Ukraine's crisis leaves no room for the old
As we approach the gate of the nursing home, on the Western outskirts of Donetsk I spot some hills in the distance. They look very familiar, and I realise it is the same greenery, that I had witnessed being pounded a few days earlier by grad rockets and artillery. I feel the vibration of those loud thuds again in my head, followed a few seconds by rising plumes of dust, and smoke. I shudder inside, because those hills are close, too close to the home.
As we enter, the owner and manager Elena Trasch welcomes us, she seems very nervous. ”I didn’t expect so many of you,” she says. As we walk past the courtyard, I notice a man in a wheelchair wearing only pyjama bottoms. It is incredibly hot, and he is trying to roll up a cigarette with one hand; the other is badly contorted with arthritis.
I enter her office with our translator, while the rest of the team waits patiently outside. We sit down at her small desk, surrounded by medicine bottles, and piles of papers; her phone is ringing, with more requests from relatives who want to move their family members somewhere safe.
I explain, who we are, and why we are there. Elena, is clearly wary of journalists, and doesn’t want to be used as a propaganda tool by either the Ukrainians or the separatists.
I try to put her at ease, by clarifying that our story, is about the humanitarian impact of this dreadful conflict. “I am not here to talk politics.” I tell her, “I just want to talk to victims.” She nods; and I think she understands.
A more relaxed looking Elena now seems very keen to show us around.
She wants us to meet Tamara Zaytceva, who used to be a librarian. When her husband died 10 years ago, her family put her in this home.
She shares a room with three other women, they don’t have much, just a bed, a wardrobe between them, and a few chairs.
They make their beds, smoothing out the sheets with their hands, and ask me to sit down.
Tamara has photographs of her family; she shows me her daughter who now lives in Greece, and a younger very beautiful Tamara standing in a square with her husband and his family.
“I remember the Germans invading, I was a little girl.” Tamara tells me. “This war is just as bad.” I ask her how does she know; it is as bad if she hasn’t managed to leave this home. “I see it on the news, and read the papers.” She says. “I want our people to stay alive not be killed.”
At least Tamara knows where her children and grandchildren are. There are so many here who have no clue about where they have gone, and when they will be back.
Some like Valentina Ivanova clasp their mobiles, waiting for a ring or vibration alerting them to a message. Valentina has her own room close to Elena’s office. One get’s the impression that she is better off financially then some of the other residents. She has a graceful, steely air about her, as if she either ran a big household, or perhaps a big company. Her grandson used to visit her all the time, but now she doesn’t know where he is.
There are many newer residents, some from Horlivka a town close to Donetsk that has been battered by fighting. The more recent arrivals, seem almost shell shocked, Elena explains that they were brought here by ambulance, she isn’t even sure if their relatives know where they are.
Running out of Money
This is a private home, and family members contribute towards the fees, and some are pensioners who can also pay for their own care.
However, many of the banks are closed, and people have left so that money has all but stopped. Elena is using what is left of her own dwindling savings to keep the place open. Her husband, who also helps run the home, is at their farm, which is where most of their food comes from. They are less than 100km from each other, but in this region, that can be a perilous distance. There are separatists and Ukrainian checkpoints, front lines to cross, and armed men to contend with. So Elena has to make do, but she is running low on supplies.
War Surrounds the home
While I am there, Elena breaks down in tears several times, apologising for her agony, and almost embarrassed about her pain. She tells me that she wants people here to feel safe and normal. This is not an easy feat when the shelling is getting closer and closer, rattling the windows, and the walls. They do have a small shelter in another wing of the home about a 3-minute drive, or 10-minute walk away. However, it isn’t big enough for 160 people, and how can she get her elderly patients there?
As I leave the home, I wonder what will become of these people. They were children when the Second World War tore through their land. They have lived through Stalin’s reign, and then the fall of Communism and the creation of a united and independent Ukraine. They sing Russian songs form the soviet era, but also songs about the rolling fields of Ukraine.
Their families are divided in their loyalties; some have probably gone to Russia, and others to Kiev. They have been left alone, old and vulnerable, resigned to just waiting, as war surrounds them once again.