With one in four Ukrainians over the age of 60, Natalie Vikhrov documents the suffering of the elderly during the siege of the country’s second-biggest city Kharkiv

Aleksandr Zamula was getting ready to celebrate his granddaughter’s 8th birthday but just days before the occasion, Russian forces invaded Ukraine and started bombarding his home city of Kharkiv.

His granddaughter spent her birthday on the road, fleeing westwards with family while Aleksandr, 58, stayed back for his 83-year-old father Nicholai and to protect their property from marauders.

Around 12 million Ukrainians have fled their homes for safer parts of the country and abroad since the start of the full-scale invasion. Zamulas’ neighbourhood of Velyka Danylivka had come under intense shelling but despite the risks, many older people remained.

Kharkiv, a city bigger than Birmingham, was home to some 1.4 million people before Moscow launched a full-scale war on Ukraine. It suffered heavy bombardment but in recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have been pushing Russian troops from around Kharkiv and towards the border, alleviating pressure on the city.

Back in March, however, attacks came frequently. One afternoon, when Aleksandr heard the telltale sound of rockets falling nearby, he grabbed his father and the pair waited out the attack in the basement. He said part of the basement had caved in from the assault and when they emerged, their house had been destroyed. 

“When we saw it, we didn’t recognise our house,” he said

Pink and gold birthday decorations are among the few items that can be recognised amid the wreckage. 

The assault had left their home uninhabitable, forcing Aleksandr and Nicholai to sleep at a neighbour’s house while they worked to rebuild their home. 

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The Charity HelpAge USA has said that millions of older lives were at risk as a result of the ongoing war, with older people “victims of bombings and targeted with shootings, physical violence, and destruction and looting of their property.” 

It estimates that one in four Ukrainians are over the age of 60.

“Older people in Ukraine are often facing the horrors of war with little support, as families flee and support networks collapse,” said chief executive Cindy Cox-Roman in a release.  

The charity said that those who stay behind also often lack access to food, drinking water, vital medicine, and healthcare. 

While some choose to remain, others don’t have the means or ability to leave. 

Among them is 70-year-old Lyubov, who uses a walking frame and struggles with her health. Nearby shelling damaged her ceiling and windows but she has nowhere else to go.

“I have 32 windows and not one of them has glass in them,” she said. “The neighbour’s house has been completely destroyed.” 

She and her husband are among a handful of families that have stayed behind on her street. 

Vladimir and Lyubov receive a bread delivery at their home in Kharkiv. Photo: Natalie Vikhrov

“Only those who are blind and can’t walk remain because they have nowhere to go,” she said. 

Yet, some have also stayed behind to look after ailing relatives. In another part of the neighbourhood, Lyubov Alekseevna said she couldn’t leave her brother after he had a second stroke. 

“I had an offer to go to Bulgaria. A friend offered for me to come to Poland, Slovenia, to Lviv,” she said. 

“But I couldn’t abandon him.” 

Nadezhda Fominichenko, 61, lives a few streets down with her husband. They are also among a small number of families left on her street. 

“Where would we go?” she asks. 

“My husband and I are pensioners. Our pensions aren’t so big that we could go somewhere and rent accommodation or something. It’s hard financially. It’s simpler at home.”

Currently, Fominichenko’s home doesn’t have power or gas, forcing her to cook meals on firewood and bricks in their yard. 

But despite a lack of utilities, she said things have improved. Fominichenko said the first 10 days of the full-scale war were the most difficult. Now, their children and volunteers are able to help them with food and other necessities. 

Relentless shelling has shuttered local grocery shops leaving residents – especially those with low mobility – dependent on humanitarian aid and the help of others. 

Among those helping are local volunteers Yevhen Zvonarov and Sergei Skripka. 

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After Russia invaded their country, the pair lined up to join Territorial Defence Forces, a volunteer branch of Ukraine’s armed forces, but were knocked back. Instead, they formed a small team of volunteers that brave frequent shelling to deliver food and other vital products to hundreds of residents in the Velyka Danylivka neighbourhood.

“This is the remote edge, the shops are far away, people who have money can’t spend it because there are no shops, nothing. I started delivering bread then,” Zvonarov said. 

“I understood that if I didn’t bring bread, people wouldn’t be able to get it anywhere else.” 

The pushback of Russian forces from around Kharkiv has meant that the city has been relatively quiet in recent days. But Zvonarov expects it will still be some time before the shops reopen and residents in Velyka Danylivka regain previous access to groceries. So he and Skripka continue their deliveries. 

Olya Yankovska, who helps distribute the bread within her patch of the neighbourhood, said currently mainly pensioners remained along her street. 

“It’s frightening. We sleep in the cellars, no one sleeps at home – only in basements and cellars,” she said.

Yankovska has also been living without power and water for weeks but refuses to leave. 

“This is my country, my home,” she said. “I’m not going to abandon my homeland.” 

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