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On Ukraine’s front lines, women endure the war alone

In eastern Ukraine, 1.6 million of the 2.9 million people in need are women, the UN says.

Vera, 94, lives on the front line in Marinka, a town in eastern Ukraine separated by the front line in the suburbs of Donetsk. After being targeted by shells in 2015, she became very pious. Shortly after this photo was taken, Vera was found paralysed in her bed by a social worker of the NGO People In Need and has been in the hospital since. [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

In the midst of a war between Ukrainian forces and Russian-backed eastern separatists that has killed an estimated 14,000 people since 2014, many vulnerable or elderly women have lost their husbands to fighting and health problems and survive near the front lines alone.

“My husband died of a heart attack and my only son has disappeared. In my family, I am now the only woman left,” said Ala Nikolaevna, 73, a blind woman living in the Ukrainian town of Chasiv Yar, a few kilometres from the front line.

She cries as she recalls the last time she had hugged her son Oleg, who disappeared shortly after he had joined a paramilitary group in 2014.

Nikolaevna, who is blind due to diabetes, now lives alone in her three-bedroom flat. Her diabetes symptoms are worsening and her overall health is deteriorating as the heating does not always work in the war zone and she does not have regular access to drinking water either.

“When there is no heating, I put all my clothes on and pray. I have only one wish: that my son hugs me once again,” she says.

Alyona, 41, a social worker and volunteer, brings Nikolaevna food three times a week.

“Out of the 12 people that I work with, 10 are women,” Alyona, who did not want to disclose her last name due to the sensitive nature of her work, told Al Jazeera.

“Since the war started, all the men joined the military or looked for work in other regions of Ukraine, and there are now mostly women living on the front line alone.”

According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OHCA), 1.6 million of the 2.9 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in eastern Ukraine are women.

“In this region, the only job a man can do is to become a miner; therefore, many men suffer severe health consequences and die young,” Alyona added.

“The front line villages are full of single mothers and babushkas (grandmothers).”

Lizaveta Zhuk, a public information officer for OCHA Ukraine, told Al Jazeera that: “In the government-controlled areas of Ukraine, 71 percent of heads of households are female. This share is even higher for those who are more than 60 years old, and reaches 88 percent”.

Jan Egeland, secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council NGO working on the front line, told Al Jazeera that the older, predominantly female population in eastern Ukraine is very different to most other wars where the NGO is active.

“You cannot have a war in a place filled to the brim with old, freezing or vulnerable people, who are struggling to survive after eight years of conflict,” he said.

Evdokia Ivanovna, 84, looks at photos of her family in an album with Lenin's portrait on the cover. As she recalls the 54 years she has spent in her house in the front line village of Zolote, shooting from automatic weapons can be heard in the background. "All the men in my family died because they had worked in the mines and suffered the health consequences of that," she says. "I am alone and hear shooting all the time, but I am already used to it."

[Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Ivanovna's family album shows her in a uniform, right, with colleagues as they prepare for a shift in a local mine during the Soviet era. "My job was to help male miners, providing them with lighting in the mines. I did that for 26 years," Ivanovna recalls. [GuillaumeBinet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Natasha, 35, is the mother of seven children, the youngest of whom is only one year old. "When the war started, we all lived in our basement," she says. "But it was always my dream to have a big family." Their village, Krasnohorivka, is situated just several hundred meters from the front line. "The biggest problem is the cold. We do not have enough wood to warm our house and my children are often cold," Natasha told Al Jazeera. [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

In Adviivka, Olga lives alone in an apartment that has been shelled three times. She does not hide her pro-European views and says she still has not recovered from seeing her house "wounded". "I naively thought that nothing bad could happen to me in this apartment," she said. Her daughter, a professor at the University of Odessa, came to visit. [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Maria, 56, right, attends her Protestant church in the front-line village of Marinka every Sunday to sing and pray. "I know that there are sad, unfortunate people who are depressed and live in the dark of the war. But my life is a happy one: I believe in God, and my life is full of love and joy, even on the front line," she says. [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Krystyna, 16, wants to own a beauty salon. She lives in the front-line village of Slavne, surrounded by minefields. She regularly hears explosions on her way to school, but still dreams of a better future and hopes she can build a successful career in the world of beauty. [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Lydia, 85, opens the door of her dilapidated house surrounded by soldiers and landmines. "I have lived in this house my entire life and I do not want to leave. I have lived here alone for 60 years, ever since my husband died. I hear shelling every night, but I want to die in my own bed." [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Svetlana, a mother of three, decided to adopt five children and turned her house into a children's home. Right before she prepares lunch for her family, Svetlana sits in her kitchen with her two sons aged 16 and five, while the other children are in school. "It was my dream to adopt many children," she said. Although the family lives in Zolote, only 3km (2 miles) from the front line, Svetlana hopes for a better future. "In 2014, we were all living in our basement. In recent years, the situation has become calmer, but I still have a little suitcase with all my children's documents ready, in case we need to flee." [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Ala Nikolaevna, 73, a blind sufferer from diabetes sits in her home in Chasiv Yar. She is mourning the death of her husband and the disappearance of her only son from whom she has not heard since 2014. She struggles to survive on her own. "I am blind and cannot go out any more, not even to do my shopping," she says. "But I always have honey in my house, and I can put it in my mouth whenever I feel like I am about to pass out." [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

The front-line village of Opytne is only 800m (875 yards) from the front line. Not a single house remains intact, and the women who live there alone rely on the help of NGOs to help rebuild their destroyed roofs and windows. [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Katia, 76, does not want to leave her house in Nevelske. The village, nearly destroyed by the war, is now left without electricity, gas and water. When humanitarian workers from the International Committee of the Red Cross came to support Katia and her husband, she said: "Nevelske is worse than in prison, because in prison at least you are fed. I would give anything for this to stop." [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Svetlana, 46, had to leave her house in the village of Nevelske after recent shelling in December 2021 destroyed two neighbouring houses and heavily damaged her own. She found refuge in the village of Pervomais'ke, a few kilometres away, and was able to save two cows. A farmer before the war, her only income today is the production of fresh cow cheese. "Women run the homes," she says, "they are often more courageous and resilient than men." [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]

Nevelske is a destroyed village on the Ukrainian front line near Donetsk. Partially rebuilt after a separatist offensive in 2015, the village was heavily shelled again in December 2021. A few people still survive there, without water, gas or electricity. [Guillaume Binet/MYOP/Al Jazeera]


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