the elderly languish in war-torn eastern Ukraine

He has lived in fear of heavy shelling for months, but it was on Thursday that 73-year-old Vladislav Victorovych first considered fleeing his home near Ukraine’s front lines.

Before dawn, a Russian missile crashed through the apartment block next to where he lives with his wife and son. If it had landed just 50 meters (160 feet) to the north, their home would have been reduced to a pile of rubble and broken glass.

“After today’s arrival, we have begun to think seriously that we have to leave,” Victorovych told AFP as residents of the wrecked building ventured inside to salvage what they could.

“The woman said, ‘It’s time to get ready.'”

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By noon, however, Victorovitch had changed his mind and recommitted himself to stay, overwhelmed by the prospect of moving his wife, who suffers from heart disease and other ailments.

Like many towns in Ukraine’s hard-hit eastern Donetsk region, Chasiv Yar has seen a sharp decline in population in recent weeks. Those left behind are mainly “elderly people and people with reduced mobility”, according to the United Nations.

Those who stay point to various reasons for doing so: from the simple challenge to the need to care for sick family members, or simply the lack of better options.

But the situation is increasingly desperate, given the intense fighting and worsening winter conditions. Temperatures here are expected to drop well below freezing by the weekend.

“Now we’re experiencing extreme stress, and that leads to disease,” Victorovych said.

“A person has a limit… A person living under normal conditions cannot understand this.”

– “All the youth of Ukraine left” –

Across the street, 88-year-old Yulia Tuskova, wearing a down coat and pink beanie, waited in line to receive sheets of clear plastic tarp handed out by city authorities, a temporary solution for broken windows.

As she tried to walk home with the help of a cane, she broke down in tears when asked who would put the tarp on her.

“We don’t have men, only grandmothers,” said Tuskova, who lives alone. “All the young people left and only the old ones remain.

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“There is no one to nail the polythene, all the windows are broken, there is no one to help.”

Olena, 64, told AFP she had no choice but to stay and look after her mother and three dogs.

“My mother, who is 85 years old, is sick,” said Olena.

“She walks in the garden at night, and we are afraid she will be shot.”

In the industrial town of Kostiantynivka, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) west of the heaviest fighting in Bakhmut, an 89-year-old woman named Praskoviya told AFP that while conditions were difficult, she was determined to get out of it.

“I was 10 years old when there was World War II, and now there’s another war in my old age,” he said.

“Then we were hungry and cold, we faced everything. We survived then and we will survive now.”

– Fighting against loneliness –

Yet even elderly Ukrainians like Praskoviya, while less immediately threatened by the fighting, face their share of challenges, most notably loneliness.

In the town of Lyman, recaptured from the Russians in September, Anatoly Gysenko, 60, once sheltered up to 30 people in the basement shelter he has filled with mattress pads and flimsy wooden chairs.

But as temperatures began to drop and Lyman’s population dwindled, the basement, heated by a wood stove Gysenko built out of bricks and mud, began to receive fewer and fewer visitors.

Finally he was left alone with his three dogs.

He recently invited his friend Sergiy Tarasenko, who lived alone in a different part of the city, to move in so they could at least have each other.

“It’s more fun to be together,” Tarasenko, 58, told AFP this week as the temperature hovered near freezing.

“Maybe more people will come if it gets a little colder.”

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He especially hopes that a woman will arrive to take over the kitchen so they can concentrate on tasks like chopping wood.

They currently live on a bland repertoire of pasta, porridge and mushrooms harvested from the mine-strewn forest behind their building.

“Now, while we are alone, we have to do the work of both men and women,” he said.

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