For 8 years, elders have been carrying the burden of the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
Volodymyr Yevdokymov*, 71, is one of about 500,000 liquidators, who worked to limit the consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, risking their health and life. Once again, tragic events came into his life in 2014, when the armed conflict escalated in Eastern Ukraine.
Volodymyr recalls the first few years of the armed conflict: “The shelling was ongoing, day and night. No building in our village was left unharmed. Hiding from shelling, we’ve spent most days of 2014 and 2015 in the basement of our house. Many people were scared and left. Only some 38 elders remain in the village today.”
Volodymyr and his wife decided to stay in Opytne even though the village is located only a few kilometers away from the contact line. “Where would we go? Our house and all our belongings are here. We don’t want to leave,” says Volodymyr. Thanks to funds received from UNHCR in cooperation with the Norwegian Refugee Council, the family was able to rebuild their house a few years ago.
There is no centralized water supply, electricity or central heating in the village. Shops and medical facilities do not operate and ambulances do not come to Opytne. In order to replenish stocks of food and medicine, people need to travel 6 kilometers to Avdiivka village, taking a dirt road that is not completely cleared of mines.
“This devastation reminds me of Chernobyl. There is this very similar sense that something terrible is happening. Streets are empty and the area is decaying. Hopelessness is growing every day,” says Volodymyr.
35 years ago, he spent 40 days in Chernobyl, repairing vehicles to ensure timely transportation of people and goods, essential to conduct emergency work at the reactor. The garage was located about 800 meters from the nuclear station.
“When we arrived at the Chernobyl disaster zone, it was very quiet there. People had already left. Around 100,000 people were evacuated. Abandoned animals ran around the neighborhood: cats, dogs, geese, chickens, ducks… I remember that apples were hanging on the branches. Big, red ones, but they were contaminated,” recalls Volodymyr.
10 years after the Chernobyl nuclear accident, Volodymyr suffered a massive heart attack. And 5 years later, another one. Yet, doctors did not find a connection between heart attacks and radioactive contamination. Volodymyr therefore only received the very small social benefit offered to Chernobyl liquidators. Volodymyr’s pension and allowances amount to about $100 a month. He spends most of it on medicine.
“International and local NGOs help us a lot. The NGO People in Need brings drinking water twice a month. Humanitarian mission Proliska and UNHCR regularly donate food kits and hygiene products. We also have some chickens brought by representatives of the Red Cross. We have set up a vegetable garden behind the house. We are planting potatoes, carrots, onions, zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers. But even gardening is becoming challenging,” says Volodymyr.
“Unfortunately, Volodymyr’s health is deteriorating. His wife suffered a severe leg injury in 2019. Every year it is more and more difficult for Volodymyr and his wife to cope with household chores. We help as much as we can, taking Volodymyr to doctors. The closest medical facility is 40 kilometers away,” explains Nadiia Shostak from NGO Proliska
This January, Volodymyr and his wife celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. “This year, it was a sad celebration, says Volodymyr. We reminisced on how our lives were before the conflict, discussed memories of relatives and friends we haven’t seen for years. All we want is for the conflict to stop so we can see them again.”
Humanitarian Needs Overview (2021) shows that the elderly, often disabled and frail, make up a significant proportion of people in need of humanitarian assistance and who require special attention and care. Over 500,000 people live in areas directly affected by the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine. They continue to live under regular exchanges of gunfire across the contact line, while another 2 million are exposed to landmines and explosive remnants of war.
UNHCR is very grateful for the generous support of donors who are making it possible to help and protect people like Volodymyr.
*The name was changed for privacy and security reasons.
This article was edited by Sarah Vallee. Find volunteering opportunities at https://www.onlinevolunteering.org/en