Europe

In pictures: Ukraine's elderly flee bitter conflict

A ceasefire in eastern Ukraine has brought a lull in the violence, but while the bombardments have diminished, the hardships remain for an elderly population caught on both sides of the divide.

More than one million people have been internally displaced within Ukraine itself and the United Nations estimates that 60% of them are pensioners. Many fled their homes but stayed nearby.

Suffering from ill health and heightened anxiety, they face their own battle for survival. These pictures, captured by the charity HelpAge International, show a resilient but desperate group of people.

Image copyright Iva Zimova/HelpAge International

Leonid, 73, and his wife Nadezhda, 71, lived in Permovaisk, a Luhansk town in the hands of pro-Russian rebels that was once home to 38,000, but was left in ruins after a battle with Ukrainian forces. The couple moved a short distance north and are now registered as internally displaced outside government-held Severodonetsk. They have children either side of the divide. Leonid has difficulty walking. Nadezhda has lost the sight of one eye and has high blood pressure.

Image copyright Iva Zimova

Valentina, 76, once worked as a technical operator at a factory in Pervomaisk, between the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, and stayed in the factory's bomb shelter when hostilities began. But when both the factory and her home were destroyed, she fled to her niece's home, a few kilometres north in the village of Borovskaye. "I've never before had any chronic diseases, but I now have cataracts and glaucoma," she says.

Image copyright Iva Zimova

For some of Ukraine's elderly refugees, home is now a former summer sports camp for children in the woods of the Donetsk region. Many of those staying here are from the transport hub town of Debaltseve, scene of a battle last month in which the town was captured by the separatists after the Minsk ceasefire.

Image copyright Iva Zimova

For Vladimir, 70, memories of the battle for Debaltseve are still fresh. Likening the bombardment to the World War Two German siege of Stalingrad, he says: "I had no time to pack. Some people went out in a bus which was hit and several people died." Vladimir now walks slowly because of a recent stroke and he rues the conflict that has split his home region and divided his family. "We all speak Russian. No-one had a problem with that. We never wanted to be separated from Ukraine." His son has stayed behind in Debaltseve.

Image copyright Iva Zimova

Raisa, 68, escaped with her grand-daughters, aged 11 and 14, when the rebel-held city of Donetsk came under rocket fire in August. "I'm the girls' guardian as both their parents have died. We were lucky to escape when we did," she said. They were given shelter in a government-run summer camp and rely on World Food Programme vouchers as well as free lunch and dinner at their hostel.

Image copyright Sarah Gillam/Helpage International

Pavel, 87, lives in Sloviansk, now in government hands but held earlier in the conflict by pro-Russian rebels. His daughter Larissa (R) and his grand-daughter lost their home in the battle for Debaltseve and have now moved in with him. For Pavel, war is nothing new. Aged 14, he was arrested by Nazi soldiers in World War Two and forced to work in a plane factory before being sent to Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany.

Image copyright Sarah Gillam

Unlike many of the elderly people internally displaced in eastern Ukraine, Anna, 77, managed to salvage some belongings before escaping the conflict in rebel-held Lisichansk. Her apartment block was completely destroyed in the bombardment. "The flats closed like a book leaving the two outside sections leaning like towers," she said. Her five children are scattered across Russia, separatist-held Luhansk and government-run Ukraine.

Image copyright Iva Zimova

Zinaida, 78, shares a room with a friend at a rundown summer camp for workers near Svyatohirsk in Donetsk region. Now home to 150 internally displaced Ukrainians, the camp is not far from the ceasefire buffer zone. She came here from Horlivka, a town on the front line that is still very much part of the conflict. She suffers from high blood pressure and can barely afford the medicine she has to pay for out of her own pocket. She is furious that the conflict has left schools and hospitals in ruins.

Image copyright Iva Zimova

Another resident at the former workers' summer camp is Nadezhda, who also had a home in Horlivka. Although her neighbour's flat was damaged in the fighting, she says hers is intact. After 38 years of working in the coal industry, Nadezhda is now suffering from hypertension brought on by the conflict. Nevertheless, her daughter Marina says it was a hard job to persuade her to leave the war zone and she had to enlist the support of volunteers to move her.


Why Ukraine's east is hit by conflict

Key points of Minsk ceasefire deal

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