Ukraine's Elderly Struggle to Survive in War Zone as Residents Mobilize Massive Relief Effort

The Kremlin thought it could break Ukraine with tanks and rockets. Instead, Russia's invasion has brought Ukrainians together like never before.

Lyudmila Onuchko, 75, has lived in her five-room cottage on the outskirts of the southern Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv since 1978, when she and her husband, Volodymyr, finished building their home together. She and Volodymyr raised their daughter in the home. Her library is in the home. She writes poetry at the hand-made desk in the home. Her two dogs and two cats live in the home. She remembers setting off for her job teaching elementary school every morning from the home. Some of her fondest memories of Volodymyr, who died in 2015, are in the home.

Since February 24, when Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, Onuchko has been sleeping in the storage cellar. When the nearby Ukrainian airbase is not actively being shelled by Russian forces, she walks her dogs. When the power lines are damaged in the strikes, she is left in the dark until they are repaired; her portable gasoline generator, along with several jars of cherry preserves, were donated to the army in the opening days of the war.

Throughout the former Soviet Union, people of Onuchko 's generation are known as "children of the war." Many of their earliest memories were formed either during or in the immediate aftermath of Nazi Germany's invasion and occupation. For them, history is repeating itself.

Despite the pleas of her granddaughters to join them and their husbands in the relative safety of western Ukraine, Onuchko has no plans to leave—"I believe that love will rule the world, and with that thought, I will stay in my home." She's already planting her garden.

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An eldery woman stands in front of a destroyed house after bombardments in the village of Krasylivka, east of Kyiv, on March 20, 2022, as Russian forces try to encircle the Ukranian capital. Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty

The United Nations estimates that, out of a pre-war population of just over 40 million, 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes. Most of those on the move, however, are mothers with young children. Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are forbidden from leaving the country, and among the country's elderly, the overwhelming majority seems intent on staying put. As an 84-year-old neighbor of Onuchko 's puts it, "You can transplant a young tree into new soil, but you cannot transplant an old tree into new soil."

In most cases, the elderly Ukrainians living on the edge of the war have relatives nearby. For those who don't, volunteer groups have formed to make sure that the needs of all citizens — young and old alike — are met.

The collective efforts to keep Mykolaiv well-fed and fighting are not an exception in Ukraine's overall war effort; they are the rule. From Rivne in the west to Mariupol in the east, the story is largely the same: Ukrainian society has come together to defend itself and to take care of its neighbors and its troops on the front lines.

Of the more than twenty Ukrainians who shared their experience with Newsweek over the course of the reporting for this story, all hoped that the war would end as quickly as possible, but none was even beginning to contemplate the possibility of surrender. Their Instagram accounts and Facebook pages present a collection of birthday party and standard vacation photos right up until the moment when everything transitions to blue-on-yellow flags, bombed out apartment buildings, and box after box of donated humanitarian aid.

"What we are seeing is the total reorientation of society towards national resilience efforts," explains Tymofiy Mylovanov, the intimidatingly impressive president of the Kyiv School of Economics, a tenured professor at the University of Pittsburgh, and a former Minister of Economic Development and Trade in the Ukrainian government.

"It's not about who is working for free and who is earning a salary," Mylovanov says. "Ukrainians who work for Big Four accounting firms, or for other international companies, they're collecting a salary, but they're using that salary in order to help support the work of the people who are sorting and delivering food and medicines. It isn't about volunteering in the dictionary sense of the word — it is about millions of individual citizens doing whatever they are best able to do in order to achieve the common goal of winning the war."

As Mylovanov assesses the situation, "The outcome of this war will be decided based upon who has better logistics and better morale. Success will be determined by who is better at getting vital supplies to the right tank and to the right town at the right moment."

Judging from reports of low morale and re-supply issues within the Russian military, Ukraine is winning this war — at least by Mylanov's metric. When asked how long Ukrainian society can maintain its current state of total orientation on the national defense, his prognosis is unequivocal: "For as long as necessary."

Volunteers go from pharmacy to pharmacy, supermarket to supermarket

On a military map of the Russo-Ukrainian war, the fight for Mykolaiv might attract less attention than the battles around Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, but it is nevertheless important. After the fall of Kherson on March 2, Mykolaiv became the last major city on the highway from Crimea to Odessa. Odessa is home to Ukraine's largest port, and if the city were to fall under Russian control, the economic viability of the entire Ukrainian state would come into question.

"If Putin can't take Mykolaiv, then he can't get to us," Oleksiy Honcharenko, a parliamentarian from the Odessa region, sums up the situation. "Russia tried to land paratroopers with helicopters here, and they were completely destroyed. Everyone in Odessa understands that the people fighting in Mykolaiv are fighting for us as well."

