By Don Murray
MARIUPOL, (Ukraine) – The old woman wipes away tears. “It hurts,” she says, “It hurts to be driven from your home at 81. I lived there all my life. Seven generations of my family have lived there.”
Larissa Riabseva no longer lives in Shyrokyno, a small town in Ukraine, on the coast of the Azov Sea. Once there were 1,000 people there. Now six are left.
Larissa, along with her daughter Elena, wanted to stay as well. But their village became a prize bitterly fought over in the struggle between government and anti-government forces. The shelling started last September. By the beginning of February it had become intense. Now there is a truce.
The two women stayed in their house, but when shelling damaged the roof and blew out their windows, they took refuge in a neighbour’s basement. They huddled under the artillery fire for five days. When they finally came out and phoned a relative, he was stunned.
“He said, what are you still doing there? You have to leave,” Larissa recalled. The only way to flee was on foot, through the firing. “We ran for five kilometres, following the beach. We had to fling ourselves down and hide in the dunes when the shelling got too close.”
Now the two women sit forlornly on a couch in an apartment in Mariupol, the port city 20 kilometres to the west. Elena’s daughter found friends who rented them the flat. UNHCR provided clothes and blankets.
They were able to register as internally displaced people and still receive their tiny state pensions. Three-quarters of their pension money goes to pay for rent, heat and electricity.
They consider themselves lucky. They live close to Elena’s daughter and Larissa’s grandchildren. Many other residents of their village are now being housed in dormitories or have been forced to move further away to find shelter.
“And people here have been wonderful, so generous,” Larissa said. “It was Elena’s birthday on February 14. She’s 62. Neighbours brought her presents, shoes and clothes. They even gave us a TV. We had nothing but what we were wearing.”
But sadness shadows their gratitude. “We hope to go back,” Elena said. “But we fear it will never end, the firing will never stop. So far we’re safe, but we still hear the shelling and it terrifies us.”
Larissa was a child in World War II. Her parents were killed. She was shot in the leg. She still has the bullet. “But I’ve never been so scared in my life as I was under the shelling in the cellar in the village,” she said. “It’s very hard to live here and not be able to go back. It’s dreadful. It weighs on my soul.”
Her daughter Elena added: “We never thought we would see fighting in Europe, right where we live, again.”
When the conflict arrived, Larissa was still working. She taught Ukrainian, even as the shelling forced teachers and pupils to huddle in the corridor of the school. Now the building is a shell, destroyed by artillery fire. The old woman is proud that she kept working and frustrated that she can’t teach any more.
She thinks often of her work and about the big house where she and Elena lived, with a vegetable plot and ducks, as well as a dog and a cat. Their neighbour has insisted on staying through all the danger. He keeps an eye on their property and they phone him every day.
“We have asked him to feed the dog and cat,” Elena said. “And to eat the ducks.”