up their windows and try to avoid shelling and frostbite. When the ground thaws in the summer, those who are physically able tend to their gardens before being sent back inside to stay out of firing range.

Joy comes in small moments: a woman receiving a donation of baby chicks; a relative’s visit. Some have not seen their families since the conflict began, even though they live only a few kilometers away.

Related: UN delivers 100 tons of humanitarian aid to occupied territories of Donbas

For the elderly, the conflict is characterized by waiting inside dilapidated homes while struggling to keep warm, safe, healthy and clean — increasingly difficult tasks as the years wear on.

Raisa Petrovna and her husband, Stanislav Vasilyevich, live in Opytne village, which is often caught in the crossfire between the Ukrainian military and pro-Russian separatists. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

Mariya Gorpynych, 76, lives alone in Opytne after her son, Victor, was killed when shelling hit their home. Chicks are delivered as part of a humanitarian aid service so elderly people can raise chickens for income. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

Ms. Petrovna wears the same slippers every day because she cannot afford new shoes. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

Ms. Bronstein has spent much of her career documenting conflict. From her work on an endless war in Afghanistan to her coverage of the Rohingya in Myanmar and Bangladesh, her photography is close, raw and unflinching. 'The way you get people to care, in my mind, is you talk about the people,' she said in a recent interview. 'You talk about the people affected by war. Then we get to a more intimate story about war.'

Related: UN claim 4.4 thousand of humanitarian officials suffered in conflict zones during 20 years

Her new work, 'Ukraine’s War: A Dire Situation — The Elderly,' looks at the conflict in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region, which has resulted in more than 10,000 deaths and the displacement of 1.6 million people. The conflict between the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists started in April 2014 after protests known as the Ukrainian revolution of 2014 or the Euromaidan Revolution. Those were sparked by then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s rejection of a trade deal with the European Union, and Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea shortly after.

While a cease-fire was reached in September 2014, the agreement has been consistently disregarded, and fighting persists throughout the region. Within this conflict that has been largely ignored, Bronstein has focused on another neglected group: the elderly.

Related: Red Cross plans humanitarian projects in Donetsk region’s Bakhmut hospital, checkpoint

With the support of a grant from Getty, she took two trips to eastern Ukraine last year, driving the length of the border and visiting villages on both sides of the 280-mile contact line, the border that separates Russian-backed districts and the rest of Ukraine. She found that once-bustling towns and villages had been neglected and abandoned; older people were trapped in their homes, the windows boarded up against the frequent shelling.

Vladimir Mamoshyn, 65, lives alone in Avdiivka village, less than a mile from the contact line. He uses a wheelchair after losing his leg because of a vascular disease. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

Lyudmila Yevgenievna, 64, lives in a nursing home in Chasov Yar. Once all her relatives died, she was not able to take care of her house by herself. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

Ludmyla Vasilevna, 61, lives with her cats and dogs in a war-torn village very close to the contact line. Her house has been damaged over the years, but she has nowhere else to go. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

If there is a hierarchy of attention during a war, it is not a stretch to believe that the older population — especially those left behind, trapped and isolated — is near the bottom of that list. Ms. Bronstein’s subjects are those embroiled in a war that is often eclipsed by other news around the world, and themselves eclipsed by issues deemed of higher importance within the conflict.

Navigating the region, especially crossing the contact line, is difficult, with shelling and gunfire erupting frequently, often once night falls. Communities and villages once well-connected are now cut off, with transport between Donetsk, Luhansk and villages on the other side of the contact line restricted, and the Donetsk airport destroyed. Bronstein says the Russian-backed areas of the Donbas region feel like Russia: its currency is spent, its language is spoken.

Related: UK to allocate $42.6 million to Ukraine for humanitarian aid, increase of defense capacity

While the area might not have the extreme — and visual — devastation seen in other conflicts, there is an eerie emptiness, with desolate neighborhoods of vacant houses and overgrown gardens. In 2014, the region had 4.3 million residents, roughly 10 percent of Ukraine. The population has shrunk as people fled the war, with roughly 1.6 million people displaced by the conflict.

Aleksandra Losipovna, 91, from Kramatorsk, was brought to a nursing home by her only relative, her grandson, because she lived alone and he had been afraid she would harm herself. She died in the facility. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

A cemetery full of tombstones that have been hit by gunfire near the Donetsk airport. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

Mariya Ivanovna, 85, has been living in a bomb shelter for four years. Her pension is the only source of income for her whole family. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

The quiet, desolate feeling during the day belies the conflict’s magnitude. Despite a cease-fire, shelling and gunfire persist, especially at night. The difficulty of moving around, both because of limited transport and frequent fighting, makes it hard for people on the Russian-controlled side to cross into Ukraine to get their pensions, which for many is their only source of income. A recent landmark decision by the Supreme Court of Ukraine may change the need to travel to receive a pension, though the ruling’s effect is unknown.

Related: Militants attack vehicle with humanitarian assistance in Donetsk region

Worse, many older people have limited mobility because of declining health. For those who stayed behind, the results are tangible. They live with stress and in squalor, with many unable to maintain proper hygiene.

Ms. Bronstein’s work shows how this unending stress and trauma affect the body — through premature aging, reduced immune function, and increased inflammation and hypertension. Bronstein heard that nine out of 10 elderly residents die not from violence, but from stress-related ailments, like heart attacks.

Related: Belarus to send humanitarian aid to Ukraine in sum of $80, 000

Some extended family members in towns not far away visit only sporadically because of the conflict; they cannot afford to have the older generation move in with them. But others simply do not want to leave. Many of the elderly, Ms. Bronstein said, are essentially waiting to die in the homes where they have always lived, close to relatives who might be buried nearby.

Elena Parshyna, 66, is blind and lives alone. She can never visit the graves of her husband and her son because the small cemetery is mined and too close to military positions. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

Nadezhda Borisovna, from Dobropolye, died at 76 in a nursing home. The body stayed in the room for two days with two sick elderly women, as the facility had no resources to deliver it to the morgue. Paula Bronstein
The New York Times

Seeing the daily routines of these elderly Ukrainians might prompt one to think that staying must be far worse than leaving. But Ms. Bronstein empathizes with the people she met.

'I’m at my father’s house right now,' she said while in Cape Cod, Mass., her home state. “He’s in his 90s. If you asked my father would he ever leave this house he would say ‘No.’ And if someone tried to take him out of this house and to a nursing home, I wonder how long he would live.”

To her, it is about the place, identity and belonging. 'I understand this,' Ms. Bronstein said. 'One hundred percent I understand this'.

Read the original text at The New York Times.

 

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