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They've spent a lifetime in Kyiv. Not everyone can flee Russia's war in Ukraine

Nadiia Yerkhimovych, 89, at her apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 26. She's been bedridden during the Russian invasion that began in late February. From her home, she could hear the sounds of airstrikes and shelling.
Carol Guzy
Nadiia Yerkhimovych, 89, at her apartment in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 26. She's been bedridden during the Russian invasion that began in late February. From her home, she could hear the sounds of airstrikes and shelling.

Updated April 14, 2022 at 12:43 PM ET

KYIV, Ukraine — If Nadiia Yerkhimovych hadn't fallen last December and hurt her hip, or if she wasn't so ill with a handful of other ailments, maybe she would have left. Instead she stayed, bedridden, in an old Soviet-era apartment building a short drive from the center of Kyiv.

The capital of Ukraine, which saw heavy fighting at the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of the country, still remains largely empty after about half of its nearly 3 million residents left for western parts of Ukraine or abroad, seeking safety from Russian troops. But in apartment buildings scattered throughout the city, you find the people who stayed behind, those who couldn't or weren't willing to leave.

Because not everyone can evacuate. Often, the ones left behind are elderly.

Staying behind means medicine and food can be hard to get

Yerkhimovych, nearly 90, spends most of her days watching TV, tuned to news of the war. "I wake up and I crawl to the TV and I watch news all day until I go to bed at night," she says. She jokes that she knows more about this "damn war" than anyone.

She is speaking to NPR from bed, her legs wrapped in blankets. Next to the bed, beautiful lace curtains hang at the window. Behind them, the glass panes are taped over with an X, so they won't break in a blast. Her son lives in the apartment too and takes care of her.

Pavlo Komodovskyi used to be a Soviet military pilot. Now 87, living in Kyiv, he says, "I regret that I cannot lift up the birdie, that plane of mine."
/ Carol Guzy
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Carol Guzy
Pavlo Komodovskyi used to be a Soviet military pilot. Now 87, living in Kyiv, he says, "I regret that I cannot lift up the birdie, that plane of mine."

They've heard the explosions from Russian strikes throughout the city and the suburbs. The closest metro stop, a short walk away, was hit by missile fragments; the entrance is now burned and damaged.

During the first few days, Yerkhimovych urged her son to go down into the shelter in the basement, but he insisted he stay with her in the third-floor apartment. "We will be together," he told her.

Staying behind in Kyiv, as everything shut down and people left, has its challenges. Yerkhimovych has had trouble getting medicine. Drug stores are empty, she says, doctors are hard to get a hold of and she's nearly running out of diapers. Volunteers have been helpful, bringing some medicine and food to the house, but she still worries. She says she's praying for peace, hoping the war will end soon so she can enjoy the rest of her days.

"Even though my life isn't great," she says, "I don't want to die."

Tamara Vasylenko and Pavlo Komodovskyi, both 87 years old, at their apartment in Kyiv on March 26.
/ Carol Guzy
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Carol Guzy
Tamara Vasylenko and Pavlo Komodovskyi, both 87 years old, at their apartment in Kyiv on March 26.

A love that's lasted a lifetime can keep you company in war

Down the hall, her neighbors, Tamara Vasylenko and her husband Pavlo Komodovskyi, approach the current situation with a bit more levity.

"We have lived many, many years," Vasylenko says with a laugh, "Maybe enough?"

She and Komodovskyi are both 87, though Vasylenko is quick to point out that she's older by 2 months. "Can't you tell?" she jokes affectionately, resting her hand on her husband's knee. They're sitting side-by-side on a floral couch in their living room.

They met as children; their parents were doctors at the same hospital. They've spent so much of their lives together, including the last several weeks, stuck in their apartment in Kyiv. They say they've been scared with the explosions so close, but they've found strength in each other. "We can handle this," says Vasylenko, "because we lean on each other." Komodovskyi adds: "When she cries I comfort her."

As kids, they fled to what's now Russia during World War II. It's hard to believe a place where they sought refuge could do such terrible things in Ukraine, they say. "Russia is our enemy," Vasylenko says, shaking her head, "it is impossible."

After they got married, Vasylenko taught English and Komodovskyi was a pilot in the Soviet military. He points to an enlarged black-and-white photo of him flying a plane in the early 1960s, prominently displayed in the living room. "I regret that I cannot lift up the birdie, that plane of mine," he says. "I am sad I am so old and that I cannot fight the bastards."

Oleksandra Kurdomova, 84, a consummate hostess, insists visitors try a scrumptious dish in her kitchen filled with well-used cooking pans and mementos.
/ Carol Guzy
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Carol Guzy
Oleksandra Kurdomova, 84, a consummate hostess, insists visitors try a scrumptious dish in her kitchen filled with well-used cooking pans and mementos.

When your whole life is in Kyiv, where else would you go?

Across the courtyard, with its abandoned swings and slide, the NPR team takes a rickety elevator up to the ninth floor. At the threshold to apartment 50, Oleksandra Kurdomova, 84, opens the door with an exuberant greeting. "Don't take your shoes off," she yells, explaining that the floor is too cold for just socks. The building turned off the heat in April, but the weather outside still feels like winter, so she has her two gas burners on in the kitchen, to try to heat the apartment.

Kurdomova seems like a force of nature, despite her stature, with a sarcastic sense of humor. When asked if the building is tight-knit, she laughs. "Of course! Of course," she says — "but we don't kiss each other." She says this without even a hint of a smile.

Through the kitchen is the main room of the apartment. Sitting on the bed tucked to one side, her great-granddaughter, 11-year-old Oksana, is perched, her legs crossed, tinkering away on a plastic toy piano. She's teaching herself to be a musician, she says.

The apartment is filled with memories: Books, photos and memorabilia line the shelves and tables. Kurdomova opens a velvet box to show a medallion honoring her service as an engineer.

"Where should I go? I have nothing but Kyiv," says Oleksandra Kurdomova, 84, at her apartment in Kyiv on March 25. She chooses not to evacuate.
/ Carol Guzy
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Carol Guzy
"Where should I go? I have nothing but Kyiv," says Oleksandra Kurdomova, 84, at her apartment in Kyiv on March 25. She chooses not to evacuate.

"Come girls," she says, gesturing to chairs that line the wall, "let me show you what I really want to show you." She unwraps several blue photo albums that were packed in protective covering in case the apartment was damaged in the war.

She spreads the album on her lap; inside, the patterned pages are filled with black-and-white photos — a collection of a life well lived. "This is me," she says, pointing to a studio portrait of a 3-month-old baby. "This is me," she says, pointing to a class photo from the first grade. There are portraits of her family when she was young, growing up on Trukhaniv Island, in central Kyiv. There are pictures of her children, born while she lived in this very apartment, more than 50 years ago.

"A lot of things happened here," she says of her home, and of the city of Kyiv. To leave all this, would be too hard. "Where would I go?"

After looking through the photo albums, Kurdomova shuffles us into the kitchen. "You can't escape my cabbage," she says, "I made some sauerkraut."

She sets out plates, slices some bread, and serves the sauerkraut with some cheese, as she details her recipe.

Notes from Oksana's piano tinkering, now mixed with her youthfully soft vocals, float into the room. After the meal, the 11-year-old says the song she's singing is an original, written just for the visitors from NPR and inspired by her great-grandmother's cabbage. In Russian, she sings:

I came home in the morning/ And friends came visiting/ I brought cabbage/ And treated my friends with it.

Olena Lysenko and Carol Guzy contributed to this story in Kyiv.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.