Adjusting to life in a country at war | News and blogs


As the war continues, HelpAge International Ukraine Country Director Akbar Nazriev shares his thoughts on how things have changed and living under the constant threat of attack.

HelpAge International volunteers provide humanitarian aid in Ukraine.

For residents of eastern Ukraine, life was tough before February, after enduring eight years of hostilities with Russia.

The local economy was shattered and young people had left to look for work, leaving the older ones to fend for themselves.

One in three people affected by the conflict was over 60 years old. From Sloviansk, HelpAge International helped older people within five kilometers of the contact line, which separated people living in government-controlled and non-government-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine. With the support of 250 local volunteers, we provided food, health care and psychosocial support to elderly people living alone in an area where the risk of shelling and the outbreak of hostilities threatened.

The longer range of the missiles now means that large-scale humanitarian aid can only safely reach those who live 40 km from the line of contact. It is only due to our more restricted response, our relationships with communities and our network of local volunteers that we are still able to travel within three miles, as long as additional safety protocols are followed.

Safety is the highest priority, balanced by the urgency to provide assistance. Every time I allow staff to go to different areas, there is a weight of responsibility to make sure they get home safely.

Before, we had a rule that if a bombardment was heard, all staff immediately returned to the office. Now, as happens so much more, judgments are made on different criteria. When two colleagues from security drove further east they called to tell me they could hear shelling but it was safe as it was far away. Even so, every hour I was texting to check in on them, scanning maps, tracking where they were, struggling to focus on anything else.

In Dnipro, shelling became more frequent. We hear explosions and our windows rattle as the Ukrainian air defense system captures missiles above the city. The other Saturday, Dnipro’s critical civilian infrastructure was targeted, a kilometer from where I was staying. There was a huge explosion and everything shook.

There is a risk both ways, whether you are on the front lines or in a major city further away. A friend said she felt safer in Kabul and, in a way, of course: they didn’t have missiles there.

But you get used to it. There is a normalization with bombings, air raid warnings and late night shelters.

The determined Ukrainian spirit continues and more and more areas are changed by the international influences that aid workers bring from all over the world. This was evident in cities like Sloviansk, Mariupol and Severodonetsk before, but has become more prevalent.

My recent visit to Kryvyi Rih, southwest of Dnipro, reminded me of this again.

There was shelling nearby and the line of contact is only 50 km away. Yet the local people come and go, leading a normal life. They work, walk, drink coffee, talk, live alongside aid workers – even being part of the humanitarian response themselves.

A local man I met started an NGO a few months ago and bought a building from a kindergarten. Each room offers different activities for all ages, including seniors, such as pottery lessons, dancing and music. With so many other people leaving, he managed to buy another relatively cheap four-storey building to house the displaced and help distribute relief items.

Another NGO rents a three-story building that used to be a hotel and now has 180 beds for displaced people. Before the war, the organization helped drug addicts and alcoholics. When the war broke out, the staff told them they could either work as part of the team or leave. Everyone stayed and gave their support, as they continued their recovery.

An elderly woman I met there told me that she had lived alone in her basement in Avdiivka, a main town in Donetsk Oblast before. She now sees a nurse, has company and eats three meals a day. In the kitchen, three elderly people were chatting while rubbing potatoes to help prepare lunch for everyone. There were around 60 people staying when I visited, but there is a capacity of 180. There is also a basement which can be used as a shelter and contains two weeks’ worth of food and water, as well as a electric generator.

You can see the wickedness but also the kindness of people in times of war. It’s an honor to be able to help those affected directly, but it helps to remember that evil does good things too, even in the most difficult times.

By Akbar Nazriev, Country Director, HelpAge International in Ukraine

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