They sit one by one or two in half-destroyed houses. They take shelter in musty basements marked in chalk with “people underground,” a message to troops fighting that day. They venture to visit cemeteries and remember any time other than the current one.
Ukraine’s elderly are often the only people left along the country’s hundreds of miles of front line. Some waited their entire lives to enjoy their twilight years, only to end up in a purgatory of loneliness.
Houses built with their own hands are now crumbling walls and broken windows, with framed photographs of loved ones who live far away. Some people have already buried their children and their only wish is to stay close so they can be buried next to them.
But it doesn’t always turn out that way.
“I have lived through two wars,” said Iraida Kurylo, 83, whose hands shook as she remembered her mother screaming when her father was killed in World War II.
She was lying on a stretcher in the village of Kupiansk-Vuzlovyi, with her hip broken in a fall. The Red Cross had arrived.
Mrs. Kurylo was leaving the house.
Nearly two years after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, with war on the horizon, older people who have stayed offer various reasons for their decisions. Some simply prefer to be at home, whatever the dangers, rather than fighting in an unknown place among strangers. Others do not have the financial means to leave and start over.
Their pension checks still arrive like clockwork, despite months of war. And they have devised survival systems as they bide their time and hope to live to see the end of the war.
Virtual connections can often be the only link to the outside world.
One day last September, in a mobile clinic about three miles from the Russian positions, Svitlana Tsoy, 65, was conducting a remote checkup with a medical student at Stanford University in California and talking about the difficulties of war.
For most of the past two years, after their house was destroyed, she said, Ms. Tsoy and her mother, Liudmyla, 89, have been living in a basement in Siversk, in the eastern Donetsk region, with 20 other people. There is no running water or bathroom. Still, they are reluctant to leave.
“It is better to endure discomfort here than among strangers,” Mrs Tsoy said.
Halyna Bezsmertna, 57, who was also at the clinic (she had broken her ankle trying to protect herself from mortar fire) had another reason for staying in Siversk. “I promised a very dear person that I would not leave her alone,” she said. In 2021, her grandson died and was buried near her.
“I won’t be able to apologize to him if I don’t keep my word,” Bezsmertna said.
Many who decide to evacuate eventually realize that they have abandoned not only a home, but an entire life.
In Druzhkivka, an eastern town near the front line but firmly controlled by Ukrainian forces, Liudmyla Tsyban, 69, and her husband, Yurii Tsyban, 70, sheltered in a church in September and talked about the house they left behind in nearby Makiivka. , which had been affected by the fighting.
There they had a beautiful house in a town near the river and a boat, they remembered as they flipped through the photographs. And they had a car.
“We imagined how we would retire and travel on it with our grandchildren,” Tsyban said. “But the car was destroyed by a shell explosion.”
In August, the St. Natalia nursing home in Zaporizhzhia housed approximately 100 seniors, many of whom suffer from dementia and need 24-hour care. Nurses say that when they hear explosions, they sometimes tell patients it’s thunder or a car backfiring, to prevent them from getting angry.
In another nursing home in Zaporizhzhia, Liudmyla Mizernyi, 87, and her son Viktor Mizernyi, 58, who share a room, often talk about returning to Huliaipole, their hometown, but they know this is not the case.
Huliaipole, located along the southern front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces, has been the center of intense fighting for much of the war. Mr. Mizernyi was injured and permanently disabled when the walls of his basement collapsed after he was hit by mortar fire. After that, they felt they had no choice but to leave.
“We want to go home, but there is nothing there, no water, no electricity, nothing left,” Mizernyi said.
Anna Yermolenko, 70, was reluctant to leave her home near Marinka. But as the explosions got closer, she knew she had no choice and, since the summer, she has been living in a shelter in central Ukraine.
Her neighbors contacted her to tell her that her house was still standing.
“They are taking care of my dog and I asked them to take care of my house too,” she said. “I pray that after the war we can visit.”
But that was in August. Marinka has been nearly demolished by fighting, and evidence was mounting this month that Russian forces had taken control of the town, or what was left of it.
It is not just missile attacks and shelling that have destroyed homes in Ukraine. When the Kakhovka Dam along the Dnieper River burst in June, with evidence that Russia had blown it up from the inside, flood water inundated nearby villages.
Several months later, Vira Ilyina, 67, and Mykola Ilyin, 72, were examining the damage to their flooded home in the Mykolaiv region and searching through their few salvageable belongings.
“Some of the walls fell down and we couldn’t save any furniture here,” Ilyina said. “That is the gift we receive for our old age!”
Vasyl Zaichenko, 82, originally from the Kherson region, finds it difficult to talk about the loss of his home to the flood. “I lived here for 60 years and I’m not giving this up,” he said. “If you built your house with your own hands for 10 years, you simply can’t abandon it.”
At a temporary shelter in Kostyantynivka in late summer, Lydia Pirozhkova, 90, said she had been forced to leave her hometown of Bakhmut twice in her life. She evacuated the first time when the Germans swept through during World War II, and the second time under Russian bombardment.
“I left everything, dogs and cats, took my bag and left,” she lamented, “but I forgot my teeth.”
It’s tempting to try to find them again, but those false teeth may now be the property of Russian invaders. And after all, loss may be the least of your problems.
“I’m thinking, why do I need these teeth?” said Mrs. Pirozhkova. “I was born without teeth and I will die without teeth.”