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A year later: How 3 elderly people in Ukraine are surviving in a time of war

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

In the first month of Russia's war with Ukraine, the city of Kyiv was largely empty. About half of its nearly 3 million residents fled to western parts of Ukraine or abroad. But not everyone could evacuate. Many who stayed behind were elderly. They either couldn't or would not leave. NPR's Elissa Nadworny introduced us to some of those residents back in March of 2022. She recently traveled back to Kyiv to speak with them again.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: When I visited the Soviet-style apartment block a year ago, just a handful of residents remained. They were scared, in their 80s, too old to leave the city they'd spent their whole lives in.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

NADIIA YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: Nadiia Yerkhimovych was bedridden in an apartment on the third floor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Even though my life isn't great, I don't want to die." Down the hall, her neighbors, Tamara Vasylenko, and her husband, Pavlo Komodovskyi, approached their situation with a bit more levity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TAMARA VASYLENKO: Our age, we lived many, many years. Maybe enough (laughter).

NADWORNY: As I covered the war in Ukraine, I thought of them often. Were they still alive? Had their lives gotten better as the city of Kyiv had come back to life?

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

NADWORNY: So a year later, I stopped by their apartment building. Pavlo Komodovskyi greets us at his door, his plaid flannel shirt tucked in.

PAVLO KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

KOMODOVSKYI: (Through interpreter) Do not take off your shoes. We've got a vacuum cleaner for this.

NADWORNY: His sense of humor is just as dry as I remember.

KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: "One of our defenders is wounded," he says, meaning his wife, Tamara, suffered a stroke this winter, spending seven days in the hospital.

KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: Pavlo is a former military pilot, and he assures us he's still holding the defensive line.

KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: He says "Tamara's healing has been slow. Sometimes she's fine, talking and reading; other times, she's confused, unable to speak."

KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: "We're in our late 80s," he says. "What else can you expect?" While Tamara has been recovering, Pavlo has taken over the cooking. Tomorrow, he says, is a big day.

KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: "I'm making borscht," he says. It's one of Tamara's favorites and a Ukrainian specialty.

Last time I was here, you told me that being together was the most important thing in the war.

KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: "Yes," he says, "nothing has changed about that."

KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: Tamara has been listening from the kitchen, a wool shawl draped over her shoulders, her hair pulled back in a headband. She was hesitant to see us in her condition. But when we come and say hello...

VASYLENKO: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: ...She can't stop talking.

VASYLENKO: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: The stroke has led to what she calls a disease in her brain. A former English teacher, Tamara points to her head.

VASYLENKO: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: She explains the words she wants to say.

VASYLENKO: Different words. Different words.

NADWORNY: They're different words than the ones that come out. Pavlo has been encouraging her to talk and to read. The doctor said that would help. It also helps that Kyiv feels much safer, so they're no longer scared all the time, and their grandchildren come often to visit.

KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: "We're sorry you're visiting under such circumstances," Pavlo says, as we leave. "But don't worry," he says with a defiant smile...

KOMODOVSKYI: (Speaking Russian).

NADWORNY: ..."We are holding the line."

(CROSSTALK)

NADWORNY: Down the hall in apartment 16, we're greeted with some better news.

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: When I first met 90-year-old Nadiia Yerkhimovych, she was bedridden, in need of medicine and diapers. But now...

MISHA YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "...She can walk," her son Misha tells us.

M YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "She can actually walk." Nadiia, a petite woman in a floral housecoat, greets us standing with a walker.

You look so good.

She reaches out and grabs my hand.

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Through interpreter) I'm so happy that you came. When you came last time, I told all my friends and my children.

NADWORNY: Her son, Misha, in his 60s, lives with her and takes care of her.

M YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "First, she carried me," he says, "and now I carry her." He explains that things have gotten much better for them from a year ago. Medical care is more accessible, but it's still a war.

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "Sometimes I feel better," she says, "sometimes I feel worse. The power outages have been hard."

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: She points to the candles spread around the surfaces of her bedroom. And her building's elevator is broken. She really misses the outside. An open window just isn't quite enough.

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "But I'm hanging in," she says, laughing.

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "I want to live. Doesn't everyone?" It's helpful that she's lived through difficult times before.

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Non-English language spoken).

NADWORNY: "It's not my first war," she says. During World War II, she was just a child. And she tells us she got through that wartime by singing.

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Singing in non-English language).

NADWORNY: So she offers us a song now, "Prayer For Ukraine," a hymn from 1885 about Russian oppression.

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Singing in non-English language).

NADWORNY: "Protect our beloved Ukraine," she sings. "Bless us with good fortune forever and evermore."

N YERKHIMOVYCH: (Singing in non-English language).

NADWORNY: Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.