Elderly struggle through trauma of war

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Maria and her husband Misha are just two of more than one million people who've been displaced by the war in eastern Ukraine. © Brendan Hoffman for Mercy Corps

In Triokhizbenka village, only a about a mile from the front lines of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, we meet Ivan, 61. He shows us a house that was destroyed by shelling in December of last year. Two of his elderly relatives lived there until the violence took their home.

Now, Ivan and his wife are hosting the elderly couple — they have nowhere else to go. “If we don’t help as human beings, who is going to help?” he asks.

This village is half the size it was before the conflict began a year ago. As we walk around the empty streets, there is an eerie sense of isolation — as if the community has been cut off from the rest of the world for some time. When we visit, it’s the first time they’ve had electricity in five days.

We head to a house a few streets over where we meet Maria, 80, and Misha, 75. The elderly couple has been together for 50 years. With their home damaged and unlivable, they’re now forced to live in a single room in the house that their relatives own.

Like so many other people we meet, Maria and Misha don’t want to be a burden to Ivan or their other relatives. They just want to be able to live their lives in peace, as they did before. But that’s impossible to do in a war zone.

Maria tells us about the day a shell hit their home. It was in the middle of the day, and Maria heard shelling coming from two different directions. She was outside in the yard and her husband, Misha, was inside their home.

When the shelling stopped, Maria was unable to hear for several minutes. Amidst the dust and the damaged buildings, she shouted: “Misha, Misha, where are you?”

Overwhelmingly grateful to have survived the bombardment, Misha and Maria stayed in the damaged house for three weeks. It was the dead of winter – the roof was destroyed, the front of the house severely damaged, and they had no electricity.

They were eventually taken in by their distant relatives, who are hosting the couple and help them buy food so they have something to eat. In a poor village so clearly devastated by the conflict, opening your home to host and feed others is no small effort. Maria and Misha give whatever they can from their small pensions.

Maria and Misha are visibly upset and shaken by what they have experienced — they’re living scared every day. “They keep shooting. Today it is quiet, but some days there is shooting,” she says. “Yesterday at night there was shooting.”

The current violence brings up painful memories for Maria, who remembers being in the midst of World War II when she was just five years old. She and her family lived in an emergency shelter during the fighting. Now, 75 years later, instead of enjoying a peaceful retirement, she’s reliving the trauma of war.

“This war is worse than that one,” says Maria. “We have had seven months of continued shelling, it has been terrifying.”

Again they tell us that they don’t want to be a burden on anyone, but they need help. They want to reconstruct their damaged home, and they need money for food and medicine.

“We worked a lot during our lives, we had good times, we had bad times,” says Maria. But they never imagined that their country, and their small village, would be engulfed by such horrible conflict. Now, they only have their small pensions and help from their family to get by.

Maria and Misha are just two of a more than a million people who have been left homeless and struggling because of the current conflict. More than 60 percent of those people are elderly, making them even more vulnerable.

In war, the most vulnerable often suffer more than any others. During our emergency response in eastern Ukraine, which begins this month, we will focus our efforts on helping Maria, Misha, and others like them.

We will distribute blankets and basic hygiene supplies to families who’ve been forced from their homes. We will also provide cash assistance to families and the elderly so they are able to purchase what they need most, be it food, shelter supplies, medicine or fuel for heat.

As our work in Ukraine ramps up, we will continue to look for the best ways to help the most vulnerable people trapped in this conflict — people like Maria and Misha, who just want to be able to live in their own home again.