A 92-year-old grandmother survived World War II and built a life in Ukraine. Now she is forced to live underground


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

Today her world barely exists beyond the dim walls of a shared basement she was forced to flee to when bombs damaged her apartment.

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

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

Her only glimpse of natural light comes by sitting in a doorway at the foot of stairs that run up to the street outside.

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

Maria Nikolaevna, 92, talks with Kisiau, the family cat, held up by her daughter Natalya
The family cat Kisiau joined Maria and her daughter and son-in-law in the basement.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, held off a Russian assault in the first two months of the invasion, but has endured almost daily shelling recently after a period of relative calm.

Damaged apartment buildings in Kharkiv
Maria’s flat in Kharkiv has been left uninhabitable by the war.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

Maria suffers from mobility problems, progressive memory loss and confusion that has worsened since the attack on her home.

“She has forgotten what the city looks 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 Natalya.

Portrait of 92-year-old Maria Nikolaeva
Maria suffers from memory loss and confusion, which have worsened since her forced relocation. (Reuters: Nacho Doce)

Natalya’s home was in one of the most heavily bombarded areas of Kharkiv. She believed her mother would be safer staying in her own suburb eight miles away, with neighbours to bring food and check on her.

But one night the call came that there had been an explosion next to Maria’s apartment, and power had been cut.

A window reinforced with sandbags in the basement refuge of Maria Nikolaevna
The basement offers some protection as the war continues to rage around Kharkiv.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

Natalya’s husband Fedor found a taxi driver willing to cross the besieged city to retrieve Maria and the few belongings they could grab.

“The taxi driver carried her downstairs and very quickly rushed through the city to bring her to safety,” says Natalya.

Ukrainian grandmother: family help
Maria’s health has deteriorated and she now relies on her family for everything.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

War is not new to Maria. As a girl, her family was forced to house a German officer during the occupation of Ukraine in World War II. Vasilii, the man she would marry, fought in that war.

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

A photograph showing Maria and husband Vasilii as young parents with their daughter Natalya
Maria’s son-in-law shows a photograph of his wife Natalya as a baby with her parents Maria, and her late father Vasilii. (Reuters: Nacho Doce)

She then worked as an engineer in a state-owned factory that made aerospace parts. The couple married, had a son and a daughter, and bought an apartment with a garden.

“They left the hard times behind,” Natalya recalls

Today, as her memory fades, Maria occupies her time reading dog-eared magazines and reordering her husband’s medals, among the few things Fedor rescued as she fled her home.

Medals salvaged from Maria's apartment are among her few possessions
Medals belonging to her late husband are among the few possessions retrieved from Maria’s bomb-damaged home.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

A physical reminder of her family’s place in history, they include the Order of the Patriotic War for Vasilii’s involvement in Soviet operations against the Germans, and a medal for fighting against Japan at the end of the war.

A letter of gratitude sent to Maria's husband regarding the Soviet victory in the war with Japan
A relic of the past: a letter of gratitude regarding the Soviet victory in the war with Japan, written to Maria’s husband Vasilii.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

In the basement, Maria sleeps on a mattress laid on wooden pallets in a makeshift bedroom marked out by three cheap fleece blankets.

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

Ukrainian grandmother 12
A WhatsApp call to granddaughter Masha in New York offers a vital connection to the world outside.(Reuters: Nacho Doce)

As regards 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 politicians? On us? On the military? Because it is unacceptable in our time, it is savagery.

“That my mother-in-law and other old people who are 95 or 97 years old should end their lives in such conditions. The sooner it ends, the better.”

Reuters



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