April 24, 2024

Kyiv, Ukraine (CNN)  Ukraine has a large population of older people — one in four of its residents is over the age of 60 — and most of them are women. Some lived through World War II as children, only to see their lives disrupted again in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine began.

When Russia then launched its full-scale invasion last February, many of these women were unable or unwilling to leave. Of the 4.8 million Ukrainians who have registered in other European countries as refugees since the war began, most are younger women and children.

Older women stayed in Ukraine and largely remain invisible to the outside world, despite their experience, wisdom, and resilience.

Here are some of their stories, edited for clarity and brevity.

Valentina Romanova

Valentina Romanova is a 93-year-old Holocaust survivor who lives in an assisted-living home in Kyiv. Along with other residents, she was evacuated to western Ukraine for a few months last year but has since returned. Her mother and many friends and neighbors were among the more than 33,000 Jews murdered by SS units and German police at Babyn Yar, a ravine in Kyiv.

I am old, I’ve lived my age. Youth is what is important now. Unfortunately, a lot do not see any perspectives. Children at least do not understand what is waiting for them — all the difficulties, all the rebuilding and reconstruction. I feel sorry for the younger generation.

What we had to go through after World War II is just flowers in comparison with the consequences of this war. Such destruction!

We used to live in the city center, near the Golden Gate. There was a German Consulate across the street. Every other day a chubby man would go out and hang a flag with a Nazi sign on it and we children would throw rocks at him. There were four of us from the same yard — two boys and two girls of the same age.

 

“We have already lived through a war. We are all from Kyiv, we can manage.”

Valentina Romanova

My mother was killed in 1941 in Babyn Yar. I did not know about this; my father only told me when I came back to Kyiv in 1944. My father sent my mother to stay with his mother, but they were Ukrainians and my mother, as a Jew, was endangering the whole family for hiding her. So she left for the city to stay with her friend. I was told they were hiding together in some shed and caught a cold. I was told she died of pneumonia. They did not tell me the truth for a very long time.

I knew all the neighbors from our building personally. Unfortunately, most of them were killed in Babyn Yar. One of the boys we were throwing rocks with, Shura, he and his family survived.

When Kyiv was being bombed, I was evacuated. I was 11 years old. It was sudden — I was taken from a summer camp, while I was wearing my slippers, and grabbed my suitcase. While we were crossing the Dnipro river the bridge was being bombed. We managed to cross the bridge, but they shot at the train windows with machine guns. Grandma told us to hide under the bench. It was a town train with wooden benches. We did not understand what was happening. We were laughing and did not want to hide. Someone closed the window with a red pillow and others were screaming that the red pillow would be a target.

When we reached Kharkiv, it was clear the bombing might last more than two weeks. Chelyabinsk agreed to accept the whole train of evacuees and that’s where I lived until I came back to Kyiv in the spring of 1944.

When the war started last year, we were offered an evacuation. But all of the residents were against the idea. Nobody wanted to leave. Regardless of the shelling, regardless of everything, we wanted to stay in Kyiv. I was born in the Kyiv region and have lived all my life in Kyiv city.

We have already lived through a war. We are all from Kyiv, we can manage. No water? We know where the wells are. No food? We are not afraid to starve. We did not want to leave. But the home administration said they couldn’t do it. Either we leave all together or we go live with our friends or relatives. But most of us didn’t have anyone to go to. So we left.

Klara Ushakova

Klara Ushakova, 74, lives in Kyiv, her eighth city since she and her family were forced to flee their home in Donetsk in 2014. They spent time living in Berdyansk, Uzhgorod, and Kramatorsk before settling in Mariupol in 2016. When Russian troops invaded Mariupol last March, she had to flee again.

I really loved Mariupol, it was much better than Donetsk. I was not sorry to move to Mariupol, not sorry at all. It was such a beautiful city. Clean and tidy. I really miss it. We lived in Mariupol for six years and four months.

I miss my friends the most.

I have a friend, Krystyna, she was my neighbor. She always brought me fresh produce. I would bake for her. I would bake pizza and biscuits and pastries and she’d give me her produce. Butter, chicken, rabbits, eggs, everything. She was feeding me so much that I was embarrassed. Sometimes I wouldn’t open the door when she came with the produce, and she’d just hang the bag on our door handle.

Living was easier in Mariupol. Our people in Donetsk, I can’t say I hated them, but when I saw them go to the 2014 referendum (held by pro-Russian separatists on splitting from Kyiv) yelling “Russia!” I couldn’t have good feelings towards them, and I hate them now. I hate them now.

I don’t remember the date the explosions started. We came out onto the landing, and my husband said: “Look!” And I saw nine tanks with the letter Z standing by our apartment block. A white letter Z.

“There was no shelter. There was no one to put the fire out.”

Klara Ushakova

We were really scared. It was as if they were watching someone.

We could hear someone running up the stairs, some military men. Maybe they were Azov fighters, I don’t know. I couldn’t tell who was who. They went up to the ninth floor, and they must have fired on the tank that stood next to the building. The tank blew up, and part of the building caught fire. A piece of the turret flew into my neighbor Krystyna’s kitchen.

Everything was blown apart, from the ninth floor to the ground. Everything. There was thick smoke from the fire. We put on masks and ran down, but there was gunfire in the street. There was no shelter. There was no one to put the fire out. No fire trucks, nothing. No water. That’s it. Where could we go? We watched the tank burn down and went back home.

When we fled, we spent three days in Berdiansk. In the sports center there, we all had to register. Filtration. I said, “Hello, I am old, my husband is ill, can we please leave. I cannot leave my husband alone.”

We were told to go to the evacuation buses. We got on the buses, but they were not allowed to leave. We were waiting and waiting and waiting. And nothing was happening. And then, on the third day, the driver said we could finally go, and we started moving towards Zaporizhzhia.

There were 22 Russian checkpoints along the route.

Hanna Serhiienko

Hanna Serhiienko, 65, lives in a small village about two hours south of Kyiv, where her house acts as a hub for local volunteers making camouflage nets for the front lines.

 

 

Credit: By Ivana Kottasová, Yulia Kesaieva and the Visuals team, CNN

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