While in Ukraine's hardest hit cities — Mariupol, Sumy, Kharkiv, Chernihiv, and the suburbs north of Kyiv — thousands of residents have been forcibly uprooted following Russian troops' destruction of entire residential neighborhoods, local officials in Mykolaiv estimate that two-thirds of its residents remain. That's despite the frequent attacks on the airbase near Onuchko 's cottage and the increased frequency of Russian shells hitting apartment blocks far away from any military installation.

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Ukrainian firefighters and servicemen work next to a digger amid the rubble of the Retroville shopping mall, a day after it was shelled by Russian forces in a residential district in the northwest of the Ukranian capital Kyiv on March 21, 2022. At least six people were killed in the bombing. Fadel Senna/AFP/Getty

The volunteer effort here is in full swing and includes people like Alyona Bespala. A radiant, round-faced, Russian-born woman in her late 50s, Bespala raised two children in the Soviet-era apartment where she still lives with her husband, Viktor, an electrical engineer. Up until the morning of February 24, Bespala ran a small cleaning company that serviced offices and private apartments in Mykolaiv. Now she is on her feet every morning at 6 a.m. in order to start procuring the items on the day's list.

"In the evening, after curfew," Bespala explains, "I get messages telling me what's needed for tomorrow, and then in the morning I go out and find it. Donors in Germany put money on my card, and when I buy something, I send them a picture of the receipt."

The municipal government has begun coordinating requests and putting out lists of basic foods and medicines to be delivered to civilians like Onuchko . Local volunteers might spend all afternoon going from pharmacy to pharmacy in search of just the right heart medications, or from supermarket to supermarket buying up canned goods.

Bespala herself, however, works more closely with groups helping to resupply Ukraine's troops. While standard munitions and heavy equipment are procured through official channels, most of the little morale-boosting extras — coffee, cookies, fresh socks, and clean underwear — arrive thanks to the work of ordinary citizens, who coordinate with commanders at the front to deliver basic creature comforts. "The soldiers in the fight can't wash anything," Bespala clarifies the need, "and so in a lot of cases, undergarments are only good as one-time-use items."

In addition to unmentionables, the volunteers' daily shipments to boys in uniform usually include tea, lip balm, cigarettes, and plenty of chocolate—"the guys eat up candy like little kids," she laughs. However, past lists have included examples of vital military kit, such as flak jackets and helmets. In the early days of the war, Bespala even received orders for Molotov cocktail ingredients.

"I had never made a Molotov cocktail before, and so I started searching on my phone for what was needed. The search results came back: 'fifty grams Baileys, fifty grams vodka...' Even my good, sweet Google knows that we are peaceful people. Even my good, sweet Google knows that we did not want this war."

Ukraine's nuclear-armed neighbor to the north argues otherwise. Since 2014, Russian propaganda has relentlessly portrayed Ukraine's democratically elected government as a weak, divided, neo-fascist junta. Among the Kremlin's stated aims for its "special military operation" is the "de-nazification" of Ukraine, a country led by a popularly elected president of Jewish heritage. Judging from the Russian army's battle plans for its February 24 invasion, the Moscow leadership really seemed to assume that ordinary Ukrainians like Onuchko and Bespala would greet Russian tank crews as liberators. Instead, most Ukrainian citizens have risen up in defense of the state.

With Ukrainian society's attention focused on the war effort, however, the productive capacity of the domestic economy has been significantly diminished. Without access to Western donations of vital food and medicines — to say nothing of Javelin missiles and Kevlar vests — Ukraine would not be able to sustain its fight. While it is mostly Western charities and NGOs raising money and sending shipments to the border, it is Ukrainians themselves who ensure that all those truckloads of bandages and pasta are delivered to the right tank and right town.

'I compare our city to a beehive. Everyone is fulfilling their role.'

Two months ago, Alexey Zemlyanoy was managing an architectural bureau that designed everything from schools to private homes. Now he directs operations for a network of Mykolaiv-area warehouses engaged in collecting shipments of humanitarian aid, sorting through the donated materials, and getting whatever is needed out to whoever needs it as quickly as possible.

"Five to six trucks come to us every day," he lays out the daily plan of battle in a barrage of bullet points. "Twenty tons of canned goods, bottled water, baby food, medicines, clothing, flak jackets, everything you can imagine. We get requests, we find what we need, and we get it moving. The faster we get the stuff out of here, the faster we can bring in more stuff to get out."

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Volunteers organize foods and health supplies to distribute to civilians in an old theater in Odessa on March 13, 2022. Although Russian troops are trying to push west along Ukraine's Black Sea coast towards Odessa, they have so far failed to encircle the city of Mykolaiv that stands in the way. Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

It didn't take long to get the organization up and running. Even before the war, Zemlyanoy was active in a civil society group called MriyDiy — DreamAction. When a friend volunteered for the territorial defense battalion on the first day of the war, it became immediately clear that groups like MriyDiy could play a vital role in the national defense.

