Displaced three times, but retired Ukraine teacher stays upbeat
KYIV, Ukraine – When heavy shelling drove retired teacher Vira, 85, from her home town on the frontlines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, her flight had an awful familiarity. It was the third time in her long life that she has been driven from home.
“Who thought that I would be on the move and without home in the end of my lifetime? But how can I complain?” she says, remaining defiantly upbeat. “We need to look on the bright side. Many people are having more difficult life than I have’’
Uprooted in early 2015 from her home in Stanitsa Luhanska to a temporary refuge in a small town near the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, she is among hundreds of thousands of vulnerable elderly people bearing the brunt of internal displacement from the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The ongoing conflict there has uprooted more than two million people both within Ukraine and across the country’s borders. Another two million remain in the conflict zone, where they live with sporadic fighting, broken infrastructure and lack of access to basic services. A disproportionate number of the holdouts are elderly people like Vira.
“We lost our house, then it was destroyed by shelling."
Speaking without regret, she recalls a life marked by upheavals that began during the famine and economic hardship of the early 1930s, when her father was deported to Siberia by the Soviet regime. The family was later allowed to return to a small town near Moscow, although her settled life ended with the outbreak of World War Two.
“We lost our house then, it was destroyed by shelling,” Vira recalls in an interview with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Together with her mother, she had to move in with relatives to the Donetsk region, where they lived in a cob house, with clay-built walls.
Settling into life as a primary school teacher in Stanitsa Luhanska after the war, she raised a son – Sasha – and looked forward to a peaceful retirement. However, two years ago, as clashes erupted in eastern Ukraine, she was once again forced to flee.
As shells began pounding her hometown, she first sought refuge in a bomb shelter. But when gun and artillery fire closed in on the town, Vira knew she had to run. During a lull in the shelling, she gathered a few vital documents and precious family photos in a plastic bag and fled in a car with a group of friends, hoping to join Sasha, who had gone ahead.
While the car broke down soon after, she remembers the day they fled as one of the happiest in her life. “It took more than a week to fix it,” she says. “But we were so glad to be in a safe haven and finally away from the shooting.”
In fewer than 18 months since then, Vira and Sasha have lived in five different locations. They are temporarily renting a tiny old house, which is now for sale. She occasionally calls her neighbours to find out what is happening back home in Stanitsa Luhanska.
“I miss my apartment so much. It was always clean, spacious and light. They told me last autumn that the windows were smashed,” she says.
According to official government statistics, more than 60 per cent of those registered as internally displaced in Ukraine are elderly people like Vera, who has high blood pressure and heart trouble. Highly vulnerable, their plight is of particular concern to UNHCR.
The economic downturn in the conflict-torn country has had a devastating impact on the most vulnerable groups, especially if their income is limited to social benefits and pensions.
“With my pension, I can barely afford food. When I had a heart attack, I went to see a doctor and she gave me a prescription for an expensive medication. I could not pay so much. I am now taking some cheap pills but they are not helping to ease my blood pressure,” she explains.
“What is happiness? ... To be happy with small things.”
Vira is grateful for the generosity of the local community in Kyiv. “I left with no belongings. All my clothes are from the Red Cross. Each month we also receive some food packages. It really helps,” she says.
As part of her limited daily routine, Vira often visits the community centre in Irpin, which was opened with UNHCR support this spring. Managed by a volunteer group, the centre seeks to promote a dialogue between displaced and local residents by organizing a number of cultural events and educational workshops.
“I won a medal in the dancing competition three years ago, back home. But I do not dance anymore,” says Vira. She comes to the centre for aerobics, cooking master classes and group discussions with psychologists, often seeking the simple pleasure of socializing with others.
“What is happiness?” Vira asks, as she pours tea for guests in her temporary home. “To be happy with small things.”
By Nina Sorokopud in Kyiv, Ukraine