Thousands still struggle to survive in the red zone near the front lines in eastern Ukraine, where just collecting a pension is nearly impossible.
“Not so long ago we were switching channels and one was showing news about Gaza and Palestine,” Svitlana says, comparing her plight with that of the Middle East. “And now I’m sitting on the couch, staring at the wall, and somewhere nearby a 120 mm mortar is firing, making this wall tremble. Let it hit, or something [I thought]. I’m tired of being afraid.” [Editor’s note: the names of persons who appear in this story have been changed for their protection.]
Svitlana and her family live in the so-called red zone (area of active hostilities) of a newly appeared “country” – the self-proclaimed Donetsk Peoples’ Republic (DPR). Together with the similarly Russian-backed, Luhansk People’s Republic, the DPR emerged, violently, after the 2014 Ukrainian “Maidan” revolution. The first shelling occurred in the outskirts of Donetsk, one of the biggest and most important industrial cities in the east of the country. People split up into “Ukrainians” and “non-Ukrainians” – those who allegedly supported Russia in this conflict, or, like the majority of people, those whose opinion wasn’t asked. These breakaway regions are home to around 4 million people and have first-hand experience of the ongoing war with the central government in Kyiv.
Life at the front line is tough, no matter one’s age or social status. It affects people, on a physical, social, and psychological level. The elderly and children are touched the most, considering their specific vulnerabilities – the old feeling abandoned and isolated, especially if their loved ones have fled, and the children feeling unsafe, stressed, and insecure.
Every day is a challenge not only for 35-year-old Svitlana and her 40-year-old husband, Oleksiy, but also for their two children, six-year-old Andriyko and three-year-old Oksanka, and Nadiia Petrivna, Svitlana’s elderly mother-in-law. The settlement they live in is not far from Donetsk; its center looks surprisingly clean and “normal” until you learn that military positions lie 500 meters away from the main street, just around the corner.
Andriyko had to grow up fast and become a real protector to his mother and sister while his father is away working and trying to provide the family with the basic things to survive.
“Mom, move aside, they are shooting again” – those are the words that Svitlana hears from her son almost daily and that will surely resonate in her head long after the conflict is over. He started to talk in his sleep, sometimes to scream. She tries to soothe him at those times, telling her son: “That’s just a nightmare, my baby.” But it’s not.
The closer to the front-line positions, the more vivid the picture of a battlefield becomes: here and there are houses with damaged roofs, broken windows. A couple of them were almost completely destroyed from a direct hit on the building, engulfing the premises in flames. The neighbors called the fire brigade, but the shelling was still ongoing, and the brigade did not arrive for security reasons.
“But what about our security?” Svitlana asks, looking older than her age. “We cannot get out of the house every time they are shelling, and most of the time they are shelling at night.”
Making Ends Meet
Amid conflict, the departure of much of the population, and the closure of many services, Oleksiy lost his job as a lawyer and has had to take any part-time jobs available in the area – hard and low-paid. Nevertheless, Svitlana and Oleksiy are trying to do everything possible to ensure a decent life for their children. Svitlana doesn’t work as she needs to take care of the children, especially of Oksanka, who has a disability requiring special care and expensive treatment.
Last summer Oksanka was playing with other children in the trees behind their garden and stepped on a landmine. Nobody knows how it had appeared there; this area had never been mined, locals say. Oksanka’s right foot was injured and had to be amputated in the district hospital. Since then, the usually happy and joyful girl has become quiet. She doesn’t want to play with the other kids anymore. Her mom says they laugh at her, calling her “the lame girl.”
The scarce income of the family is spent on basic food and medicines. On the last Sunday of each month, they have a small party and buy 200 grams of chocolate candies for the kids.
“I was a little girl, when Holodomor [the famine that killed millions in the 1930s] started in Ukraine,” says Nadiia. “Now, at the age of 91, I still have those awful days in my memory. I couldn’t imagine that I would have to struggle for survival so many years later.”
Since the COVID-19 outbreak, and closure of the checkpoints and civilian crossings at the line of contact between Ukraine and the DPR, most retired people cannot receive their pensions. Left without this last source of income, they have practically nothing to live on. People do not have the possibility to either withdraw Ukrainian pensions in the DPR with their bank cards, or to transfer the funds to their relatives.
Not Worth the Journey
Receiving pensions and other social benefits was a challenge even before the pandemic. Following the outbreak of hostilities, Ukrainian government institutions ceased to operate in the areas in Donetsk out of their reach. To collect pensions, locals must travel to a government-controlled area to register as an IDP (internally displaced person) and undergo a verification procedure every two months. People had to queueat the checkpoints for hours, sometimes days, in order to cross the “border” from the DPR to Ukraine proper.
“Even if I could walk, to go there, you need to queue two days to do the round trip, then you need to stay there for several days until you get verified. Paying for the accommodation is not an option,” Nadiia says. “I have a very small pension, like most of us – I would pay more than I get in two months.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak and the closure of crossings, most have lost access to their pensions, except for a small group who are wealthy enough, for example, to travel through Russia to reach Ukraine proper. But many had already lost their access to Ukrainian pensions before the pandemic as they could not make the trip back and forth because of limited finances and health issues.
“It is good that we all live together. Our neighbor, old Mykola, lives on his own,” she goes on. “His children moved to Ukraine [proper] when the war began.” They used to come visit him twice a year, in the summer and before Christmas. Seeing his family seems to be his only reason to live, but now they cannot visit because the border is closed.
“I pray every day that this whole nightmare is over, and I am able to hug my great-granddaughter who is now on the other side and buy her the sweets that she adores. Now I barely have enough to buy bread,” Mykola says and quickly turns away as tears glisten in his eyes.
With the winter approaching, the family will be faced with another challenge: the need to find coal to survive the cold. Last year they had to collect wood and relied on the support of their good-hearted neighbors. “If this winter is going to be as snowy and cold as the last one, I don’t know how we will get through it,” says Svitlana.
“Why don’t we move out of the conflict zone?” she asks. “Nobody is waiting for us in other places. To move with a family like this – two small kids and an elderly woman who barely walks – you need a lot of money, but we don’t have it.”
As for Mykola, he would soon die after the visit of this author, without having seen his family at the other side of the contact line for the last time.
Mariya Kaloyeva was born in the Donetsk region and has lived there most of her life, including four-and-a-half years during the most intense stages of the current conflict. She is currently an IDP, working for an international organization in the area. All photos by Mariya Kaloyeva.