At 80, brothers “wait for death” among war ruins | war in ukraine

The two houses, in a no man’s land disputed between Russian and Ukrainian forces, were badly damaged by bombing: there is no electricity or heating, and the surrounding fields, laden with mines, have become unusable.

Still, the Kovalyov brothers — Stepan, 80, and Volodymyr, 77 — and their wives decided to stay in the isolated farming village of Posad-Pokrovske, in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine, to spend their days in the place they best know.

It will not be easy. Older couples survive on low state pensions and depend on family members and volunteers for food.

Stepan and his wife Tetyana, 79, live in a cellar next to their old bungalowwhich, like many other buildings in Posad-Pokrovske, was practically flattened during fighting.

“We are 80 years old, we have worked all our lives, on the same land, and now we are waiting to die,” Stepan told Reuters journalists at the end of January. “What else can we expect?”

Volodymyr and Tetiana, who are 76 years old, sleep in the top room of their house, which still has a roof.

Tetyana cries inside her house, destroyed during the months of Russian occupation.
REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians face similar problems as Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II approaches its second year. Many fled towns and villages close to the front lines as the war raged around them, though others, including the elderly, refused to leave.

Russian troops arrived in Posad-Pokrovske, located about 36 kilometers northwest of the city of Kherson, on February 25 last year, the day after Russia began the full-scale invasion that it calls “operation special military” in Ukraine.

It was as far north as they could go, and the area around this small settlement became a no-go zone between enemy forces.

The land is now littered with boxes of ammunition, gun shells and destroyed Russian tanks. Mines are strewn about, two unexploded missiles remain nearby, deep and narrow trenches cut across the fields, and houses, one after the other, have been left in ruins.

Trenches in the ground near Stepan and Tetyana’s house.
REUTERS/Nacho Doce

under fire

Despite the war, Volodymyr did not leave the village, and Tetiana was only gone for a few weeks, at first with her granddaughter. They recalled the intense fighting over the next few months. In October, the house was hit by what is believed to be a tank shell. Both were inside.

“There was so much smoke, I couldn’t see anything,” recalled Tetiana. “It was raining and parts of the roof were falling off.”

The clashes at that time coincided with a Ukrainian counteroffensive in the region, which would eventually force the Russians to retreat to the left bank of the Dnipro River in early November, the biggest setback of the war so far for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In the next street, Stepan and Tetyana had taken refuge in the basement when their house was destroyed during bombings in May.

Svetlana, 21, with the family’s last cow after the cattle disappeared.
REUTERS/Nacho Doce

They left Posad-Pokrovske shortly afterwards, returning occasionally to check their lands and visit Volodymyr and Tetiana.

When the couple returned shortly after the counter-offensive had ended and the Russians had been driven back, they found their livestock gone: four cows, as well as dozens of chickens and pigs. Before the war, they grew barley and vegetables. Now, the fields are treacherous, with mines and unexploded ordnance.

That basement, which his late son Aleksandr built as a food store, has become his home, lit by candles whenever they are there.

Access is via a small staircase in a garden covered by debris and a thin layer of snow.

Every day is a mess. Volodymyr cycles to the nearest grocery stores to buy food. Sometimes it also brings products distributed by humanitarian aid organizations. Couples cut wood for their ovens and collect rainwater in buckets that fall from the roof, or from the village well, if the engine is running.

Volodymyr, 77, rides his bicycle to a food delivery point. ,Volodymyr, 77, rides his bicycle to a food delivery point.
REUTERS/Nacho Doce,REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Volodymyr and Tetiana’s granddaughter Svetlana, now an adult, helps them take care of their only cow and a rooster.

When Reuters journalists showed Stepan and Tetyana a picture of them sitting in their basement on President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Instagram account in early January, they were momentarily stunned.

“Now Putin knows where we are!” Stepan quipped.

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