The territorial defense forces, unlike the regular army, were entirely new institutions. Throughout January and February, as the Russian army massed along the border, the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense began organizing a nationwide program of training sessions for civilian volunteers intent on taking up arms in the event of an actual Russian invasion. Territorial defense members outfitted themselves in their warmest clothing and drilled using wooden rifles. When the war came and the makeshift battalions were tasked with setting up checkpoints and enforcing curfews, many were not yet outfitted with all of the necessary kit.

"My friend told us what they needed, and what they needed was everything," Zemlyanoy said, speaking to the shortages. "They had more volunteers than uniforms, more volunteers than weapons, more volunteers than coats. We collected donations, went to a DIY hypermarket, bought up every item of fleece and thermal clothing they had, and delivered them to the units."

By day three of the war, Zemlyanoy was working with local restaurants to get hot meals to soldiers and needy civilians alike. By the end of the first week, he already had a team of one hundred volunteers at work sorting through the first deliveries of humanitarian aid coming in from Europe.

"We needed to move fast, and that's what entrepreneurs can do. Bureaucracy is slow, but the local government is helping us. In the early days, they got us passes so that our trucks could get through. Now, they've set up a centralized command center. Requests all get collected in one office, and so all of the aid distributors can see what's needed and figure out who has what."

A former sailor and natural leader, Zemlyanoy possesses the rare ability to speak for thirty minutes at a stretch without losing his train of thought — or his audience. "People need to understand why they're doing what they're doing, and our people understand. That's part of my job — to motivate everyone. I compare our city to a beehive. Everyone is fulfilling their role. The soldiers are on the front line defending the population, and it's up to us in the rear to make sure that our warriors are warm, dry and well-fed. Everyone who stayed here, in any capacity, they're part of that effort."

Ukrainians abroad and elsewhere also mobilize to help their country

Many who have chosen to migrate are also part of that effort. Onuchko 's granddaughter, Olga Spytsia, left Mykolaiv for western Ukraine "when the internet stopped working. I'm a project manager and web designer, and IT people who do business with European clients are among the only people in Ukraine who can still collect a normal salary right now. Everybody else lost their jobs, and so it's up to us to keep working."

After covering basic living expenses, Spytsia invests everything she earns into the war effort. "We don't really need money now for anything besides food and helping people. The rest is irrelevant."

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Ukrainian soldiers help civilians evacuate out of Irpin, Ukraine, Sunday, March 13, 2022. Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/Getty

Dmytro Say, a soft-spoken professor of social work at a Mykolaiv university, "fled after the Russians started bombing apartment blocks. We were already in the basement most nights. Our son celebrated his fifth birthday with the kids he met in the basement. But when the rockets started falling on residential areas, we took that as a signal that it was time to go."

Say and his family linked up with three others and carpooled to a quieter place, also in western Ukraine. On the second night of their journey, an elderly woman at the dormitory where they had stopped to sleep died of a heart attack. "It's a huge stress to leave," Say explains. "If we did not have the kid, we would have stayed."

His in-laws, along with his own mother, refused to leave their homes in the city, and Say does what he can to help them. "I am connected with the city council back home. Every day, they publish an Excel spreadsheet of medications they need: thyroid and cardiac medicines, stress relievers, painkillers. I connect with volunteers in Europe and try to arrange shipments to Mykolaiv."

Mykolaiv natives who relocated to European Union countries years ago have also gotten involved. Iryna Liubyma, who moved to Germany in 2016, works for a utility company, "but as soon as the war started, my boss told me to take some time off because it literally wasn't possible for me to concentrate on anything else."

Questions from German friends about where to send help returned Liubyma's focus back towards concrete tasks. Since the early days of the war, she has been working full time to coordinate deliveries of vital supplies from Germany to Mykolaiv.

"My role is putting local donors in contact with people on the ground who need the help. When the whole donation wave started, a lot of times shipments were just moving through Poland and getting dumped on the border with Ukraine. After a few days, the city government in Mykolaiv started connecting up with NGOs to put out lists of what was needed. I make sure that the donors here know what to put in a shipment, and then I make sure that the volunteers in Mykolaiv know when and where to send a truck to pick it up."

Taken together, Zemlyanoy's organizational efforts, Bespala's daily hunt for fresh socks, Onuchko's donated cherry preserves, her granddaughter's repurposed IT salary, Say's shipments of medicine, and Liubyma's German-based logistical support present a rough outline of exactly what the economist Mylovanov has in mind when he uses the phrase "national resilience." The Kremlin thought it could break Ukraine with tanks and rockets. Instead, Ukrainian society has come together like never before.

Bespala speaks to the collective shock, and to the collective response. "I was born in Russia. I grew up in the Soviet Union. In school, we all learned the famous song from the Second World War:

Rise up, great country,
Rise up and fight to the death
Against the dark fascist power.

That's what's happening now. The whole country is rising up. Only this time, the dark power is Russia itself."