‘I feel so lost’: The elderly in Ukraine, left behind, mourn

MYKULYCHI, Ukraine (AP) – This is not where Nadiya Trubchaninova thought she would find herself at the age of 70 and hitchhike daily from her village to the shattered city of Bucha trying to bring his son’s body home for burial.

The questions wear her down, heavy as the winter coat and boots she still wears against the cold. Why had Vadym traveled to Bucha, where the Russians were so much tougher than those who occupied their village? Who shot him as he was driving on Yablunska Street where so many bodies were found? And why did she lose her son just one day before the Russians withdrew?

Now 48-year-old Vadym is lying in a black bag in a refrigerated truck. After word reached her that he had been found and buried by strangers in a farm in Bucha, she has spent more than a week trying to bring him home to a proper grave. But he is an organ among hundreds, part of an investigation into war crimes that has grown to global significance.

Trubchaninova is among the many elderly people who are left behind or who chose to stay when millions of Ukrainians fled across borders or to other parts of the country. They were the first to be seen on empty streets after Russians withdrew from communities around the capital Kyiv, looking from wooden gates or carrying bags of donated food back to freezing homes.

Some, like Trubchaninova, survived the worst of the war only to find that it had taken their children.

She last saw her son on March 30th. She thought he was going for a walk as part of his long recovery after a stroke. “It would be crazy to go further,” she said. She wonders if he was driving to search for a cell phone connection to call his own son and wish him happy birthday.

She wonders if Vadym thought the Russians in Bucha were like those who occupied their village and who told them that they would not be harmed if they did not fight back.

More than a week later, she found his temporary grave with the help of a stranger of the same name and age as her son. The following day, she saw the body bag with Vadym in a Bucha cemetery. He always stood out as tall, and his foot protruded from a hole in the corner. She was eager not to lose him and found a scarf and tied it there. It’s her marker.

She thinks she knows where her son’s body is now, in a refrigerator car outside Bucha’s morgue. She is desperate to find an official to expedite the process of inspecting her son and issuing the necessary documents to release him.

“I’m worried about where he’s going and whether I’ll be able to find him,” she said.

Once she has gathered his body, she needs a coffin. A coffin equals one month of her retirement, or about $ 90. Like other elderly Ukrainians, she has not received her pension since the war began. She gets by selling the vegetables she grows, but the potatoes she had planned to plant in March withered while hiding in her home.

Her aging cell phone continues to lose battery life. She forgets her phone number. Her second son, two years younger than Vadym, is unemployed and restless. Nothing is easy.

“I would walk out of this place because I feel it’s so hard to be here,” Trubchaninova said as she sat at home under a toned black-and-white picture of herself at the age of 32, full of determination.

She remembered watching her television while it was still working, in the early days of the war, when broadcasts showed so many Ukrainians fleeing. She cared about them. Where are they going? Where should they sleep? What will they eat? How will they make their lives again?

“I felt so sorry for them,” she said. “And now I’m in that situation. I feel so lost inside. I do not even know how to describe how lost I am. I’m not even sure I’m laying my head on this pillow tonight and waking up in morning.”

Like many Ukrainians her age, she worked without taking time for herself, determined to give her children an education and a better life than her own. “Those were my plans,” she said excitedly. “What plans do you want me to have now? How do I make new plans if one of my sons is in Bucha?”

The cemetery where she will place her son can be seen from Vadym’s old room, where his sticks are still propped against the door.

On Thursday, she waited again outside the morgue in Bucha. After another long day without progress, she sat down on a bench in the sun. “I just wanted to sit in good weather,” she said. “I’m going home. Tomorrow I’ll be back.”

Across the city was the kind of closure that Trubchaninova so desperately wants. In a cemetery, two 82-year-old women got up from a bench and crossed when the now familiar white van arrived with another coffin.

The women, Neonyla and Helena, sing at funerals. They have been performing since 10 a.m. since the Russians withdrew. “The biggest pain for a mother is losing her son,” Neonyla said. “There is no word to describe it.”

Like Trubchaninova, they had not fled before the Russians. This is our country, they said.

They joined the priest at the foot of the tomb. Two men with handfuls of tulips attended along with a man with a cap in his hand. “That was it,” said one digger, as the exhausted priest finished.

Another man with a gold ink pen wrote basic details on a temporary cross. It was to a woman who had been killed by shelling while cooking outside. She was 69.

A row of empty graves lay waiting.

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Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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