War returns to haunt the Ukrainian survivor of WWII

After surviving World War II, Maria Nikolaevna led a busy and fulfilling life, working as an engineer and raising two children in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Her world today hardly exists outside the dim walls of a communal basement to which she was forced to flee when bombs destroyed her apartment.

Life in the dim basement, which Maria shares with her daughter, son-in-law, and family cats, requires impromptu sleeping arrangements.(Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

For the past four months, 92-year-old Maria has lived underground with her daughter, son-in-law and the family’s cats.

Her only glimpses of natural light come from sitting in the hallway at the bottom of the stairs that lead to the street outside.

With their homes left uninhabitable due to the war, the family lives in limbo.

Maria Nikolaevna, 92, talks with the family cat, Kissa, who was stopped by her daughter Natalia
The family cat Kisiau joined Maria, her daughter and son-in-law downstairs.(Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, repelled a Russian attack in the first two months of the invasion, but has been bombarded almost daily recently after a period of relative calm.

Damaged residential buildings in Kharkiv
Maria’s apartment in Kharkiv became uninhabitable because of the war.(Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

Maria has been experiencing movement problems, increasing memory loss, and confusion that have worsened since the attack on her home.

“She forgot what the city looked like, she is confused and does not know where to go, what to do, how to lie down, how to sleep, how to hide,” says her daughter, Natalia.

A photo of 92-year-old Maria Nikolaeva
Maria suffers from amnesia and confusion that have worsened since her forced deportation. (Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

Natalia’s house was in one of the most heavily bombed areas of Kharkiv. She thought her mother would be safer staying in her suburb eight miles away, with neighbors bringing food and checking her.

But one night the call came that there was an explosion next to Maria’s apartment and the electricity went out.

A window reinforced with sandbags in the basement shelter of Maria Nikolaevna
The basement provides some protection as the war continues around Kharkiv.(Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

Natalia Fedor’s husband found a taxi driver willing to cross the besieged city to recover Maria and the few possessions they could seize.

“The taxi driver carried her downstairs and rushed across town to get her to safety,” Natalia says.

Ukrainian Grandma: Helping the Family
Maria’s health has deteriorated and she is now dependent on her family for everything.(Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

War is not new to Maria. As a girl, her family was forced to shelter a German officer during the occupation of Ukraine in World War II. Vasily, the man who will marry her, fought in that war.

Maria and her husband came from the same village in the Poltava region, but after the war they met in nearby Kharkiv, where they entered a night school, shared an office and fell in love.

Photo showing Maria and her husband Vasily as young parents with their daughter Natalia
Maria’s son-in-law displays a photo of his wife Natalia as a child with her parents Maria and her late father Vasily. (Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

Then she worked as an engineer in a state-owned factory making aircraft parts. The couple got married, had a son and a daughter, bought an apartment with a garden.

Natalia recalls: “They left difficult times behind”

Today, as her memory fades, Maria takes her time reading binaural magazines and rearranging her husband’s medals, among the few things Fedor saved while fleeing her home.

The medals obtained from Maria's apartment are among her few possessions
Medals for her late husband are among the few possessions recovered from Maria’s bomb-ravaged home.(Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

A physical reminder of her family’s place in history, they include a Patriotic War Medal for Vasily’s participation in Soviet operations against the Germans, and a medal for combat against Japan at the end of the war.

A letter of thanks was sent to Maria's husband regarding the Soviet victory in the war with Japan
A Relic of the Past: A Letter of Thanks in connection with the Soviet victory in the war with Japan, written to Maria’s husband Vasily.(Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

Downstairs, Maria sleeps on a mattress placed on wooden pallets in a makeshift bedroom that features three cheap fleece blankets.

Wearing a fleece jacket and a thick collar against the cold, she lives for WhatsApp calls from her 31-year-old granddaughter Masha, who lives in New York.

Ukrainian Granny 12
A WhatsApp call to Masha’s granddaughter in New York provides a vital connection to the outside world.(Reuters: Nacho Dossi)

Regarding the future, the family has no answers, only questions, says 62-year-old Fedor.

“When will this war end? And on whom does it depend? On the politicians? On us? On the army? Because it is unacceptable in our time, it is brutal.

“My mother-in-law and other seniors of 95 or 97 should end their lives in such circumstances. The sooner it ends, the better.”


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