Older brothers eke out an existence amidst the ruins of the Ukraine war
By Nacho Doce
POSAD-POKROVSKE, Ukraine (Reuters) – The two houses in the former no man’s land between Russian and Ukrainian forces are badly damaged by shelling, there is no central electricity supply or heating and the surrounding fields are heavily mined, rendering them unusable.
But the Kovalyov brothers – 80-year-old Stepan and 77-year-old Volodymyr – and their wives have decided to stay in the remote farming village of Posad-Pokrovske in southern Ukraine, spending their days in the place they love best know.
That will not be easy. The elderly couples live on meager state pensions and depend on relatives and volunteers for food.
Stepan and his wife Tetyana, 79, live in a basement next to their old bungalow, which, like many other buildings in Posad-Pokrovske, was almost leveled by the fighting.
“We are 80, we have worked in the same garden all our lives and now we are waiting to die,” Stepan told Reuters during a visit to the village in late January. “What can we wait for?”
Volodymyr and Tetiana, 76, sleep in the last room in their house that still has a roof.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians face similar challenges as Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II enters its second year. Many fled towns and villages near the front lines as war raged around them, although some, including the elderly, refused to leave.
Russian troops reached Posad-Pokrovske, some 36 km (22 miles) northwest of the city of Kherson, on February 25 last year, a day after Russia launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which it calls a “military special operation.”
It was as far north as they could advance, and the area around the small settlement became a restricted zone between enemy forces.
The ground is now littered with ammo boxes, shell casings, and burned-out Russian tanks. Mines lie scattered, two duds jut out of the ground nearby, deep, narrow ditches weave through fields, and house after house lies in ruins.
Volodymyr, despite the conflict, did not leave the village, and Tetiana left early with her granddaughter only for a few weeks. They remembered heavy fighting in the months that followed. In October, the house was hit by a suspected tank shell. They were inside.
“There was a lot of smoke, I couldn’t see anything,” Tetiana recalled. “It rained and parts of the roof collapsed.”
The clashes at the time coincided with a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the area that eventually pushed the Russians back across the Dnipro River in early November, the biggest setback of the war for Russian President Vladimir Putin so far.
In the next street, Stepan and Tetyana had taken refuge in their basement when their house was destroyed in fighting in May.
They left Posad-Pokrovske shortly thereafter and occasionally visited her to inspect her property and Volodymyr and Tetiana.
When the couple returned, shortly after the counter-offensive ended and the Russians had routed, they found their cattle gone, four cows, along with dozens of chickens and pigs. Before the war they grew barley and vegetables. Now the fields are full of mines and duds.
The basement that their late son Aleksandr built to store food has become their home and is lit by candles when they are there.
You reach it via a small staircase in a garden covered with rubble and a thin layer of snow.
Every day is a drudgery. Volodymyr cycles to nearby shops to buy groceries, sometimes supplemented by packages distributed by charities. The couples chop wood for their stoves and collect rainwater from the roof in a bucket or from the village well when the generator is running.
Volodymyr and Tetiana’s adult granddaughter Svetlana, who is disabled, helps them tend their one cow and rooster.
Stepan and Volodymyr enjoy a glass or two of horilka, a Ukrainian spirit, together, though the couples largely keep to themselves.
When Reuters showed Stepan and Tetyana a photo of them in their basement, posted on President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s Instagram account, in early January, they were briefly taken aback.
“Now Putin knows where we are!” joked Stepan.
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(Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel)