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Octogenarian couple struggle for survival on Ukraine's front line

Ukraine. The elderly couple who won't leave the war zone

Octogenarian couple struggle for survival on Ukraine's front line

The battered town of Shchastya has witnessed several battles since Ukrainian conflict began in 2014. Most of its young families have left.
20 February 2017
Married for 56 years, Hanna and Oleksiy refuse their daughter's pleas to leave their home.

Hanna and Oleksiy Huzovskiy barricade the door of their apartment and take refuge in the hall when the shelling starts. They are both in their 80s and are too frail to run to a bomb shelter.

Hanna suffers from pain in her legs and walks with a stick, and Oleksiy, who can barely walk, has poor hearing and eyesight. They stick together and constantly refuse their daughter’s entreaties to leave.

“I told her, only one of us will go with you, and only after the second one dies,” Hanna said.

The town of Shchastya, which means “happiness” in Ukrainian, lies right on the front line of Ukraine’s conflict, which has cost nearly 10,000 lives in the 33 months since it started.

The sound of shelling is heard in the town almost every night. Many houses have walls pierced by shells and boarded-up windows.

"It is a place of elderly people with more than half of its population over 60."

There have been several battles in and around the town, located in the suburbs of the regional capital Luhansk, and most of the young families have left.

Now it is a place of elderly people with more than half of its population over 60, said Natalia Boyko, a project assistant of the NGO HelpAge international, which helps senior citizens worldwide.

In December, HelpAge delivered cash assistance of about $144 per person provided by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency to the most vulnerable elderly residents living near the front line in Ukraine.

Hanna was one of the recipients. She said that, after receiving the money she immediately spent about $28 of it on medication for her husband. “We spend one of our two pensions entirely on medicines,” she said. A single pension is worth about $56.

The Huzovskys are dependent on their neighbours and humanitarian workers, who buy food for them. Hanna, 80, stopped going out after she nearly fainted outdoors when she went to a pharmacy in December.

For 86-year-old Oleksiy, it is difficult even to walk from one room to another. He spends his days lying in bed, cuddling their two cats Sonya and Masha, or drinking coffee and smoking in the small kitchen.    

Hanna often watches television for news about the conflict. It brings back memories of World War Two, which she witnessed as a child. Hanna remembers her father lifting her up for the last time before he was conscripted. He went missing in action in 1942.

 “God forbid that one should live through two wars in one lifetime,” said Oleksiy, who experienced World War Two in his native Volyn region in western Ukraine. After the war, he studied geology in the town of Drohobych, where he met Hanna, who was training to become a seamstress. They married in a student dormitory.  

The family moved to the Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine in 1965 and settled in Shchastya. Hanna taught design and technology, while Oleksiy worked as a member of a geological prospecting group searching for oil deposits.

“We never hold a grudge against each other for long, because who would take care of us if we don’t take care of each other?”

Working in cold weather and sleeping in unheated caravans led to the first health problems for him. His condition deteriorated after the conflict in Ukraine started in 2014. He stopped going out, even on to the balcony, and became bedridden. “I can’t even see a spoon in my hand now,” he said.

Oleksiy has several hearing aids, but the only doctor in the region who can adjust them for his needs lives in Severodonetsk 70 km away, and he is unable to use them.

Oleksiy rarely talks to anyone except his wife. Virtually unable to see or hear, he combats depression by writing poems. He recites a verse that he has composed as his epitaph: “My life is coming to the end and my journey of life is finishing. It was so hard to come here but I did it.”

Hanna sometimes talks with the cats and sings with her husband. Every evening she speaks by phone to her daughter, who lives in Kyiv and rarely comes to Shchastya. She still grieves for her son, who died young long ago.

Once, after he got up, Hanna was not in the flat. In a panic, he asked neighbours if they knew where she was. They told him she had gone out to a shop. He waited by the entrance until she returned.

Hanna and Oleksiy have lived together for 56 years and say their marriage has been happy. “There were big sorrows in our life. But we rarely argued over all these years,” Hanna said.

“We never hold a grudge against each other for long,” Oleksiy said. “Because who would take care of us if we don’t take care of each other?”